A real showstopper: Area theaters struggling with limitations, uncertainty of current pandemic

There is a saying in the performing arts that the show must go on. Unexpected obstacles or challenges are normal -- not an excuse to disrupt the production. 

But what if that obstacle is a virus? Or a stay-at-home order? Can the show really go on from a 6-foot distance?

With the COVID-19 pandemic, community theaters in the region are facing unprecedented challenges. They must reimagine ways to perform under different conditions while shouldering the burden of uncertainty about when they’ll be able to reopen and how their financial picture will be affected. 

But theater people are used to improvising, being flexible and creative. Local theaters are proving to be no exception. 

A sudden stop

Community theaters in Pullman and Lewiston were mid-production on their shows when COVID-19 brought everything to a halt. The Pullman Civic Theatre was a few weeks away from opening “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Regional Theatre of the Palouse had brought a professional actor from New York City for its production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” and the Lewiston Civic Theatre was a couple of weeks into rehearsals for “The Nerd.” All were canceled or postponed. 

Live theater isn’t an option until the final stage of recovery for both Idaho and Washington. Given these limitations, theaters are losing not just one show in their typical season but as many as three or four. 

The closure isn’t merely a disappointment, it's a financial blow to each organization. 

“There are real financial costs of starting and stopping a show,” said Michael Todd, associate director at RTOP.

A theater production has upfront costs -- from royalties, licenses, advertising, costuming and more -- that are spent whether or not the show is performed. Typically, ticket sales from one production fund the cost of the next, so when a show is canceled mid-production, organizations’ coffers take a hit. 

Finding new ways to entertain

Just because a show isn’t being staged doesn’t mean the theater as a whole stops. Theaters had to adjust quickly, finding ways to continue to pursue their purpose. That means evaluating present opportunities and making tentative plans for the future.

“We took this as a call to action,” said Kristin Lincoln, artistic director for Pullman Civic Theatre. 

In an online meeting that took place shortly after the closures, the board established that while the theater couldn’t do much for the physical health of the community, it had the opportunity to support the mental health of people in the area through the creative arts. 

It has done that by engaging with its audience on Facebook through daily themes in which followers are asked to be creative contributors. The theater also launched a YouTube channel featuring a show called Virtual PCT that features the original work of local playwrights. Local actors perform a 15- to 20-minute script in a Zoom-style video that is uploaded every Friday. 

“That’s the heart of the theater: storytelling,” Lincoln said.

The idea came from the theater’s history of doing radio dramas, Lincoln explained. Many of those shows are old enough that there are no royalty issues with posting the performances online. The idea quickly evolved to using original scripts from local writers, something the organization has been meaning to do but couldn’t figure out how to fit into the schedule. It’s something it hopes to continue even after the theater enters its new normal.

Offering opportunity for learning

Before the shutdown, Regional Theater of the Palouse was bringing in professional actors for lead roles in its productions, while also providing voice training and workshops for local actors. The strategy gives both casts and audiences access to high-quality theater, while developing local talent, explained John Rich, executive director. The lead for “Thoroughly Modern Millie” had already arrived for the production from New York when the state shut down. Though the show couldn’t continue, the actor was invited to stay as long as she needed, since she wasn’t able to return home. 

Theater staff has done some video with her for promotional purposes, but they’ve mostly used the closure to work on administrative tasks, like creating volunteer handbooks. They’re also using the time to check in with people in their network -- cast, crew, patrons and talent. 

A central aspect of RTOP is its lessons, an extensive class offering that includes voice, piano and language for both adults and children, which financially support theater operations. They were taking place before the shutdown and have moved fairly seamlessly online, according to organizers. 

Workshops are a big part of the theater’s summer schedule. In the coming months, organizers hope to be able to offer these in some form, while adhering to the state’s guidelines for safe social distancing. 

Moving things outdoors

Lewiston Civic Theater offices are closed, and employees are temporarily laid off. Director Nancy McIntosh is investigating outdoor venue options. The theater is exploring an outdoor performance of some kind at Lindsay Creek Vineyard in August. The board also is planning a fundraiser concert featuring singer Michelle Bly, pianist Tom Schumacher and other musicians at 7 p.m. June 27, also at the vineyard.

Like the Pullman Civic Theatre, the Lewiston group is connecting with audiences on social media by regularly posting videos from local performers, as well as photos and videos from past shows. 

Creating a new normal for performances

Even as theaters anticipate reopening, everyone is thinking about the mechanics of putting on a show in the new normal. How might the venue need to be disinfected after use and what about costumes, microphones and other items that actors touch? Will it be safe to use an orchestra, or will shows need to rely on pre-recorded tracks? Such unknowns are being confronted by theaters nationwide.

“These are conversations that are going on across the country. Some are cancelling everything,” Rich said. Broadway shows in New York City, for example, aren’t scheduled to reopen until 2021.

Live theater is different from movie theaters, Rich explained. A movie theater is often big enough to allow for social distancing. Small-sized venues like RTOP’s 75-seat space face a more challenging situation. Not only would a reduced capacity change the “feel” and experience for both cast and audience, it may not be financially viable, he said. 

Money challenges must be taken into consideration as theaters decide when and how to reopen. If a group starts a show and then the virus spikes and forces a closure, that will further burden an already-strained theater budget. Complications from coronavirus could push a group over the edge, Todd said.

Additionally, theaters must consider how to keep actors safely distanced, throughout weeks of rehearsals and during shows. 

The future of theater

In terms of the big economic picture, theaters aren’t a major focus of attention, but they’ve been hit hard. 

“Finances are always an issue for us -- I mean it’s pretty much business as usual in that respect,” McIntosh said, laughing. 

Money matters vary from theater to theater, but they’re all relying more than ever on community and government support to survive this season so that they can return to the stage for their audiences. 

In many cases, patrons have been generous -- around 95 percent of RTOP’s season ticket holders donated ticket funds for canceled shows rather than request refunds. The directors are hoping that support continues. Based on the support people are giving to health care and other essential workers, some think it will.

“These essential workers make life possible; the arts make life worth it,” Todd said.

Theater offers something that can’t be gotten in any other way, he said. “The experience of seeing a show live, that’s our product. You can’t put that in a box and ship it.”

PCT’s Lincoln echoes the need for support.

“We need art, and we have to support it now so it’s there for us when we come back,” she said.

Because, even though the pandemic has helped some theaters identify what’s important to them and find new avenues for doing their work, it all comes back to having a live audience.

“There’s a saying we always use that goes, ‘The show isn’t complete until the audience is in their seat.’ So while we are doing these different things, we know this is not the future of theater,” Lincoln said.

And area theaters can’t wait for the show to go on.

Trailer for "Thoroughly Modern Millie" to show at RTOP at a later date:


Virtual PCT - Episode 3:


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