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Setting the stage: How local theater companies are faring in the pandemic

By Jeri Davis
Reno Little Theater's "Imaginary Invalid." Image: Bob Conrad

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After countless hours put into building sets and rehearsing scenes, the region’s theater companies remain in limbo—unable to open their doors to the patrons who support their productions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Many of them have begun announcing cancellations and postponements. Others continue to be stuck in a holding pattern, waiting to see if stay-at-home orders and bans on gatherings might be lifted in time for upcoming shows, and if theatergoers—many of whom are older—will be willing to return. Still, the locals who man these theaters are eager to talk about their works. 

At Good Luck Macbeth, the theater company was only a few weeks into their production of Michael Frayn’s play-within-a-play, “Noises Off,” when things shut down.

“We had aspirations of bringing ‘Noises Off’ back, but more and more we kept pushing it back and pushing it back—and we’ve decided to cancel that show,” said GLM Executive Director  Christopher Daniels. “And it’s really sad. You know, these actors spent months rehearsing a show that is very physically intricate. There’s a lot going on. The set is exceptional. It’s a two-story house. … So you put all of this work in and invest all of this time and money into a show, and you’re five performances into a 17-performance run, and you have to cancel it. But, you know, at some point, you have to let it go.” 

The other local theater companies have also reached that point on various productions. But not all of the region’s companies operate the same. They vary in size, purpose and funding—distinctions that have resulted in a different set of challenges for each. One thing they all have in common is uncertainty. 

"Noises Off" at Good Luck Macbeth ran for five performances before it had to draw the curtain due to COVID-19. Image: Kylie Masznicz
“Noises Off” at Good Luck Macbeth ran for five performances before closing the curtain due to COVID-19. Image: Kylie Masznicz

Will the show go on?

Earlier in the week, Reno Little Theater provided an update to its patrons and the media. 

“We are working hard to figure out how and when we will be able to reopen RLT safely for our artists and audience members, but it looks that it will be several weeks before that is even a remote possibility,” said Executive Director Melissa Taylor in a statement. “It absolutely pains me to officially announce that we are canceling the remainder of our 85th Season. While we had hoped to reopen this summer with “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” it is now past the point of that being feasible.”

At Sierra School of Performing Arts, things are still up in the air. 

“We do our big musical in August, or always have … and, so, we were in the unique position of being able to wait a little longer to wait and see what happened,” said Artistic Director Janet Lazarus. “And I’ve really been on pins and needles for the last two months because we went into auditions two months ago. … We were faced with, ‘Well, what do we do? Do we hold auditions? How do we hold auditions? Is it safe?’ Our auditions were scheduled to start March 25, so remember that was only two weeks into the pandemic shutdown. … We decided to be optimistic that we were still going to be able to do the show.”

The company held auditions for this year’s musical, “Annie,” via video submissions and Zoom conferences. Lazarus said, for now, there’s no knowing whether or not the show might go on. 

“We have an advantage in that it’s an open-air theater and it might feel safer for our audience. But we have to consider what it would be like for our actors, working on a stage close together and then being backstage even closer together, possibly. So that’s our big hang-up right now. And we’re going to make the decision about a week from today,” Lazarus said in a May 19 interview. 

Theater companies are concerned for the health of both their patrons and artists. Many wonder when audiences will even feel comfortable returning to their small black box theaters—and when their performers will feel comfortable sharing space on stage and off. The situation could be even trickier for children’s theater groups like Wild Horse Productions.  

Zoa Clayton in Reno Little Theater's production of The Imaginary Invalid. Image: Bob Conrad
Local actor Zoa Clayton on media night for Reno Little Theater’s “Imaginary Invalids,” the show that never was. RLT ended up canceling the production because of the coronavirus pandemic. Few got to see the play. Image: Bob Conrad

“We have a unique situation with kids,” said Carol Scott, executive director. “We have 80 to a hundred kids per show, and trying to get social distancing backstage would not ever happen. And, also, being on stage and not touching—and we’ve heard that vocal performances have a tendency to spread the virus more. Choir groups are pretty much shut down until they figure out how we can do this or get a vaccine.”

Scott said she doesn’t expect the company will put on live, in-person shows at least until the start of the new year. Several other theater companies may find themselves in the same position. In the meantime, as people wait to learn more about the reopening of the state and what the “new normal” could look like, the groups are working on various projects and planning for the future. 

Opening Acts?

At Carson Valley Community Theater, the hope is to just postpone its production of “Nunsense 2: The Sequel.” 

“‘Nunsense’ is always a really popular show, so we were hoping that would be a good thing to kick things off again,” said Diana Jones, the company’s former president and current secretary. “And then we’re going to also hopefully do a small version of ‘Our Town’ in our annex in November, is our goal. And then, also, we always do a Christmas cabaret in the annex.”

Stephanie Arrigotti, producer and director for Western Nevada Musical Theatre Company, said her group has postponed its usual May production until November and feels fortunate to have received support from its patrons on the decision. 

“That involved calling all of those people and telling them that we needed to reschedule our show,” Arrigotti said. “We are able to book the theater for three weekends in November, so we decided to move our May show to the first two weekends and do a fundraiser on the third weekend to help recover some losses. I was astounded that everybody was so kind. The audience was so incredibly supportive, saying, ‘Absolutely, move us to November.’”

Even as companies are figuring out which shows they can postpone and which they’ll have to cancel, many are still attempting to keep busy with different projects. 

In Reno, several theater companies have joined forces to create an online platform. Ghost Light TV is a project of Brüka Theatre, Good Luck Macbeth and Reno Little Theater. The YouTube channel has thus far been used to host myriad projects. 

Reno Little Theater's Virtual 24-Hour Play Fest
Reno Little Theater’s Virtual 24-Hour Play Fest, broadcast on Ghost Light TV, their alternative option for reaching audiences.

“We wanted to create content every single day, which is super ambitious—but we’ve had everything from children’s bedtime stories and adult bedtime stories to talk shows to stage readings to bingo tournaments to a 24-hour play festival,” said GLM’s Daniels. 

Artists of all types, from musicians to actors to painters, have embraced virtual gatherings to share their works—but Restless Artists Theatre Director Doug Mishler said he doesn’t think the essence of theater can be effectively recreated via livestream. Instead, he’s been working on renovations to the company’s space. 

“We had hoped to do a little remodeling after our last show finished up March 1, so we’ve just extended the remodeling,” Mishler said. “It’s all painted differently. We took down the risers and reordered the way the seats are set up so that we have more stage room. We have new, LED lighting all through the building. … We’ve painted the outside of the building.”

Mishler said RAT is hoping to be able to put on a production in August. He’s optimistic about the future of his theater company but worries for others. 

“A lot of theaters are going to die because of this. I really think so,” he said. “We’re lucky because we own our own building. I actually own it myself. So, I’m the landlord, and I have given us a permanent rent payday. We don’t really need to come up with a lot of money to keep it operating, just the HVAC and the insurance—and that’s not much.”

One theater whose future—at least at its current location—could hang in the balance is Brüka. The company has rented the same space on Virginia Street for more than a quarter century in a downstairs section of the building owned by Reno Masonic Lodge No. 13.

“The Masons aren’t working with us in terms of rent, so we’re having to pay that rent—or they’ll add it onto our rent for us, which is kind,” said Artistic Director Mary Bennett. “What we’re looking at once we get into July is, you know—that’s how long we have money-wise to be able to make it. … And that’s just really paring everything down. And a big piece of that is paying our rent.”

Thankfully, Bennett said, Brüka has received a lot of support from its artists and patrons. 

“I’d have to say 80 percent of people have said they’d like their tickets or season tickets to be considered a donation and look forward to seeing what we’re going to do next year,” she said. 

That kind of loyalty makes Bennett and the people who operate other local theaters hopeful.

“I think now, what I wouldn’t give to do a rehearsal, what I wouldn’t give to perform,” said Daniels. “So I think there’s going to be a sort of upsurge in understanding how vital and important theater is to our personal lives, but also to this community as well—and really how essential the arts are and how essential theater is to our culture and to our city.”

bruka theatre biggest little festival
Biggest Little Festival at Brüka Theatre in 2016. Image: Dana Nollsch

Support This Is Reno’s COVID-19 news coverage

We are reporting daily on how the coronavirus is impacting the Reno area. This coverage is outside of our paywall, provided free of charge. Please help us continue by becoming a subscriber or contributing a tax-deductible donation to our COVID-19 news fund. Any amount is appreciated.

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