It used to be the challenges of staging a theater production involved making sure that everyone was getting stage directions right and that cast members knew their lines. Thanks to Covid-19, putting on a show is a lot more complex these days.
From requiring masks for performers and audiences, frequent Covid testing and proof of vaccination or negative Covid tests from cast members and audiences to the looming specter of having to cancel a show because of illness, local theater leaders and directors of recent shows say that while they have a lot more on their plates than before, it’s worth it to have actors back in front of audiences.
“Without the patrons, we might as well be singing in the shower,” says Jeremy Koch, artistic director of Farmers Alley Theatre. “We want to perform for a live audience because the power and beauty of live theater is visceral. It must be experienced, and that’s how it hits you in the heart and mind and soul.”
Farmers Alley “went as healthy and safe as possible” when reopening shows to audiences this season, says Koch. All employees and audience members must be fully vaccinated, and audiences are asked to wear masks during the entire show so that the actors can perform without masks. And in order to keep patrons from milling around before the show, the 110-seat theater doesn’t open its main doors until 30 minutes before curtain, and its bar is closed.
“We have someone at the door to have audience members trickle in,” Koch explains. “We have multiple people checking them in and checking vaccination cards. Once they are checked in, they go into the theater, and then the next person is allowed in the lobby.”
For some local theaters, the policy of whether or not performers are masked and/or vaccinated isn’t determined by the director. Jay Berkow, who produced Western Michigan University Theatre’s November production of Significant Other, says that his performers are bound by the university’s policies when it comes to masks and vaccinations.
“For Significant Other, which we did with clear masks, the cast did not need to be vaccinated, and if they weren’t vaccinated, they needed to be tested (for Covid) twice a week,” Berkow says.
Like WMU Theatre, The Civic took its cues from Covid-19 policies set for educational environments, because one branch of The Civic is its Academy of Theatre Arts, which has classes for students ages kindergarten to adult. The Civic requires masks for everyone, regardless of vaccination status, including audience members.
“The overall policy at The Civic now is that as long as the county remains at a high or substantial level of transmission for Covid, we will remain masked at all times, including performances,” says Executive Director Laura Zervic.
At the same time, The Civic is also doing vaccine-status and health checks, including taking the temperatures of anyone who comes through their doors for rehearsal or business, Zervic says.
For Portage Northern High School’s Nov. 12–21 performances of the musical Little Shop of Horrors, the cast performed without masks. To do so safely required regular Covid testing and diligence by the 69-member teenage cast and crew, says Denene Mulay, who directed and produced the show.
“We stayed masked through the entire rehearsal process. There were no exceptions,” Mulay says. “Then three weeks prior to the show, we started rapid testing the cast and crew. Every Monday we administered Covid tests to the kids. They would come in and were given the little Q-Tip and had to do the swabs in the nose. Then they were released and it was a situation of ‘no news is good news’ kind of thing. We were fortunate enough to have no positive tests the entire time.”
The production also had a “mask wall” offstage with hooks labeled with each performer’s name. Actors hung their masks on the hooks while they were on stage and then, as soon as they exited (the stage), put the masks back on.
‘I was really strict,” Mulay says. “I didn’t even let the kids go out on opening weekend to celebrate. I said, ‘You guys just go home.’ I didn’t want anything to throw us off. But there were no problems at all because they’re so glad to be able to be back performing. It’s like ‘We’ll do what we gotta do.'”
For the most part, audiences have been receptive to theaters’ policies requiring them to wear masks at performances. Farmers Alley’s run of Murder for Two: Holiday Edition in December enjoyed sold-out shows, and the theater added another weekend of performances to the schedule. Portage Northern’s Little Shop of Horrors also had a strong audience turnout.
Zervic, however, says The Civic, which is among the largest theaters in the city, with 500 seats, didn’t experience the same enthusiasm for its Nov. 26–Dec. 12 run of The 1940s Radio Hour.
“Our houses have been quite small for a number of reasons,” says Zervic. “Some of it is that people aren’t really familiar with our show, and we’ve had some people say they weren’t coming back because of our policy requiring audiences wear masks. But I think, unfortunately, people aren’t really ready to come back.”