This was the weekend that the Waco Civic Theatre was planning on returning to live performances with a production of “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown,” its first show after cancelling two spring productions.
Then a cast member tested positive with COVID-19, forcing cancellation of the show, scant days before opening night.
This also was the second weekend for outdoor performances of the Shakespearean comedy “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that the performing arts company Wild Imaginings had planned.
At least, until a surge of new cases in McLennan County led the group to cancel its second weekend out of caution.
COVID-19 concerns also have led to cancellation of the Waco Children’s Theatre summer program planned for next month at the Lee Lockwood Library and Museum.
Welcome to the new uncertain world of performing in the age of COVID-19, where worries about conta- gion affect not only ticket-buying audiences but the cast and crew members that put on those productions.
“In our field, it’s a double whammy,” said WCT executive director Eric Shephard. “We have an emphasis to keep the customer safe, but we have to keep our actors safe, our crew safe, our ushers and volunteers safe.”
Shephard and his board members have spent their weeks of WCT downtime imagining how to go forward in light of a contagious disease that seems to spread best in closely packed groups, indoors and in the presence of vocal activity such as singing, shouting or loud talking — namely, conditions under which live theater has operated for several centuries.
Given national and state guidelines urging social distancing, sanitation and business capacity levels, the Waco theater is shaping how to configure performances that entertain paying audiences but keep both viewers and performers safe.
At the same time, there’s the financial pressure of operating with no revenue and the prospect of reduced income for the months ahead.
“We’re debt-free, so as long as we can get back to production sometime soon, we’re okay,” the director said.
Many changes ahead
This weekend’s “Charlie Brown” was to test some of the possible changes: a small cast and use of a larger venue (Waco High School’s performing arts center) that would allow more room for spacing audience members.
Large musicals, such as this spring’s “The Music Man,” won’t be attempted for the foreseeable future. Instead, productions will be smaller in both casts and production requirements, particularly for shows at the WCT.
Shows will be double-cast if possible, to allow more performances for smaller audiences and to provide flexibility should a cast or crew member come down with COVID-19 or an exposure contact. Shows will be shorter to run without intermission, a time when audience members normally cluster at the restrooms.
The theater will emphasize electronic ticketing to minimize the need for a physical ticket. The building will be cleaned and sanitized regularly, including the use of an antibacterial spray for the theater’s seating after every performance.
Theater staff and volunteers also are considering building an outdoor stage at the building’s rear for evening concerts that patrons could view from their cars. The cost of outdoor lighting and a sound system that would broadcast on FM radio, such as those used at drive-in movie theaters, are part of that calculation, Shephard said.
The director hopes theater supporters can help raise $18,000 for improvements in the building’s ventilation systems, allowing for HEPA filters, fresh air dampers and antibacterial UV lighting for air conditioning.
Extra funds also could aid purchase of video equipment that could allow online streaming of WCT productions, the latter made possible by loosened license restrictions in recent weeks by play publishers, Shephard said.
Despite the last-minute cancellation of “Charlie Brown,” the theater plans to stage Jane Austen’s “Emma,” originally planned for last spring, in July for ticket holders from that canceled production. A “Mamma Mia!” reunion show also is under discussion for the future.
In these days of COVID, however, all planning is conditional. “Nearly everything we’re doing is subject to change,” he said.
Waco’s two collegiate theater programs intend to have a season beginning in the fall, and one open to the public, although exactly what that would look like or how it would operate are decisions still ahead.
In late spring, McLennan Theatre posted a season of “Tristan and Isolde,” “Puffs,” “Merry Wives of Windsor” and “Clue the Musical” plus an opera to be determined. Those productions are contingent on the situation on campus. MCC students will return to classes on campus in the fall, but could return to online instruction off-campus should there be an outbreak of COVID-19 cases on campus.
Baylor Theatre, too, is planning on a 2020-21 season with students returning to campus, said theater department chair DeAnna Toten-Beard, although some public productions may be staged outdoors or streamed on video to allow social distancing and other COVID protections.