The curtains of local performing arts theaters fell in March, but for the last six months their companies have been busy backstage and online creating, streaming, pivoting, restructuring, evolving.
And, most importantly, making sure live theater survives the pandemic.
“In March, when we shut down, we thought, ‘it will blow over and we’ll be OK; it will be like a two-week pause,’” said Christopher Daniels, executive director of Good Luck Macbeth at 124 W. Taylor St. in Reno. “Then we were thinking maybe (reopening) in May, or July. Then the whole summer passed. Now we have no idea. Will it be in 2021, 2022? Sooner? And when will it be at full capacity, big productions, musicals galore, the way we were?
“We have no idea; it’s all so open-ended. Right now, we’re focused on staying creative, staying alive and keeping the arts in the forefront of people’s minds.”
The city’s three oldest companies collaborate
Good Luck Macbeth has teamed up with other performing arts theaters, the Reno Little Theater and the Bruka, to combine fundraising efforts and to create a free online platform, Ghost Light TV. Donations received through Ghost Light are divided evenly among the companies. The three venues are facing a tough, open-ended challenge, but they started that way. All were born in hard times: Reno Little Theater was founded in 1935, in the midst of the Great Depression; the Bruka’s footlights blinked on in 1992, during a recession with record unemployment rates; and Good Luck Macbeth’s curtain went up in 2009, amid the global Great Recession.
“In 85 years, we survived wars, depression and recessions, so this is yet another crazy chapter. It’s happening on our watch and we’ll make sure RLT survives,” said Melissa Taylor, executive director of Reno Little Theater. “We create art for the community and I think we all need it, particularly now. I’ve been hearing from so many of our patrons who miss what (theater) brings into their lives.”
Reno Little Theater’s building at 147 E. Pueblo St. in Reno was paid off two years ago, eliminating the pressure of paying rent. Still, other expenses remain.
Creativity continues online with Ghost Light TV
“We know we’re going to make it through the pandemic,” Taylor said. “We are in a little bit of a safe position, but still have overhead. We reached out to donors and foundations. There’s about $170,000 a year in facility costs, including building maintenance, to keep things going. It’s really vital that people who love the arts continue to support the arts right now.”
Good Luck Macbeth, the venue named for two things one must never say within the walls of a theater, is the youngest of the three, but has a loyal audience. It’s also built a reputation for great productions in the decade since its doors opened. “We’ve been very lucky,” Daniels said. “We’ve had support from funding agencies in town, including the Reno Arts and Culture Commission. Donors have come forward, although we’d welcome more. And working with the Reno Little Theater and the Bruka has been a saving grace, because we don’t feel like we’re navigating this by ourselves.”
The Bruka, 99 N. Virginia St. in Reno, closed March 13, and has since received and/or applied for funding from federal CARES Act programs, state grants, city arts programs and donors, including online donations. The theater also is selling face masks to raise money, is keeping a few staff members working and is continuing to create art that is available free on Ghost Light TV on YouTube. It also created a virtual show with its Summer Youth Workshop, “The Brukalton Gazette.” Bruka’s Poet In Residence Jessie James Ziegler presents “Collective Breath” Sundays at 11 a.m.
A time for introspection, inclusion, diversity
The three theaters have been presenting performances and programs online for months and will continue to experiment and evolve within the virtual space. The companies also are reevaluating their relationships with the community.
“We’re taking a look at how we’re structured and the white supremacy of theater,” Daniels said. “Live theater has always been pretty Eurocentric. We need to examine that. What stories are we telling? How we are telling those stories? We need to look at BIPOC (black, indigenous, people of color) writers, works, directors, artists, and anti-racist practices.”
Taylor said it’s a matter of “equity.” She said theater should include “all races, all religions, all abilities, people on both sides of the aisle. We say we are a community organization and we have to really mean that. We have to be accessible to everyone.”
As the companies offer their talents online, a paradox emerges. Live theater, with the actors just yards away from audiences and the air electric with emotions, is a completely different animal than dramas on TV or movie screens. Pre-recorded solo performances in front of single cameras can come off as static. Zoom boxes work for classes, but aren’t always adaptable for multi-character stories.
The solutions: think, create, pivot, invent and experiment. Then try more new things.
Bringing 3 dimensions into virtual space
“We’re always finding new ways to collaborate,” Daniels said. “We’re coming up with original shows, talk shows, bingo nights. We continue to create to the best of our ability. We are always looking for ways to raise the bar.”
For Good Luck Macbeth, that means getting further away from a two-dimensional TV experience and closer to creating the intimacy and the immediacy of live theater, but online.
“How do you capture the essence of live theater online without an audience?” asked Daniels. “That’s what we’re trying to figure out. How do we continue to be creative? How do we continue to fulfill our mission? We want to stay away from Zoom boxes; people are tired of the little screens.”
The company is working to produce one-person shows and improving the theater’s ability to stream those productions. That involves crisper sound and sharper visuals, movement and innovations in lighting. “We also have to figure out ways to engage people while they are watching the show,” he said.
“How can we replicate that feedback loop for the performer? So much of theater is the performer taking the energy from the audience and really utilizing that. Is there a way to create that feedback loop that’s not distracting or inhibiting to the performance. Un-muting the audience (microphones) won’t work. Laugh tracks, taped responses? Watching at home, but not hearing a live audience, you don’t get that collective energy. You don’t want to manipulate, but you do want to break up the monotony. Even though you’re at home and not part of the live audience you still have the same shared connection with them.” — Christopher Daniels, executive director, Good Luck Macbeth
On stage, actors rely on audience feedback to inform their performances. The script is the same each night, Daniels said, but actors are always innovating and evolving their characters. Audiences are different during each night of a play’s run and provide varied reactions.
“We’re working on it,” Daniels said.
As the big three continue to create art, some smaller theaters and performing arts schools also are keeping their heads above water. Theater Works of Northern Nevada has been holding fund raisers and the Sierra School for the Performing Arts has cancelled productions, but continues to hold classes.
Restless Artists to explore ‘devised theater’
The Restless Artists Theater, 295 20th St. in Sparks, has used the down time during the pandemic to remodel the theater and plan virtual productions.
“I own the building now,” said Doug Mishler, artistic director at the Restless Artists Theater. “So the landlord, that’s me, is very kind to our theater company. We should be fine.” He said the theater hasn’t solicited donations, but some patrons contributed without being asked. The money was used to insulate the building, paint walls, remodel dressing rooms and other areas, and “do projects we’ve wanted to do for four years.”
The renovations also included reducing the number of seats from 65 to 46. “It sounds like the opposite of what you’d want to do, but it gives every seat a better view of the stage,” Mishler said. “If, when we reopen, and have to do it with social distancing, that will mean about 20 people in the audience. Luckily, we’ll be able to do that because our operating expenses are so low.”
The theater hasn’t been offering virtual performances, but that’s about to change. “We’ve been starting to go a little crazy, not doing theater,” he said. “We have actors who have significant others who are also actors. They live with each other so there’s no danger of COVID between them. We’ll be filming 15- to 20- minute pieces out of the plays we’ve scheduled for next season with minimal props and multiple cameras.”
Mishler said the company also will be experimenting with different styles as well, including “devised theater,” which may incorporate music, stylized movement and choreography as integral to the scripts of original plays created by the company’s actors or established works. “We want to push the envelope,” he said, “kind of like the guerilla theater of the 1960s.”
His goal, and the aim of all the local companies, is to weather the COVID-19 storm until the curtains rise once more and magic again crackles back and forth across the footlights.
Actors and audiences await the ‘all clear’
“In live theater, you are experiencing something that lives and dies in the moment,” Daniels said. “There is a synergy among everyone in the house. As a performer, I want to take an audience on a journey. Stories have an arc and where an audience is at emotionally informs an actor, who is making many different choices every night. Performances are always evolving. So much is taken from what connects, what resonates with the audience. Actors, great actors, aren’t just reciting lines; they are inviting audiences in to experience the journey.”
No one knows when the doors will open, but in the meantime, “it’s important to continue to create,” Daniels said. “We exist on ticket sales and there haven’t been any for six months. How long we can last without substantial intervention? We don’t know, but we will keep moving forward every day.”
Taylor at the Reno Little Theater said it’s uncertain whether the venue would be able to reopen with social distancing, given the reduction in revenue from ticket sales balanced against the costs of overhead. She said RLT will continue to offer virtual performances online, collaborate with Bruka and Good Luck Macbeth on projects and fund-raising and persevere through the pandemic.
“No one has any idea when this will end,” Taylor said. “We’ll continue to stay flexible and move with it. We won’t operate (in-person) until we know that we can do it safely. We create, we don’t want to destroy. We don’t ever want to hurt people. We’ll continue to create, educate, evaluate and decide what the next steps will be.”