COVID-19 has forced area theaters to defer their seasons and find resourceful ways to survive

click to enlarge Stage Left Theater Managing Director Jeremy Whittington. - YOUNG KWAK
Young Kwak
Stage Left Theater Managing Director Jeremy Whittington.

When gatherings of 50 or more were prohibited across Washington state, theaters set about the sad business of closing their box offices and clearing their marquees. Until that point, there had been a vague, if fanciful, hope that their footlights would somehow remain lit.

Like so many businesses and organizations around the world, theaters across the Inland Northwest are now facing shared and individual challenges as they temporarily go dark in the interest of public health.

Spokane Children's Theatre

The Spokane Children's Theatre was in the middle of a sold-out run of Disney's The Little Mermaid when the new restrictions were announced. The closing weekend's tickets will now have to be refunded, transferred or donated.

"Everything has changed by the hour. By the minute sometimes," says Managing Director Doug Beschta.

He and his board are planning to shift Matilda the Musical from April to the end of May. That means canceling the original season closer, A Year with Frog and Toad. Given that the theater's primary source of income is ticket sales, cutting an entire production from the lineup leaves him uneasy.

"The organization nearly shut down about five years ago. We've spent the last four or five years totally revamping things to the point where almost all of our shows for this year were sold out," he says.

"I just don't know what's going to happen now. Right now, we're looking at how long can we survive? This is our 74th season, and we're still hoping for 74 more."

Stage Left Theater

Stage Left was in a slightly better position when its managing director, Jeremy Whittington, put its season on hold. The theater was between shows. Rehearsals for A Voice of My Own were wrapping up. A fairly quiet summer period ahead provided a tiny scheduling cushion.

Which isn't to say that turning off the house lights was an easy thing to do.

"It's something I mulled over for a few days," he says. "Given the opportunity, any kind of actor, artist, director, designer, we want our work to be seen. So, having a full production ready to go, it was hard to make that decision."

The decision also had financial implications. Ticket sales account for 60 percent of Stage Left's annual operating budget. But Whittington says that a "sense of responsibility" toward community welfare encouraged him to take a bigger-picture approach.

"The day that Broadway went dark was a really a wake-up call to all arts institutions. Knowing the common phrase that 'the show must go on,' it's actually kind of more important that civilization goes on."

Blue Door Theatre

As social-distancing practices intensified prior to March 16, the Blue Door Theatre opted to cancel performances for the sake of its audience as well as its troupe.

"We didn't want to force our players to make a decision, 'How much do you love improv?'" says Artistic Director Frank Tano.

With an admission price of just $8, ticket sales aren't a major source of revenue for the organization. However, it does sustain itself largely through youth and adult improv classes, also now on hold.

One of Tano's chief concerns is keeping the theater on people's radar during the downtime. That's why they intend to do what they do best — improvise — and temporarily move to live-streaming performances on Facebook and Instagram as well uploading sketches to YouTube.

"We plan to do a lot of digital content. Just to be out there. We've got a number of archive recordings from previous shows that we're going to edit for easier digital digestion. And we're reconfiguring some new content. It's going to be something tailor-made for the internet."

Spokane Civic Theatre

Perhaps hardest hit has been the Spokane Civic Theatre. Upstairs on its main stage, The Humans was in late rehearsals and auditions for Funny Girl were about to begin. Downstairs in its studio space, Exile was already in rehearsal and a popular run of Cabaret had another week left to go.

"The idea I'm toying with right now is to come out of this and do a couple weeks of Cabaret, a couple weeks of The Humans and a couple weeks of Playwrights' [Forum Festival]. We can probably get a solid run of Funny Girl in to complete the season," says Creative Director Jake Schaefer. But that will inevitably mean sacrificing some summer programming.

Furthermore, any revised plans will depend entirely on when health authorities lift existing restrictions. The biggest source of worry for Schaefer and his counterparts at other venues is the uncertainty over when exactly that will be.

Yet, despite the nail-biting precariousness, the theaters are buoyed by the optimistic thought that audiences will be hungry for live entertainment after weeks of being housebound.

"I know for sure that after a couple of days of this, I would be driving myself crazy," Schaefer says. "You've just got to hope that audiences will recognize this art form to be as authentic as we know it to be." ♦

WHERE TO SUPPORT LOCAL THEATERS

Blue Door Theatre, bluedoortheatre.com

Coeur d'Alene Summer Theatre, cdasummertheatre.com/donate.html

Ignite! Community Theatre, igniteonbroadway.org/get-involved-1

Lake City Playhouse, lakecityplayhouse.org/support

Spokane Children's Theatre, spokanechildrenstheatre.org/About/Donate

Spokane Civic Theatre, spokanecivictheatre.com/support

Spokane Valley Summer Theatre, svsummertheatre.com/donate

Stage Left Theater, spokanestageleft.org/donate

43rd POAC Sandpoint Artwalk @ Sandpoint

Through Aug. 28
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About The Author

E.J. Iannelli

E.J. Iannelli is a Spokane-based freelance writer, translator, and editor whose byline occasionally appears here in The Inlander. One of his many shortcomings is his inability to think up pithy, off-the-cuff self-descriptions.