A play for a plagueThe Nonprofit Journal Project

This isn’t the first plague to shut down venues. Live theatre as an art form has survived thousands of years and history shows us that the art lives. Even when circumstances of a particular production change, the overall idea of “the show must go on” isn’t new. But the struggle is real and nothing about theatre is easy right now.

Coming into 2020, our theatre was finally at a point where we were consistently selling houses and not having to stress every month of how to pay rent, utilities, insurance, and artists. For a small black box theatre only a few years old, that was really impressive! In February, we were selling out houses for The Hobbit, as well as the next couple months of Steel Magnolia’s and Three Musketeers. We held auditions and cast our summer shows and were well on our way through read-throughs and blocking for the first half of the year.

Then, Covid hit and everything came to a screeching halt. As shutdown moved on we postponed almost everything but got started on our annual Shakespeare production because surely we’d be open by August. We laughed about how appropriate it was that we were doing The Tragedie of King Lear. This is a script literally written while the theatres of London were shut down due to plague and here we are rehearsing it in similar times.

April and May were spent Zooming line and character work in anticipation of getting together once quarantine was lifted. It went better than I thought it would and we were truly optimistic when we got word we could begin small gatherings in June.

Immediately, we lost 3 of our players because even with precautions taken, they had more risk factors and couldn’t continue. New players stepped up and the schedule was done to facilitate 10 or fewer called at a time and all rehearsals done outside with masks and distancing. New factors of heat and bugs and uneven ground for combat rehearsals began to sink in, but in the beginning everyone was simply happy to be around other humans. Theatre humans!

By the end of June, we were questioning if we’d be able to open the theatre and started shifting our thoughts to outdoor venues. We used to do our Will On the Water Shakespeare Festival outside every year so why not? It would have to be different. We used to have a year-round steering committee put everything together and no longer had any of that in place. However, our chance came because of the surrounding cities were looking for activities to do in their parks.

By the top of July, we had offers from a few places to bring our production to them so we focused our thoughts on staging to accommodate various venues. That was our process for a couple of weeks. I had already redesigned the show to incorporate veil-like masks so we were safer, but as we watched the local crowds gather without them and with little regard to distancing, we wondered how any live performance could be low-risk.

Creeping into August, the only solution seemed to be putting it on film. Knowing we’re not film artists, we really just wanted something tangible to display our love for the work we’d done. One of our ESR loyal is a videographer and was willing to donate a week of his time to get it on a reel for us so we were excited and ready for a busy week, expecting it to be as exhausting as any other tech and opening weekend, but we’d have fun. Right?

Day one of filming our Oswald is hospitalized and won’t be rejoining us for a week. She’s worked too hard on this to cut her so I dye my hair and redo costume so I can step in and be her twin, taking her small lines in the first half of the show. Day one becomes a dress rehearsal for me to get off book and learn her combat, and to quickly reorganize the film schedule so we can do scenes she’s not in the next day.

Day two we lose our Edmund. If you’re not familiar with the story of Lear, Edmund is the catalyst for basically everything except Lear going mad. I message everyone the opportunity to step back and let them know we can have fun with scene work if anyone wants to continue. Everyone else stayed.

Day three is now spent reworking every scene that Edmund is in. My twin character now gets a name and becomes the narrator of Edmund pieces and takes over the lines at the end that are imperative. The actors opposite in those scenes had worked for months and deserved to play them out. One of our combat choreographers agrees to be Edmund in the final battle so we don’t have to scrap that combat work.

Day four we’re finally ready to film again but now we lose our videographer because he was only able to commit to that initial week.

We ended up with one camera and zero film experience. We would set the camera with no one manning it and run the scenes multiple times at different angles. It took us 3 weeks to get it all. Another main actor dropped with 2 days left due to stress so others picked up those lines with a moment’s notice. Editing was beyond rough and took 2 months to complete.

The journey wasn’t what any of us expected, but in the end, we accomplished more than we could have hoped for in a time of plague. Theatre people tend to wear difficult productions like a badge of honor. Ask any of them and they will laughingly tell you of some crazy show they were part of. I for one, am truly looking forward to the day I can laugh about 2020. The day we can remember what bonded us instead of what we’ve lost


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.
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