Usually dependent on indoor venues with people sitting shoulder to shoulder, the traditional idea of what a night at the theatre means is not viable during the current COVID-19 pandemic. In order to operate within social distancing guidelines, several local theatres are finding new ways to make sure the show goes on.
One such example is the Kellogg Community College (KCC) theatre program. Theatre professor and Program Coordinator Brad Poer has moved the annual sketch show, “Mich Mash,” online. Poer said that the show will take place on Zoom with two-thirds done live and the remainder prerecorded and played off YouTube. Poer is in a different situation than most, as his theatre is connected with KCC regardless of profit.
“I understand how fortunate I am," said Poer. “The money is just there anyway”.
Poer believes that theatre professionals find creative ways to work around the difficulties of the pandemic because of their experience with improvising. Poer said “when you spend as much time in your life improvising and ad-libbing as most of us theatre people have,” you learn to “roll with it”.
“You can shake your fists at the sky,” he said, but argues that will do no good.
Twenty minutes away from Poer, the Great Escape Stage Company (GESC) of Marshall are doing their own reimagining of theatre. Most recently, the theatre put on a one man show about Mark Twain. The show took place on the lawn of the Franke House where there was plenty of room for a socially-distanced audience. Artistic Director Randy Davis says that “an option down the road”, closer to spring and summer, would be to erect a tent on the Franke House lawn to accommodate more complicated scenes and lighting.
Davis and the GESC board are discussing other possible one man shows, including a variation of "It’s A Wonderful Life" reworked for one actor. The option of doing shows on Zoom was raised, but Davis said that he was “not necessarily interested in that”. Davis is also considering setting up a drive-in show in the GESC parking lot, among other ways to practice, as he called it, "Guerilla Theatre".
Like Poer and KCC, Davis does not have to worry too much about income. “We’re in a good place” [compared to other theatres], Davis said, explaining that the holder of the theatre’s mortgage has told them to pay when possible. Additionally, Davis said that the GESC received a National Endowment for the Arts Grant over the summer, which has given them breathing room.
The Grand Rapids Civic Theatre (GRCT) is another theatre that is navigating unknown territory. According to the GRCT website, the theatre is “committed to serving our community and our mission through this crisis”. While numerous live shows have been cancelled, the website lists a variety of upcoming virtual programs, including the annual summer camp, classes in the School of Theatre Arts, and a virtual production of "A Midsummer Night’s Dream".
The Grand Rapids Civic has also developed a unique way to bring shows to patrons’ doors. The Driveway Cabaret series, featured on the GRCT website and explained by Brad Poer, is a system whereby potential theatregoers donate to the GRCT and request a certain song from their favorite musical. Actors will then show up at the benefactor’s house and perform the number in their driveway, bringing the theatre to each participant’s front door.
Photo by Asher Wertheimer