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Theater Groups & Classes Look For Ways To Survive Coronavirus Shutdown

The Station Theatre in downtown Urbana hosted its last performance in early March, before closing down due to the coronavirus outbreak

URBANA – Live theater in America has been largely shut down for the past two months, due to the coronavirus outbreak. In central Illinois, theater groups are experimenting with performing online, while they wait for the time they can bring actors and audiences together again in the same building.

Jim Meadows reports on how theater is coping during the pandemic.

The Celebration Company at the Station Theatre hasn’t put on a show since early March. The theater, a converted train station on Broadway in downtown Urbana, remains dark. There are no signs or posters at the theater, telling passersby that the last two productions of the spring season have been postponed, and nothing about when shows might resume in the future. But the company did stage a play last month, not in their theater, but online. Instead of gathering on a stage, the actors stayed at their respective homes, and were brought together by the Zoom videoconferencing app, each one appearing in a separate onscreen box.

“I told you, George, I’m your guardian angel,” says David Laker at one point from his box on the top row, second from the left.

“Yeah, yeah, I know you told me that,” says Jake Fava, in the top left box. “What else are you? What, are you a hypnotist?”

For many, those lines are quickly recognized as coming from Clarence the angel and George Bailey, in Frank Capra’s 1946 movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Director Ed Pierce had staged an adaptation of the movie in the form of a radio play at the Station Theatre last December. And he brought the cast, including its pianist and sound effects person, back together for the online version. Pierce said the show’s familiarity, and the inherent nature of a radio play, which depends on sound, not physical interaction, made it a good choice for a performance in which the actors were physically separated, and for a stay-at-home audience that might appreciate some theatrical comfort food.

“I think everyone was down that the various theatre companies in town wouldn’t be able to continue, and everyone was looking for a way to continue performing,” said Pierce. “And then we were able to put this together.”

The online production of “It’s A Wonderful Life” was performed live on April 4, despite a few technical glitches. The script was modified in the face of Zoom’s technical limitations: for instance, the group singing of “Auld Lang Syne” in the movie’s happy ending is reduced to a piano in the background, since singing or speaking in unison via Zoom can be a challenge. But Pierce says the production, which can still be viewed on the Station Theatre Facebook page, has gotten a good response.

The Celebration Company is looking at other ideas for producing theater online while their theater remains closed.

“I think one thing we’re going to start doing is reaching out to local playwrights who have scripts that we could explore,” said board member Jaclyn Loewenstein. “Because that would be an easy way to do some Zoom readings, or even Zoom productions of things that are not required that we license them through the different publishing houses.”

Loewenstein also mentions an idea for “Misplaced Monologues,” inviting actors to perform short monologues and poems online for the Celebration Company, providing them with a broader audience than what they might get from their personal social media pages.

Little Theatre on the Square

The Celebration Company at the Station Theatre is an amateur organization with little debt. Over in the small town of Sullivan, it’s a different situation for the non-profit, professional Little Theatre On The Square. The Little Theatre relies on ticket sales supplemented by donations. But the ticket sales have dried up for now, with the postponement of their summer season due to the coronavirus, which meant also canceling more than a hundred seasonal jobs and laying off some core staff members. And executive director John Stephens says the Little Theatre still has to deal with expenses like mortgage payments on their theater building, and the royalties owed for the shows they won’t be producing.

“So we hope that they’ll work with us to move those shows to the future,” said Stephens. “And you know, we have a general overhead here of what it costs a month and with nothing coming in that’s really hard to face. So it’s going to take a lot of our supporters to help to make things be able to stay in place.”

Stephens has maintained an online presence, lending his strong tenor voice to show tunes and other well-known songs in a series of “office karaoke” videos, recorded in his office at the Little Theatre and posted on his personal Facebook page. For his birthday on April 15, he recorded a special ten-minute “birthday cabaret” on the Little Theatre stage, and posted it on YouTube as a fundraiser

EIU’s Theater Arts Program

At Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, the Theater Arts Department had to cancel its stage productions, too. And department chairman Nicholas Shaw says they also had to figure out, very quickly, how to teach theater classes online, bringing hands-on instruction to what is essentially a hands-off medium. Shaw says creativity and flexibility were key, such as with a class teaching actors how to prepare for auditioning.

“The focus of the course switched from a more standard sort of slate, live, audition focus, to how do you handle a digital audition, if that’s indeed what the casting agent and the production are asking for,” said Shaw. “So we’ve allowed that to sort of change the focus, but I think it helps, that’s a skill that they need anyway.”

A Custom-Made Online Musical

Back in Champaign-Urbana, the coronavirus stay-at-home orders put a halt to theater classes held by Class Act, a theater studio operated by Jaclyn Loewenstein. But Loewenstein managed to keep providing instruction by bringing many of her pre-teen students together via Zoom to perform in a custom-made musical comedy. “The Show Must Go Online” is a half-hour musical quickly put together by children’s theater publisher Beat By Beat Press, in the wake of the coronavirus shutdown. The script is custom-made for videoconference production. The story involves about a group of kids who have to produce a show online to save their school’s theater program (in show-within-a-show is entitled “Brushes With Greatness: The Dental Hygiene Musical”).

The show’s songs, by  Dave Hudson and Denver Casado, touch on frustrations shared by performers at every shuttered theater program, and a potential solution:

We’ve rehearsed. We’ve sung along.

We know the words to every song.

We’re prepared but where do we go?

We go online!

“The Show Must Go Online” has been performed by children’s theater groups around the country in just the past few weeks. Class Act’s version, featuring a cast of around 20, made its YouTube premiere on May 5 and remains available for viewing.

Loewenstein directed the musical, coaching the young performers from a distance via Zoom. She says “The Show Must Go Online” provided an important outlet for her students stuck at home.

“Because these are kids who kind of thrive on theater and they’re very dedicated young performers,” said Loewenstein. “So to go for this stretch of time — however it long it ends up being — without having an outlet like this, I think would be really hard for them.”

While enjoying her students’ opportunity, Loewenstein has lost her own creative outlet. She was in rehearsals for the musical “Falsettos” for the Celebration Company at the Station Theatre, when the production was postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak. To compensate, Loewenstein performed one of her songs in the musical for a video she’s posted on YouTube. She still hopes, once the stay-at-home orders are lifted and the threat of the coronavirus recedes, that “Falsettos” will be produced at the Station Theatre. In the meantime, she misses the chance to work on the show.

“It does feel like grieving and there was a week, a few weeks into the pandemic, that I felt sad,” said Lowenstein. “I think it was settling into the fact that we just don’t know what’s happening and this was something I was very much looking forward to and really starting to bond with the cast, and it’s a great show.”

Uncertainty Treads The Boards

At Eastern Illinois University, Theater Arts chairman Nicholas Shaw isn’t sure if putting his students on stage for live plays will be possible by the fall. He’s checking with the publisher of their first scheduled production about possibly producing it online. “The Flick” by Annie Baker is a four-character play set in a movie theater that would be relatively simple to produce online. Shaw says they could even block out the show to maintain social distancing between the actors. But things would be more difficult for EIU’s second fall production, “The Secret in the Wings” by Mary Zimmerman, which uses a much larger cast.

“The only saving grace is that show isn’t scheduled till November,” said Shaw. “So hopefully, the further we get from today, the more audiences will be willing and excited about being in close proximity to each other.”

 At the Little Theatre on the Square, John Stephens sees uncertainty ahead. He would like to be able to resume putting on shows in the fall, but worries that social distancing rules might require him to sell only half the seats in his 418-seat theater.  

“That’s going to be really hard,” said Stephens. “If that’s something that we’re forced to do, will we be able to afford to do that and keep our costs at what they currently are? I don’t know So that’s all part of the conversation that’s happening right now.”

At the same time, Stephens believes that when theaters do reopen, audiences will be hungry to see live productions after spending months at home in front of the TV. He makes that prediction even while admitting his own binge-watching.

“I’m watching every series that there is available,” said Stephens. “But I’m just tired of sitting in front of the TV. I’m ready to see the quality shows that we put on here and see some of these amazing actors they get to come in and have them perform. And there’s nothing better than a live performance in my life.”

Jim Meadows is the senior reporter for Illinois Newsroom. Follow him @WILLJimMeadows.

Picture of Jim Meadows

Jim Meadows

Jim Meadows has been covering local news for WILL Radio since 2000, with occasional periods as local host for Morning Edition and All Things Considered and a stint hosting WILL's old Focus talk show. He was previously a reporter at public radio station WCBU in Peoria.

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