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16 Mar 2020

Pandemic Stories: As the COVID-19 News Intensified, Local Theaters Struggled With the Decision on Whether or Not to Remain Open. Then the Decision Was Made for Them.

Written by  Valerie-Jean (VJ) Hume and Jimmy Boegle
Josh Odsess-Rubin and Martha Hackett in CVRep’s The City of Conversation. Josh Odsess-Rubin and Martha Hackett in CVRep’s The City of Conversation.

Ron Celona looked weary as patrons entered the CVRep Playhouse in Cathedral City for the Saturday, March 14, matinee performance of The City of Conversation.

This was supposed to be a bustling, packed weekend of theater in the Coachella Valley. At least four theaters were opening new productions, while two more companies continued successful shows.

But as of that Saturday afternoon, The City of Conversation was the only show still open. Before we entered the theater—not even one-third full—Celona confided that after the Sunday show, CVRep, too, would be going dark.

Barring a miracle, we were watching the last play to be performed in the Coachella Valley by our fantastic theater companies in quite some time.

The production of The City of Conversation was a fantastic. Thanks to a great cast, led by Martha Hackett as old-school liberal activist/socialite Hester Ferris, the play showed how political differences can rip a family apart. It was compelling and riveting—so much so that it managed to make at least some theater-goers temporarily forget the unprecedented weirdness going on outside.

That is, until one of the characters made a joke about an expired toilet-paper coupon.

Celona’s angst over whether or not to let the show go on encapsulates the dilemma our valley’s producers faced heading into the weekend: On one hand, out of an abundance of caution, they could do societal good by closing the theater doors and having people staying home. On the other, they could take precautions and let the amazing, expensive work they’d rehearsed, built sets for and toiled over for weeks and months be seen and enjoyed by people who badly needed a distraction from the outside world.

As of Thursday, March 12, when the Independent started reaching out to local theater professionals, all six shows were slated to go on as scheduled—with the aforementioned precautions.

“We are offering hand sanitizer to people who have bought tickets,” said Chuck Yates, whose Coyote StageWorks was set to open The Velocity of Autumn the next night in the company’s new home at the Palm Springs Cultural Center. “For those who haven’t bought tickets yet, we don’t know if they will come.

“It’s a huge financial impact. Theater is never easy, and this is particularly hard. … There are a lot of people who don’t know what to do. All of the small theaters here, like us—nobody is in a financial situation to handle this, so we are opening The Velocity of Autumn. … It’s got heart; it’s funny; it’s beautifully written. It’s perfect for our community.”

The play—about an 80-year-old artist who’s barricaded herself in her Brooklyn brownstone with Molotov cocktails (!) to keep her family from removing her—would have been a lovely distraction for people who needed it. But these are unprecedented times.

Yates called back later in the day on Thursday to let us know he’d changed his mind.

“Of course I’m disappointed,” he said. “But we will try to figure out alternative dates. Right now, we’re biding time, waiting to see what the news brings. Maybe we can do it in a few weeks or months, or maybe next season.”

Robbie Wayne, the producing artistic director at the LGBT-themed Desert Rose Playhouse, told us on Thursday he intended to continue the run of Beautiful Thing, which had opened to rave reviews the weekend before.

“You’re not given a class on how to do this. Nobody knows how to handle this, so we are learning as we go,” he said. “I’m trying to be as informed as possible about this—everyone’s trying to figure it out. We haven’t had a large number of refund requests, but we are trying to figure out how to do this—it’s a dilemma. We don’t want it to be about the money, but that has to be taken into consideration for the venue. As of right now, we are removing snacks; we offer hand sanitizers; we are scrubbing the place down; and we are telling people stay home if you don’t feel well. But we also want to keep some normalcy in our lives.

“We want to be responsible for helping to curb this outbreak … It’s a hard place to be in. I have the TV on all the time. I go with whatever my gut tells me at the end of the day, because 24 hours can change everything. It is minute by minute now, because there is so much to consider.”

Wayne’s words were spot-on: The next day, he made the decision to suspend the weekend’s shows.

“We have staff members and patrons with compromised immune systems, so I went with my conscience. There are no winners in a situation like this, unfortunately,” Wayne said.

Over at Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, the same dilemma played out: After announcing on Wednesday that the “curtain will go up!” on the weekend’s opening of—yes, really—How to Survive an Apocalypse, the next day, executive director Shawn Abramowitz and artistic director Jerome Elliott announced the show would not go on, at least for opening weekend.

“We are so proud of our team for their magnificent work on this play,” they said. “This was a hard decision, but we feel it is the right call during this unsettled and confusing time.

That meant that as of Friday night, three of the six shows were still open: Palm Canyon Theatre’s The Pajama Game, and the opening night for Desert Theatreworks’ The Producers went on as scheduled, along with CVRep’s The City of Conversation.

“We have scrubbed the theater down,” Celona said on Thursday, March 12. “We have a cleaning crew coming in after every performance. We have purchased professional wall-mounted sanitizing dispensers for the lobby and the theater area. Our theater is 208 seats, so we are less than the 250-seat gatherings that are being cancelled, and we are about 50 to 60 percent of capacity. The bottom line is, when our accountants say we have to close, we close, and when the county of Riverside says we have to close, we close.”

The morning after those Friday-night shows, both Palm Canyon Theatre and Desert Theatreworks announced they would go dark. CVRep followed two days later.

“I hope if someone has a ticket to a live theater event, and the show is closed due to the virus, that they would consider donating the money to the theater instead of asking for a refund,” Coyote StageWorks’ Yates said. “This is the kind of thing that kills arts organizations.”

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