Janet Lazarus is an optimist. You have to be to cast 40-50 kids and adults in a Broadway production year after year, to stage a show where the audience can’t see behind the scenes to the budget constraints and space constraints you overcame to make it all work.
Lazarus directs the Sierra School of Performing Arts, a group that stages a Broadway favorite each summer at Hawkins Amphitheater in Bartley Ranch. As of early 2020, the plan was to perform Annie in August.
As news of the coronavirus pandemic started sinking in, Lazarus did what comes naturally to someone in a business where “the show must go on.” She held out hope. Maybe the rehearsal space could open soon. Maybe she could hold auditions one person at a time and implement a no-congregating-in-the-lobby policy.
“I held out for as long as I could, thinking I could still do [auditions] in a safe way,” Lazarus said in a phone interview. “In the beginning we really didn’t have our heads around this thing. … Then, I finally came to my senses.” Early in April, Lazarus emailed 88 families instructions for how to have their daughters audition by video.
“I kept thinking, ‘We’re still going to have live callbacks,’” Lazarus said. But when the time came to ask would-be cast members to perform a song and some lines from the script, she had to hold the second round of auditions by video, too. It went nothing like the usual casting process.
“I’m casting orphans. I’m casing little girls,” Lazarus said. “I can’t do that on video. I have to see their energy. You keep waiting to see what the governor’s going to say. You just keep hoping.”
On May 9, when some Nevada businesses were cleared to reopen, Phase 1 of Gov. Sisolak’s Roadmap to Recovery for Nevada explicitly excluded theaters.
The next step was a round of Zoom auditions. “It was mostly a disaster,” Lazarus said. “Nine people on your screen. You can’t really see them because they’re small.”
Months ago, she had arranged for the Annie cast to perform a number at an Artown event as a preview. But organizers of the month-long festival announced a major change of plans this week. While presenters are developing online events and drive-by events, Artown will not hold any in-person events in major venues.
Lazarus, having presaged the possibility of the Artown news, had not yet informed her young charges about the preview show. “I didn’t want to disappoint them twice,” she said.
Now, she’s grappling with exactly how to balance her determination to stage Annie with the safety of her performers, crew, and audience.
“I’m determined to cast this, because these poor people have been at this for six weeks,” she said. She’s planning in-person casting sessions that adhere to social distancing protocols. She’s still working out the details. Maybe there will only be a few people in the building at a time. And the theater community as a whole doesn’t seem to have established any practices for this yet. “This is new ground,” said Lazarus.
As the leader of a regional theater group that’s mostly volunteer yet holds itself to high production standards, Lazarus is very much used to “pulling off the impossible.” It’s hard to let go of the “Let’s do this” mindset that’s been an absolute necessity for every theater season of her career up until this one.
“What am I going to base the decision to go ahead with?,” she said. It’s awkward to picture a half-full amphitheater. It’s impossible to picture how to make ends meet financially without a full house. And it’s unconscionable to consider having kids crowd around a microphone until the threat of coronavirus exposure has abated.
Much as she wishes she didn’t have to, Lazarus does have a backup plan. If she needs to, she’ll tell her actors, “If we can’t do it this summer, these are your parts for 2021.”
“Sort of a hibernation mode”
As a 1500-seat venue, the Pioneer Center has plans for floods, fires, and earthquakes. It has insurance policies. It has evacuation protocols. It’s been cleared by OSHA and Homeland Security.
“Those are the things that we always actively think about and work on,” said Executive Director Dennyse Sewell. “And pandemic was not on the list for us.”
With Reno’s cultural scene on an upswing in 2019 and early 2020 and new residents eager for cultural experiences, the Pioneer had been enjoying a growth phase. Last winter, additional dates were added to The Nutcracker and the Reno Philharmonic’s Spirit of the Season show. But in March, the Pioneer had to shut its doors until further notice.
“No one saw this coming,” Sewell said. “No one thought we were going to run up against a complete brick wall and that … all of that forward momentum would just be cut off at the knees immediately, overnight.”
The Pioneer’s 11-person staff, bolstered with a PPP loan, now works from home, meets by Zoom, and has gotten in the habit of talking openly about how strange and stressful the world feels as they await news of reopening, which they figure won’t be until Stage 4. Meanwhile, the theater has cut every possible expense. Trash pickup is suspended, and the HVAC is off. “We’re in sort of a hibernation mode right now,” Sewell said.
While major ticket retailers like Ticketmaster and Live Nation Entertainment initially refused to offer refunds (eventually easing up after fan backlash and lawsuit threats), Sewell explained the Pioneer’s refund policy, “One of our decisions from the get-go was, if the show’s not happening, you get every dollar back, no matter what. Everyone gets a refund.”
She said that the staff went through a few rounds of trying to picture how a partial opening could work. “How many seats can we actually sell?,” they asked. “If everyone is seated six feet apart, how many rows in the theater do we have to block out? How would we line people up in the restrooms? How many toilet stalls do we have to block out so that there’s six feet in between them?”
“The realization came pretty quickly,” Sewell said. “When you do the math, we have no way to come back before social distancing is lifted. It just can’t be done.” And once restrictions are lifted in Nevada, it’s anyone’s guess how long it might take for national touring companies to finance, plan and rehearse their new work and begin to travel again.
“We remain as hopeful as is possible, and we are certainly striving to do everything that we can to be ready for that when the time comes,” Sewell said. “We’ve been reading everything coming out in the entertainment industry, doing every webinar, every conference call, every virtual panel symposium that is in existence right now. Every live venue is struggling with the same questions. They’re creating different models of what it might look like when we come back together. But they’re all just guesses. It’s all crystal-ball at this point.”
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.