Community theaters around Pierce County, and those around the world for that matter, shut down literally overnight when the COVID-19 pandemic emergency declarations thundered through the landscape last March.

Months have since passed. Playbills remain in their printer boxes. Sets built last spring gather dust on stages.  Rows of seats stand sentinel unused in their rows. Actors, once primed for quick changes in stage-left dressing rooms and projecting their voices to the back rows of full houses, are battling laptop microphones on Zoom in their pajamas.  

Such is life for pandemic-hit live theaters.

Pierce County Theaters
Tacoma Musical Playhouse’s Managing Artistic Director Jon Douglas Rake models “Theater Strong” wristbands patrons can wear with a $25 donation. Photo courtesy: Tacoma Musical Playhouse

“It is very odd,” Managing Artistic Director for Tacoma Musical Playhouse Jon Douglas Rake said. “We never thought we would have to do any of this.”

The theater canceled its lavishly staged productions and opted for stripped-down offerings with smaller casts streamed online. While there were technical challenges with a new multi-camera system to overcome, there were also royalty considerations since the shows didn’t often offer “broadcast” licenses that all had to be worked out individually. That work has not only allowed the Pacific Northwest’s largest community theater to continue to operate, but it will hopefully net dividends once live shows in front of audiences return. The cameras, for example, will likely stay and allow patrons in different states to view future shows.

“I think that is going to be in the cards,” Rake said, noting that allowing distant viewing would expand the theater’s audience base so out-of-state relatives and friends can see their favorite actors at TMP.

Tacoma Little Theatre has had luck on its side so far, not only was it prepared to be closed last summer anyway, so crews could install new seats as part of a $200,000 renovation in the works for years, but the COVID-19 outbreak is the theater’s second pandemic.

It was an upstart community theater when the Spanish Flu pandemic hit in 1918. It battled through then, and it will do it again. The theater shut down mid-run through its big musical, “A Chorus Line” that was primed to bankroll must of the rest of the next season. The canceling of the show meant a loss of a third of the theater’s annual budget.

Pierce County Theaters
The current pandemic is Tacoma Little Theatre’s second. It was staging shows when the Spanish Flu hit the world in 1918. This shutdown at least partially came when the theater was set to be closed for renovations to add new chairs. Photo courtesy: Tacoma Little Theatre

“It was a huge pill to swallow to not have that revenue,” Managing Artistic Director Chris Serface said, noting the set remains on the stage in hopes the cast returns once the pandemic clears.

Audiences will face new seats and more convenient aisles when that happens. The theater lost 31 seats overall, but the respacing allowed for aisle on the outside of the sections and staggered seating for better views of the stage. Future renovations will tackle the lobby and bathrooms. Until then, however, the theater will stage online shows, page-to-screen playwright workshops and then small-cast performances in a slow march back to normal. Serface predicts that will come in late spring, a full year after the theater closed.

Lakewood Playhouse is also facing similar troubles. Closed for the unforeseeable future because of the pandemic, the theater must find ways to survive financially without patrons in their seats. Donations and fundraisers have helped that effort as have the staging of a virtual serialized show called “Space Cook“ that runs Thursdays.

“We are very much mindful of our financial situation,” said James Venturini, an interim co-managing artistic director alongside Heather Hinds. They manage a staff that has been cut to half time to reduce costs during the pandemic. “No one thought we would be here this long, but we have to keep moving forward,” says Venturini.

Pierce County Theaters
The Lakewood Playhouse is staging a science fiction radio serial called Space Cook. Photo courtesy: Lakewood Playhouse

Tacoma Youth Theatre pondered online programs early into the restrictions but just as quickly decided to shut down the acting camps and children’s productions in hopes of waiting everything out. Founder Maggie Knott felt that mounting virtual acting classes and online performances would run counter to her mission of building the theater community through interaction.

“So much of what they get out of it is from each other,” she said. “There is no substitute for live theater. We’re just shut down. I don’t know how long we will be able to stay that way. Things are really, really tight. It’s not good. It is definitely a scary time for us.”

Pierce College Theater and Film Professor Fred Metzger studied, watched and staged live theatrical productions for most of his life and says the current pandemic has brought technology to the forefront like no other event could have. Metzger and other directors are not likely going back to open, in-person casting calls. The use of video calls is more efficient, effective, personable and accommodates people with increasingly busy schedules.

Pierce County Theaters
Pierce College is staging “Streets: The Musical,” a theatrical production that will involve green screens and film editing. Photo courtesy: Pierce College

He also will change how he does theater. His upcoming production, “Streets: The Musical,” is an example of the future. The show has the actors recording their movements, songs, choreography and dialog in front of green screens. The digital files will then be stitched together like a movie. Future live shows might have actors on different stages.

“It’s evolving,” Metzger said. “No one has really done this. I can’t find anyone else doing something like this, but it just seems so obvious.”

While theater purists might say such a production isn’t live theater and more like movie making, he admitted, but that’s not the point. It’s about telling a story. Theater has always evolved since cave dwellers gathered around a fire. The use of virtual and distance-enabling video calls is just the latest event that prompted further evolution.

“Once we let the dragon out of the box, it can’t go back in,” he said. “The world will never be the same, so we have to embrace the change.”

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