Theater: The Season That Never Was

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Immersive theater and social distancing don’t mix.

The Vegas Theatre Company closed the curtain on “Men in Boats,” in early March followed rapidly by the Majestic Repertory Theatre’s closure of “The Garden Party.”

One by one the lights of the Las Vegas theater community went dark due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The last to close was the Las Vegas Little Theatre (LVLT). “The Spitfire Grill” was such an audience favorite, LVLT artistic director Walter Niejadlik, must have heard the ghost of Max Fabian in his head, “I ain’t gonna die. Not with a hit on my hands.” Since the initial guidance advised to avoid groups larger than 100, it seemed feasible to keep the small theater open with sanitizing precautions.

But then it shrank to 50, and finally 10. By the time Governor Sisolak issued his order closing all non-essential businesses on March 17, all of Las Vegas’s theaters were already voluntarily shut.

Now with Phase 1 of the reopening, Niejadlik announced online that LVLT will push back the theater’s reopening until July 1st. “This will allow a little more time for government restrictions to be lifted and will allow us to implement measures to help ensure everyone’s safety,” he wrote.

Those measure will include face masks and distanced seating.

“Brighton Beach Memoirs” will be first up, opening July 10 – 26, followed by LVLT’s summer musical, “Putting It Together,” featuring the music of Stephen Sondheim to celebrate his 90th year, running August 7 – 23. “Glengarry Glen Ross” will open September 4 – 20. For full show information go to www.lvlt.org/.

Theater is created bit by bit. Like every Las Vegas company, big or small, the loss of a season’s ticket sales will be devastating for LVLT. Like many other company heads, Niejadlik asked his patrons to either exchange purchased tickets for one of the rescheduled summer shows or to donate their tickets back to the theatre to help it weather this storm, though refunds were offered.

Other companies might have valiantly said the show must go on, only to have their host theaters shut around them. With The Smith Center, the Las Vegas – Clark County Library District, and the Clark County schools all shutting their doors, the theater companies that depended on those venues also had to shut down.

Such was the fate of the Rainbow Company Youth Theatre’s production of “The Velveteen Rabbit” scheduled for April at the Charleston Heights Arts Center. Signature Productions’ performances of “Footloose the Musical,” originally scheduled to open April 1 – May 2, at the Summerlin Library and Performing Arts Center will now be presented October – November 2020.

Due to the circumstances surrounding COVOD-19, the Super Summer Theatre Summer 2020 Series has been moved to 2021 and will include shows previously scheduled for 2020: “Disney and Cameron Mackintosh’s Mary Poppins,” “Sister Act the Musical” and “Matilda the Musical.” For more information, visit www.supersummertheatre.org or e-mail info@supersummertheatre.org

Poor Richard’s Players’ artistic director, Benjamin Loewy said that they fortunately did not have to cancel their much anticipated two-man show, “Stones in His Pockets,” originally set to open at The Playhouse on March 19, in the middle of the run. “So, now we have a show built and ready to go as soon as the ‘all clear’ is given.” He said, “It will be our grand re-opening.”

“After that is some concern because shows take time to build and rehearse,” Lowey said, “You can’t just reopen the doors.” The Playhouse had to change their schedule, completely cancelling the Las Vegas Improv Festival scheduled for the summer. “Orphans,” the critically acclaimed dark comedy by Lyle Kessler is still being planned, with Sean Critchfield directing.

Lowey said that even though Poor Richard’s was founded out of Shakespearean theater, in the company’s 10 years of existence they have never staged one of the Bard’s plays. He said the company was casting for “Hamlet” when the Covid-19 crisis broke.

“Hamlet” was originally scheduled for June, but now Lowey hopes to bring the show to the stage in July, “at the earliest.” His concept for the play is no concept. Lowey said Hamlet, “is all about the text and dialogue.” The actors will dress in street clothes and the set will be bare bones. Lowey said he wants “No time, no location, no implication of context.”

To pay bills or not to pay bills, that is the question during the shutdown. “We rely on ticket sales and donors,” Lowey said. With no revenue, the company’s bills are being deferred, but not forgiven. “Payments will be due once the crisis is over. You’ll owe not just one month past due but two or three months.”

The company has applied for a Small Business Administration grant worth $10,000 with the option to also borrow $10,000 in a deferred payment SBA loan. Like thousands applying for unemployment have experienced, the SBA is overwhelmed by businesses seeking assistance, so Lowey has no idea if the company will be approved for the grant.

Once the theater has reopened, will the audience come? “Will people be more wary about gathering in groups or committing to buying season tickets?” Lowey asked.

To stay connected to their audience, Poor Richard’s offers Story Time on their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/PRPlayhouse with live streaming readings of classic short stories performed by well-known local actors such as Dina Emerson, Adam Dunson and Alex Knight.

To keep The Playhouse doors open, donate to Poor Richard’s Players on their website at www.theplayhouselv.com.

Joe Kucan, producing director at A Public Fit Theatre Company stated in an email, “Just like every other theater company in town, A Public Fit canceled its remaining programming through July. The thinking was, some of our shows could simply slide over into new slots; the 2020 season could pick up in the 2020 Fall, and we would wait until everything had returned to normal in order to return to normal ourselves.”

“But,” he wrote, “it’s become increasingly clear that the very idea of ‘normal’ will have to change and the things that make theater so compelling – intimacy, immediacy, closeness – all the hallmarks of a shared experience, may out of necessity have to be sacrificed for the sake of public health.”

Kucan stated, “We continued our readings, online, trying to choose plays for production down the line, on Zoom and only for each other – isolated. And the discussions following each of those readings invariably turns to whether or not the play at hand relates in any way to the current pandemic and the state of the new normal. It’s a stark reminder that theater is always current.” For updates visit apublicfit.org/.

The coronavirus effectively shut-down Opera Las Vegas (OLV) for the rest of the season. Since UNLV is now only offering online classes, the venues for OLV’s “Scalia/Ginsburg” (Thomas and Mack Moot Court, Boyd Law School), soprano Angela Meade’s concert (Doc Rando Hall, Beam Music School), and OLV’s fully-staged production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” (Judy Bayley Theatre) are now unavailable.

Additionally, with the closure of Clark County schools, OLV’s “Who’s Afraid of Opera?” program for young students has nowhere to run. Likewise, with the closure of the libraries, the company as had to shutter their planned tour of John Davies’ family opera, “The Bremen Town Musicians.”

But company director, James Sohre, is finding innovative ways to bring opera to the masses. Sohre is working with the Clark County schools to see if OLV can livestream their “Who’s Afraid of Opera?” program online. He also plans to start releasing clips online of past OLV productions, starting with “The Elixir of Love.”

Luckily, the company dodged a financial bullet with their successful gala fundraiser, “Magical Night of Delights” at Paris Las Vegas held just before the pandemic hit, guaranteeing a firm foundation for the company’s 2020-2021 season.

Sohre is pushing back their season’s start to January or February “to allow people to get used to gathering again as an audience.” Their opener could possibly be “The Bremen Town Musicians” because Sohre said, “We need to reopen with something more light-hearted or upbeat.” He says OLV needs to stay “flexible” because of the uncertainty of scheduling, without “a lot of out-of-town artists or high royalties” to pay in case of cancellation. Keep opera alive in Las Vegas by donating at www.operalasvegas.com/.

The Nevada Conservatory Theatre (NCT), also housed at UNLV, has closed the curtain early on its 2019-2020 season. They have postponed their season closer, “A Little Shop of Horrors,” until the fall of 2020-2021 season.

Just before UNLV moved classes online and cancelled live events on campus, NCT partnered with the UNLV School of Music to present UNLV Opera’s production of Jacques Offenbach’s operetta “Orpheus in the Underworld,” March 12-14 in the Judy Bayley Theatre. Linda Lister directed, with music direction by Darryl Cooper, who also conducted the UNLV Symphony Orchestra. To stay up to date on NCT shows, visit https://www.unlv.edu/nct.

The fate of College of Southern Nevada’s planned production of “Waiting for Lefty” in March at the Nicholas Horn Theatre on the Cheyenne Campus was similar to NCT’s “Shop of Horrors” –cancelled. First produced in 1935, “Waiting for Lefty” was American playwright, Clifford Odets’s first play and was daringly immersive for the time, including the audience as part of a meeting of taxi drivers planning a labor strike. We hope it is rescheduled.

Regional community theater has also been impacted. Bruce Bennett, CEO and acting Artistic Director for the St. George Musical Theater, a theater-in-the-round in nearby Southern Utah, depends on national park tourists, overflow audiences from the Utah Shakespeare Festival and Tuacahn Center for the Arts and musical lovers from Las Vegas to fill their 150 seats.

Fortunately, Bennett says, because they only sell tickets to current shows, no shows have had to be cancelled, although their production of the spoof “The Foreigner” that opened on March 12 had a shortened run of only three performances. Since the show’s cast, crew and set are ready to reboot, Bennett hopes that they might be able to reopen the show for a compressed run when the shutdown ends.

Next up, “Fiddler on the Roof,” had been planned to open on April 30, but now the show has been rescheduled to open May 28, “at least on paper,” Bennett said. Webber and Rice’s family popular first musical, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat” will tentatively follow in July and Lerner and Loewe’s magical “Camelot” in August.

Though Bennett says, “No money is coming in whatsoever,” the community theater has had a good fundraising year and is happy to have no outstanding debt and good credit. They have applied for a Small Business Administration grant.

St. George Musical Theatre has enjoyed “year over year growth” Bennett said because of the quality of productions and their intimate venue—no seat is further than 30 feet from the stage. Bennett has planned a reopening transition strategy based on the smallness of their theater—a limited crowd—and general admission ticketing at half capacity that will allow patrons to self-space. And, of course, sanitize, sanitize, sanitize.

When the crisis is ended, Bennett believes, “We will all appreciate live theater more. It can’t be digitalized or streamed.” He says that not only for the audience, but for the actors and crew, theater provide a “collective experience of being with other people.”

Amazingly, the Vegas Theatre Company (VTC) at Art Square Theatre said on its website that it has never had to cancel a single mainstage performance in seventeen seasons. But they were one of the first theaters to make the tough decision to close, out of consideration for the community’s health.

In a statement, VTC said that the decision was made because of the highly physical nature of their current show, “Men in Boats,” and the show’s up-close audience staging, presenting potential exposure to COVID-19 by both audience and actors. See their website at https://www.theatre.vegas/ for more information or to donate.

Troy Heard, artistic director at Downtown Las Vegas’s Majestic Repertory Theatre is known for his artistic anarchy, but he stated that due to “the intimate nature” of their immersive production “The Garden Party,” the show suspended production and refunded all tickets.

Heard said, “When other colleagues in the immersive field started pulling their shows, we did too.”

“I knew the news would be in the back of our audience’s heads and they wouldn’t be able to fully enjoy the experience. We were probably the first business in Las Vegas to announce a closing, along with our friends at Vegas Theatre Company.”

Heard said that unlike a lot of non-profits almost 100% of the Majestic Rep’s revenue comes from single ticket sales.

“We do have a few donors of whom we’re extraordinarily grateful,” he said, “but we’re going to need to find some serious donations to pull us through the next few months and launch us back into production.”

With only a month’s reserve and facing a two to three month shutdown, the Majestic invites you to donate to their Corona-thon at https://www.majesticrepertory.com/.

Heard and other company directors have appreciated the lobbying that Sarah O’Connell of the Las Vegas culture blog “Eat More Art” has done demanding government financial assistance for theater companies and professionals hurt by the coronavirus closures.

Heard said, “So many of our artists are gig-based employees and all that has been completely eradicated because of this crisis.”

The Majestic’s next big musical, the Tony-award winning, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” has been moved back to July. Heard had hoped that the creepily immersive “Clown Bar 2” could still open at the end of May, but that seems unlikely since theaters were excluded from Phase 1 of the reopening.

“Art is the soul of a community,” Heard said. “And Vegas has weathered crises before. We’ll come back stronger and give Majestic a grand reopening.”

So, ladies and gentlemen of the Wycliff Falls Garden Club, “Pinkies Up!”

 

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