Local theater in the age of coronavirus – when the going gets tough, the tough collaborate

Photo: Brian Bahouth/The Sierra Nevada Ally

In early March, Good Luck Macbeth Theatre (GLM) in Reno opened its spring season with five performances of Noises Off. Executive Director Christopher Daniels said it’s a particularly demanding play to put on. It’s a comedy, a play within a play, requiring intense choreography, precision timing, and an intricate, moveable, two-story set.

As of March 13, when leaders from three Reno theater companies—GLM, Brüka Theatre, and Reno Little Theater—made a collective decision to close their doors, the remaining 12 performances of Noises Off were canceled.

“In some ways it is a difficult decision, in some ways not,” Daniels said. “Even if one person came to our theaters and got sick and their life ended because of it, that’s not something we could live with.”

The time and money GLM had invested into rights, programs, advertising, the set, props and costumes for the 12 remaining shows was gone. There would be no recovering it with ticket sales, and grant funding is less certain for the foreseeable future, which puts GLM among the thousands of arts organizations in sudden financial peril.

An ongoing survey by Americans for the Arts reports that, so far, 293 arts groups in Nevada have reported pandemic-related financial losses of around $2 million. The figure is expected to rise as more groups report.

“Now we’re dealing with refunds and cancellations,” Daniels said. Some ticket holders wanted refunds. Some donated their ticket price to the theater, and others opted for a “flex pass” that would allow them to see a later show. “Overall, folks have been really lovely and generous,” he said.

Reno Little Theater on Pueblo St. in Reno, NV – photo: Brian Bahouth/The Ally

There are a lot of unknowns in the performing arts world right now. “Everything’s in a holding pattern,” Daniels said. “I feel like that’s the biggest drain. We don’t know what re-reopening looks like.”

Meanwhile, GLM, Brüka  and RLT—groups that already made up a collaborative theater community sharing actors, crew members, and patrons—have been working together to figure out how to weather the economic crisis and keep local theater’s pulse beating.

“We’ve been meeting regularly via Google hangouts, having great dialogues about how we navigate this together,” said Daniels. “That’s been a saving grace. We’re not making decisions alone … We’ve felt a sense of relief and joy in connecting with each other.”

Daniels explained one of the group’s most pressing concerns: “How can we fulfill our organization’s mission when we cannot gather? How do we get arts out into the community? It’s so needed and necessary. People are alone and dealing with anxiety and fear. Art can really guide someone through the worst moments of our history.”

They’ve come up with a few solutions. Joe Atack, the company’s Producing Artistic Director, has been reading Sherlock Holmes stories online every weeknight. Reno Little Theater has been live streaming themed weekly programs such as “Musical Monday” and the interactive “Wacky Wheel Wednesday.” And the three companies have been collaborating on a new YouTube channel, Ghost Light TV, featuring original online content. Among the channel’s first productions is Vanity Snare—a murder mystery written by Daniels and produced by RLT Executive Director Melissa Taylor—performed by actors from all three companies, from their homes, via Skype.

Actors from Reno Little Theater, Brüka, and Good Luck Macbeth Theatre performed Vanity Snare from their homes, via Skype – photo: Kris Vagner

While times are tight and assertive fundraising may be critical to theaters’ survival, Daniels brought up a topic that many arts leaders have been discussing in recent weeks: “People have lost jobs. How do you engage funders and donors during this time? We don’t want to overtax a community that’s really hurting right now.”

COVID-era updates from some of the region’s performing arts groups

  • Truckee Meadows Community College and Reno High School’s Booth Street Players had spent thousands on a joint production Monty Python’s Spamalot. The groups are awaiting information on when it will be safe to gather and hope to perform the play eventually.
  • In January, the Nevada Gay Men’s Chorus started to rehearse their greatest hits – including Queen, Bee Gees and Lady Gaga numbers – for the group’s 10th anniversary concert schedule for June. The show is postponed, and the venue may need to change. Meanwhile, Executive Director Steven Meyer put the tracks in a Dropbox. “Everybody’s working,” he said. “They’re just working remotely.” He added, “We had rehearsed so much that we could probably pull our concert together in a month. We’re looking at August, hoping some normality will come back by July.”
  • Carson City’s Wild Horse Theater had already held the dress rehearsal for Heathers the Musical, the first show to be performed by the group’s new young adult/adult division. The show is postponed. Representative Sierra Scott said in an email, “Our cast is still keeping in touch, and we have an online meeting scheduled to run lines this weekend.” The group is also staying connected via a “Virtual Cabaret Series” on Facebook, and a new YouTube series “Where Are They Now?” in which Director Carol Scott interviews former Wild Horse actors.
  • Restless Artists Theater in Sparks is closed until further notice. Managing Artistic Director Doug Mishler said in an email that the theater crew will spend the downtime installing new seats, painting the hallway and dressing rooms, and improving the stage lighting. For this small, black box theater, five years of operating on a shoestring is paying off. Mishler wrote, “As far as COVID and finances for us, we own our building outright and have no staff to pay, so we really can hang on for a long long time, but hopefully this all becomes a horrible memory soon.”

Kris Vagner is an arts and culture writer who’s earned awards for critical writing, entertainment writing, feature writing, and—somehow—sports writing. She’s also the editor of Double Scoop, Nevada’s visual arts news site. More at www.krisvagner.com. Support her work in The Ally.