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Seasons Of Change: Whether Live, Virtual Or Dark, Colorado Theaters Are Working To Survive COVID-19

A man and a woman face each other on stage, on either end of a green and gold trunk, with a four-poster bed in the background
Courtesy RDG Photography
Married in real life, Sarah and Phil Forman starred in Candlelight Dinner Playhouse's production of "I Do! I Do."

Most performing arts venues and theater companies should be starting their fall seasons right now, but things are complicated with COVID-19. Some have gone virtual or outdoors. Others are stepping back onto their regular stages with live shows. But whatever they’re doing, the pandemic is changing the process.

In July, Candlelight Dinner Playhouse became one of the first companies in the state to reopen for indoor theatrical performances during the COVID-19 pandemic. The giant theater just off I-25 in Johnstown is known for musical productions that feature big casts and attract big audiences.

But this time, Candlelight owner and executive producer Dave Clark said they knew they had to think smaller — much smaller.

“We were planning to do ‘Peter Pan’ this summer, which was a big production with flying and everything else, and we knew that simply wasn’t possible,” Clark said.

So, it was out with “Peter Pan,” and in with “I Do, I Do.”

The musical follows a couple’s relationship over the years and only features two actors. It gave the theater a chance to try out a live show on a small scale.

Candlelight also cast a local couple in the roles. Sarah and Phil Forman got married just weeks before taking the stage.

“We definitely had an advantage because of that,” Sarah Forman said. “With us they didn’t worry because we’d been this close for months now. So that helped it feel more like a normal show even though it was just two of us.”

The couple are now in rehearsals for the season opener, a small cast version of “Camelot.”

With eight actors on stage, Sarah says she’ll have to be more cautious than with “I Do, I Do,” but she still feels safe. She also knows not every venue has that option.

“Each venue is different,” she said. “Candlelight is able to do it right now because we’re such a spacious theater.”

Phil Forman, who is also the theatre’s music director, knows the decision to reopen may seem odd to some. Even he had a few reservations at first, especially being one of the only theaters reopening for indoor, live performances.

“For me it was like, ‘well, we can’t completely shut the entire world down forever, at some point we have to come out of it.’ And I thought that the way they handled it with safety and all of that, they really have the best interests of not only the actors but the patrons as well,” he said.

Onstage, blocking has been changed to keep actors who aren’t isolating together as socially distanced as possible, and backstage, cast and crew are required to wear masks, Clark said.

While a front row seat is usually an enviable position in theater, all tables have been moved at least 25 feet from the stage, he added. And the venues’ typical capacity of 330 has been reduced to 150.

“Obviously some people are still not comfortable coming out, so that’s certainly understandable,” Clark said. “But (for) the ones that do come, we’re following all the guidelines and trying to make them feel very comfortable while they’re at the show.”

A woman stands behind a desk and chair, with bookshelves in the background
Courtesy BETC
Tresha Farris is one of the cast members of Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company's production of "The Nina Variations."

For Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company’s season opener of “The Nina Variations,” the company also focused on a smaller production and paired actors who were already cohabitating with each other.

They also went virtual, which meant needing a crash course in filming.

“You know, we’re not filmmakers,” said Stephen Weitz, BETC's producing artistic director.

“So there was a lot of learning.”

Like figuring out which cameras to use, the best lighting and sound techniques, and how to soundproof your studio.

“We shot it at our rehearsal space in Westminster and there’s a small airport nearby,” Weitz said. “And you never think of it when you’re working because it’s just background noise, but when you’re trying to film something and there’s planes going over or there’s a dumpster being rattled outside, or a garbage truck or whatever it is, suddenly you’re just aware that the world is full of sound.”

When they got the first film edit back, Weitz said they decided to reshoot it, unhappy with how it had turned out. In the end, the project came out well and patrons have been supportive, he said. But it was painful to shelve the world premiere they had initially planned on, a show they’d gotten a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to do. However, their experience during COVID has inspired new work.

Later this fall, BETC will produce what’s currently being called “Colorado 2020.” It’s a series of vignettes based on interviews with Coloradans from all walks of life on the impact this year has had on them.

“We came up with the idea that, how can we do something that’s meaningful and relevant in this moment, that speaks to this crazy year that we’re all living through,” Weitz said.

Not every theater is ready to dive back in just yet.

“I’m looking at this time as — I’m being gifted this time,” said Sydney Parks Smith, the producing artistic director of OpenStage Theatre Company in Fort Collins.

“Especially with the conversation — the much needed conversation — that’s been started about inequity in theater, and what that looks like in OpenStage, and what I can do as a leader in the company to change the way that’s structured as far as how we choose shows, how we seek out production teams, how we seek out actors, how we structure our board,” Smith said. “All of that is so all-encompassing, and we actually have time now to dig into each of those aspects of the theater company and really scrutinize how it has functioned, and what we need to do practically change that and continue to make that change moving forward.”

The troupe will keep its stage dark for the rest of the year with hopes of a possible return next spring or summer, she said.

“Ultimately, I can’t ask any artist to be in a performance space and work together in a safe way right now,” Smith said.

So, just like the almost-completed sets from what would have been its season opener — the rock musical “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” — Smith is patiently waiting for a time when the company can return.

Courtesy OpenStage Theatre Company
OpenStage Theatre Company's production of "Constellations" was its last full production since the pandemic began. The troupe will not reopen for new shows until spring 2021.

“The good news is, for the shows that we have, they have production crews and casts, they were cast, rights are paid for,” she said. “They’re all just currently sitting there. We have a set at the OpenStage warehouse that is like a ghost town, it’s almost done.”

Not owning a building — the company rents theater space at Lincoln Center — has been a blessing in more ways than just not having a mortgage to pay, Smith added. And while she hopes to salvage as much of this season as she can, Smith says her main goal is getting the company to 2023 — when OpenStage celebrates its 50th anniversary.

“OpenStage started in a park in 1973,” she said. “So from the very beginning of this something that we had talked about is that if we can’t perform in a building or theaters are closed down for a long time and we can only do small performances, we can adapt to that because that’s where we came from. We may have to make our organization smaller so it survives - that’s how it will be then. The most important thing for me is that our organization survives.”

While these three theater directors are all handling 2020 in different ways, each said they know that their companies - along with live theater, in general - will survive this pandemic.

Theater has survived for thousands of years, including pandemics and plagues, Smith said, adding that while it might take awhile, audiences will return.

“One of the exciting things that is coming out of this is that people have realized how to produce theater in many different ways,” Smith said. “Do I think that will eliminate live theater? No. Because there is nothing like being in a room with a live production that just reaches in and squeezes your entire chest. And to know that you are with all those other people in that room together - which right now sounds horrifying, but - and you’re all getting goosebumps … And I think after, I hope, that there is a huge explosion of people going to see live music, live theater live events where they can share emotionally again with other people.”

Stacy was KUNC's arts and culture reporter from 2015 to 2021.
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