Like Coming Home, but Really Weird: Lincoln Theaters Find Reopening Solutions

July 15, 2020, 6:45 a.m. ·

The Lincoln Community Playhouse started a series of "Parking Lot Plays" earlier this month, performed outdoors to allow audience members to stay in their cars. (Photo by Allison Mollenkamp, NET News)

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In mid-March, all kinds of events were cancelled across the country. Sports seasons were put on hold, weddings moved from banquet halls to living rooms, and Broadway theaters closed. Closer to home, Lincoln’s community theaters have largely sat empty for nearly four months. The impact has been huge for theaters and their performers.

In times when indoor gatherings pose a serious health risk, COVID-19 has left empty chairs in empty theaters across Nebraska.

“After having the TADA Theater dark now for the past three and a half months, theaters aren’t meant to be built to be dark with nothing going on. It’s been very depressing and sad” said Bob Rook, managing artistic director of TADA productions in Lincoln. He said the pain of closing was complicated by not being sure where to look for guidance on reopening safely.

“We were not sure where we fell in the bracket of anything, any form of mandate. In gathering places, bars, how do we fit in? There’s no way to offer curbside theatre. You can’t do that," Rook said. "The scary thing is the theaters ultimately just had to close.”

Lincoln’s theaters ultimately decided to band together, forming a group large enough to say “we are here:” the COVID-19 Arts and Entertainment Taskforce.

The group includes medical professionals and heads of theaters. By working together, venues have brought crucial questions around safety to local health officials, and found answers.

On July 18th, TADA productions will return to the stage outdoors at the Mill in Lincoln. “TADAStock,” as they’re calling the cabaret, will consist of 20 vocalists and a three-piece band. The music of the night will vary from show tunes to Queen. It’s not the first cabaret TADA has produced, but it will be unusual.

The audience will be required to wear masks and comply with social distancing rules. To keep performers safe, mics will be wiped down between acts, and singers have been wearing face shields during rehearsals.

All this to make a reopening possible at all. Rook worries the pandemic could permanently close some local arts spaces.

“That’s a really scary thing. And if you think of Lincoln without, say, the Zoo Bar, without any coffee shop, without musicians, if affects everybody, and we didn’t want that to happen,” Rook said.

Theaters are struggling with COVID-19's financial consequences.

Morrie Enders at the Lincoln Community Playhouse said COVID-19 forced the Playhouse to close and cancel three shows: a production of Matilda, the Penguin Project, a program where children with disabilities play roles in a musical while partnered with peer mentors, and Pirates of Penzance Sr., a show put on by senior citizens.

He said the community has supported the theater, despite its closed doors. The playhouse received over $40,000 in donations on Give to Lincoln Day.

Plus, most patrons didn’t ask for refunds after the theater cancelled its spring shows.

“We asked our season ticket holders to donate those tickets, that money for the tickets, instead of getting a refund, and almost every person did, and that was another gift of $27,000 to keep the playhouse afloat," Enders said. "We feel confident that we can ease our way back into performance and make our way through to January and keeping our fingers crossed that we can start back as a theater proper, but frankly we’re not out of the woods yet.”

The difficulty of staying closed hasn’t just been financial. Enders said the people who make community theatre happen have been hungry for a chance to return to the music and the mirror.

“Our actors especially, our theatre family people have been just kind of going up the walls because they haven’t had a chance," Enders said. "And you know, it’s in their DNA. Performing is in their DNA. So to have that taken away from them was very problematic.”

The Playhouse is taking cues from other community theaters around the country to safely hold events. Many theaters –including one in Kansas—plan to show old movies outdoors. One theater in Des Moines is also putting on 90-minute drive-in plays.

The playhouse started its own series of drive-in “Parking Lot Plays” earlier this month. The longest play is an hour and performances include cabaret acts, an old-time radio show, and a melodrama.

“The first night of rehearsal for the melodrama, when people came in, they would step in the door and just go ‘ahhhh.'” Enders said. "It just felt so great to be back in the theatre again. And one of the parents of one of the kids that are doing the cabaret, they said ‘just getting in the car and knowing we were coming to the Playhouse felt terrific.”

Enders hopes to stage some small indoor performances in the coming months. To make that possible, the playhouse went from 250 seats in the theater to 50. The playhouse still has a little more homework to do in building their 75th season, which they hope to begin in earnest in January.

Other theaters feel ready to move inside. Jillian Carter is producer of the First Flight Festival through Lincoln’s Angels Theatre Company, which opens tomorrow. The company worked with the Lied Center’s event planner to get approval for the event in the Lied’s Johnny Carson theater.

“We had a pretty lengthy policy document in place on what exactly we were planning to do to keep everyone safe," Carter said. "And so he took that to the chancellor and then the chancellor came back with ‘well, what about this, what about that?’”

Carter and the Angels team wrote like they were running out of time, which they were.

“Once we got approval from the chancellor, it had to go to the county health department, who had to give us the final go-ahead," Carter said. "And they actually didn’t give us the green light until the 6th.”

That left 10 days before an opening night unlike any before. Rehearsals had already started –and also looked different than a normal show.

“Most of our rehearsals have been done virtually up until we got to tech this week. A lot of zoom meetings," Carter said. "Some of our performers are quarantined together. We have couples who are performing in the same things and so they have been able to be together. And then a couple casts that have been able to stay distant during their rehearsals have rehearsed in person a little bit.”

Rehearsals and performances will likely include masks and distant seating for a while. And given the incubation period of COVID-19, it could be weeks before audience members know if the event was truly safe. But Carter said it’s good to be back, even if it does require a sense of humor.

“It’s wonderful. It feels like coming home," Carter said. "But it is really weird as we’re all wearing our masks and taking each other’s temperatures and talking about, well, ‘You’re the only one who should ever touch this prop. So no one else every touch it.’ I think you know, being a theatre person, that that’s always kind of a big thing, like ‘don’t touch someone else’s prop,’ but this time it’s… you know… penalty of death.”

In the coming weeks and months, local arts organizations will no doubt find more solutions for safely bringing a bit of theatre, whatever it looks like, to the street where you live.