Leading live theatre through a pandemicThe Nonprofit Journal Project

I run Enter Stage Right at The Citadel Stage, an intimate black box theatre in downtown Port Huron, Michigan. We run a new, three-week production 11 months a year and rent to classes, other theatres, and concerts. That’s a lot of artists that lost their outlet in the blink of an eye.


Going into that last rehearsal, I knew what had to happen, but it was still brutal. As I waited for everyone to arrive, I watched combat call and filmed them doing the court dance, knowing they wouldn’t be performing it as planned in two weeks. At that time, Covid-19 was just hitting the US and the first in our county had just been reported but, watching the global news you could see what was about to happen.


As Executive Director I knew we needed to shutter the theatre, but I felt it was also important for my artists to have a say. I brought with me an outline of scenarios and let them guide the conversation which went full circle to where it needed to go. It began with, “No! We can’t let this stop us! The show must go on!” Then quickly moved to, “What if we cause this to spread?”


They took into consideration the medically compromised in our audience, own homes, and ourselves. The realization that we had to postpone was so hard. In the end, everyone was on the same page, “It’s ok. We’ll take a break, stay safe, and re-open next month when this clears.”


That was four months ago and the end is nowhere in sight. It’s been a roller coaster. Indoor venues will be in the last phase to open so we’re likely not on our stage again until 2021.


It can’t compare to those losing their lives or the families not able to be at their side, essential workers losing time with their families for safety, or those losing their incomes and way of life. Thanks to donors, grants from non-government sources, as well as a small amount we had in reserves, we’ll be able to keep our lease, utilities, and insurances paid through the year. Our luxury is that we can shut down, keep our community safe, and know we have the means to return.


What we lose is our safe space during a time when some need it most. Theatre tends to attract those that need a safe haven to be themselves and that loss was felt immediately with our artists. Theatre is more than a building you go to play. For many, it can be a true lifeline. Theatre is a community working together to figure out the world and our place in it. Those that stay become the family we chose to have.


This is why we knew immediately we had to find a way for our artists to create. I purchased the larger zoom package to rehearse Shakespeare and within 2 weeks, my husband and I had a few handfuls of scripts that were available for live streaming.


Our first live stream production was The Jungle Book in early May. It was a hit and although we put it out for free, donations poured in to help! That led to The Lost World and Charlotte’s Web also being done through zoom on our YouTube channel. Our casts have been from across the US as far as California, Florida, and Georgia. Audiences span our coasts and the globe to England and Australia.


When we moved to phase 4 in June, we were cautiously optimistic that we may still be able to get into our theatre by for our annual Shakespeare in August and finish with a strong year. We began small, in-person rehearsals for both King Lear and Our Town. I shifted my Lear design to Ancient Celtic Tribes of Briton... during a plague in order to incorporate masks. All our rehearsals have been in the backyard with distancing guidelines.


Coming to the realization that even outdoor crowds won’t be healthy in August, we’ve shifted our thoughts of Lear to a film project instead, doing a side-by-side, true to script versus the same scenes in our own voices (think No Fear Shakespeare in action). Our Town will be the next hard decision we’ll have to make. The rights don’t exist to stream or record that one so we're currently thinking we’ll be performing it outdoors or postponing to 2021. Last week, we canceled our fall auditions and are reconfiguring October to December with creative online projects.


Nothing about this is easy. Some days feel like we’re building sandcastles just to watch the tide wash them away. Other days… most days… we recognize that the most consistent part of live theatre is building beautiful but temporary castles and we’re learning to adjust to the swiftness of the current waves. We’re also learning to build more pieces away from the shore so they’re safer and can be enjoyed a little longer.

Regina Spain is the Executive Director for Enter Stage Right at the Citadel Stage in Port Huron. Stay tuned for her next entry in our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19 is impacting the nonprofit sector--and how they are innovating. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.ACT.

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.