With COVID-19 pandemic lingering, OKC theaters continue to adapt their storytelling options
A version of this story appears in the Sunday Life section of The Oklahoman.
COVID-19, continued: OKC theaters keep adapting their storytelling options as pandemic lingers
Since the COVID-19 pandemic failed to take its final bows at midnight Jan. 1, Oklahoma City theaters are continuing to improvise into the New Year.
As the global pandemic lingers, local performing groups - from small fledgling community theaters to the larger professional companies - have evolved their techniques of bringing their art to their patrons.
From taking their performances outside to accessorizing their actors' costumes with clear plastic protective masks, here are some of the ways OKC theaters are putting on a show at this stage of the pandemic.
In an ordinary year, Lyric Theatre would be preparing to open the first show of its subscription season on its Plaza District stage. But since 2021 isn't an ordinary year - at least not at this point - OKC's biggest professional theater hasn't yet announced its titles, dates and venues for this year, although Producing Artistic Director Michael Baron said Lyric is anticipating a spring start to the season.
"It will involve a variety of venues and titles that people know and love. ... But the season is still in flux, and we're still securing venues for certain shows. Mainly, we learned from being at the Myriad Gardens and from the Harn Homestead with 'Christmas Carol' that there are creative ways to do theater outside and in safer environments," Baron said.
"Normally, it's much easier because we know where we are and usually when we are. We then just have to figure out what shows we're doing and what stories we want to tell for the audience. Now, we not only have (to consider) what stories we want to tell for the audience but what stories can we tell safely, where can we perform safely and still maintain the quality that we expect and our audience expects and still continue with the mission.
"That whole puzzle is still in the air."
Last September, Lyric was among the first professional theaters in the country to resume live performances by staging the family-friendly "Lyric Kids’ Clubhouse Cabaret" and program-rotating "Lyric’s Moonlight Cabaret" at the Myriad Botanical Gardens' Water Stage with limited capacity, required face masks for patrons and mandatory temperature checks.
For an encore, Lyric transformed its 10th anniversary production of "A Christmas Carol" into a 75-minute show that had audiences moving with the performers to various sites at the Harn Homestead living history museum, which includes the 1904 Victorian Harn Home, an event barn and a one-room schoolhouse.
"'A Christmas Carol' was successful for so many reasons. I think the first one was a mental health reason. I think that the joy and focus that it brought to the staff and crew and actors at Lyric - and our board - was immeasurable. Having all these artists coming together using a safety plan that was as strict as you can get was a gift. Frankly, it was a blessing. Then, once we were all together and we figured out the rules of safety, then we got creative again," Baron said.
"That's what we learned last year: that we still could do it."
Along with performing outside again with similar COVID protocols as the fall shows, Lyric's "A Christmas Carol" was limited to 100 patrons per performance and staged with two completely separate casts. The latter turned out to be a necessary precaution.
"We had people that had COVID cases in their homes, so they had to quarantine and be out of the show for two weeks," Baron said.
"We had no cases of COVID with the cast, the crew, the staff, anyone involved, and we had no contact tracing back to the show from our audiences. To have that flawless record amongst our employees - because employee safety is No. 1- over the course of 60 performances and have 4,500 people coming through seeing the show was, I think, something that garnered attention."
Not only did the show receive media coverage from The New York Times and BBC, but Baron said he also has been contacted by theater producers from around the country.
"We learned so much by doing. And I think it was great seeing the audiences feel comfortable and have a moment a joy just knowing they were outside seeing theater and then investing in a play again. ... It was like, 'Oh, we figured out not only we can do theater safely in this crazy new way and figure out all of the ins and outs of it, but we also were able to tell the story, which is our main mission," Baron said. "So, it's worth it to do this extra work to actually have live performances, but it is a lot of extra work and that's why it's taking a little longer than normal."
For more information, go to lyrictheatreokc.com.
Carpenter Square Theatre
After keeping its downtown stage dark for 10 months, Carpenter Square Theatre reopened its doors earlier this month with "From Door to Door," James Sherman's bittersweet dramedy about three generations of American women.
"One thing that's fantastic about the show - and is so good for this time - is that it's a really great mix of comedy and pathos. So, there are times where you kind of get a tear in your eye, but there are lots of laughs as well. That's kind of perfect for me - I love that kind of show - and that's how the audiences are receiving it as well. They're moved but then they also laugh a lot, so that's what we're really happy to offer at this time," said longtime Artistic Director Rhonda Clark.
"The response was really great. ... Our houses were small, but that was good for opening weekend because we're figuring out spacing and making sure that we've got 6 feet between parties and all of that. But one thing that's nice is people are really calling ... and making reservations."
The Season 37 opener, which the nonprofit community theater is performing through Saturday, also has a small three-woman cast, which Clark said made it a canny choice for Carpenter Square's first in-person show since last spring.
Reservations are recommended, since Carpenter Square is only allowing 40 people to attend each performance in its 101-seat theater to allow for social distancing. The bar and concession stand won't be open, although small bottles of water will be handed out for free or a small donation. Patrons are required to wear masks.
"Our audiences were great about wearing their masks. We didn't have any pushback," Clark said. "The opening weekend felt good. It felt good to be producing again. We totally understand if people aren't comfortable coming out yet, but we're doing everything we can to make it a safe environment if they do choose to come."
She said she expects some patrons will be hesitant to return to the theater until they have received their COVID vaccines, but as the five-show season progresses toward summer, she is hopeful that the theater - and life - will begin to shift back to normality.
Until then, the mask mandate extends to the actors: Along with wearing face coverings during rehearsals, the "From Door to Door" cast is performing in clear plastic face masks.
"They work really well. We're really happy with how they're working out. ... I've already got more of the clear masks on order, because I have a feeling we'll be using them ... through March at least - at least - and maybe through the entire season, through July. It just depends. But thank goodness we've gotten some special funding to help us pay for these odd things that we haven't needed in the past," Clark said. "I'm just hoping that by the summer things are good so that when we start our new season in the fall, everyone just feels safe - or safer - coming out and gathering."
Along with putting on monthly streaming-only shows last year, Carpenter Square continued converting the warehouse at 1009 W Reno Ave. into a new larger venue. The work continues, the theater is reactivating the capital campaign it temporarily suspended in 2020, and Clark said she is looking forward to starting Season 38 in the new space.
"We realize that we're just going to have to be more careful going forward, even when we get the vaccine. ... So, we're designing the seating with extra space between patrons as far as rows go. We're installing what is kind of like a little shelf behind a row a seats that patrons can use to put drinks or snacks or whatever on, but it also allows and causes more space between rows. So, we're thinking ahead," she said. "But I'm excited for the future. ... It's definitely gotta be better than the last 10 months."
For more information, go to www.carpentersquare.com.
3rd Act Theatre Company
Last February's production of "The Importance of Being Earnest" was a breakthrough moment of 3rd Act Theatre Company's debut season, with several performances at the community theater's space in the Shoppes at Northpark selling out.
"We were super excited. We'd gained all this momentum, but then the COVID. So, it was a punch in the gut for sure. ... It hit right before our last production that was scheduled for our first season," recalled Michele Fields, vice president of the fledgling nonprofit community theater's board of directors.
"We did all the quarantine and stay at home; we canceled all the rehearsals. They were set to get ready to go into (technical rehearsals) for 'Moonglow' shortly after everything hit, so what we did was wait patiently and do a couple of rehearsals via Zoom to keep it fresh in the actors' minds. Then, as soon as we were allowed to open and do it socially distancing and we could get all of our precautions in place, we put on a performance - and actually did have some people come. But we also did a streaming performance of it."
Despite the pandemic, 3rd Act announced the lineup for its sophomore season last spring and has continued to perform with COVID protocols that include mandatory masks for all, socially distanced seating and limited capacity.
"We honestly didn't have a choice unless we just wanted to shutter completely. And we put too much work into it to want to do that," she said. "We did not have the donor base or the financial support from grants to be able to say, 'Well, we're just going to do some stuff online, but we're going to be completely closed for a while until we figure this all out.' ... We honestly did not have that option."
The emerging theater cut out concessions, slashed capacity in half from the 70-person sell-out audiences for "Earnest" and even created its own plastic face masks for the actors, thanks to the crafty ingenuity of Amandanell Bold.
"We thought it was important, too, with everybody else shutting down, that if we could do it safely ... people could feel like they could still come out and have a little bit of entertainment and a little bit of enjoyment during all this process," she said.
"Everybody is as safe as they possibility can be. We have been - knock on wood - very lucky. We've had a few scares during rehearsal processes because most of our people have full-time day jobs. They're around other people, and we have a lot of teachers that like to come play with us. But we've been very cautious about it. We sanitize the space after every rehearsal, after every show, and we've done really good with getting people back. We've got a lot of people that have come back to start seeing our shows again, which is really nice. But there's still a lot of fear out there, which is understandable."
The streaming performance 3rd Act introduced with its first pandemic production has now become a tradition: As long as the theater can secure the rights, the last Sunday performance of each run is typically a live-stream show.
The pandemic also has introduced numerous unexpected obstacles into the already challenging path of establishing a new theater company, like adding extra urgency when it came time to replace an expired water heater.
"We needed to get it in there before we started rehearsals for 'Oxtiern' because there was no way we were going to be able to safely have people in the space if they couldn't wash their hands in warm water. So, it was very important to us. It's one of those things. We didn't expect that we were going to have to make plastic masks or buy the sanitizing solution to spray all over the theater every night ... but we had to figure out a way to do it," Fields said.
The theater continues its second season, themed "Power," with "Oxtiern, or The Misfortunes of Libertineage," by the Marquis de Sade, opening at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Feb. 7, with performances continuing through Feb. 20, with a streamed performance at 2:30 p.m. Feb. 21.
"I wasn't sure about it when they said it was written by the Marquis de Sade. I was like, 'Guys, are we really going to go that far that quick?' But I read it, and it's actually a pretty good little show. It's one of those things that it's the strength and power that comes from being in a bad situation and trying to get yourself out if it," Fields said.
"This has been an uphill battle, but we're still fighting it."
For more information, go to www.3rdacttheatreco.com.
Features Writer Brandy "BAM" McDonnell covers Oklahoma's arts, entertainment and cultural sectors for The Oklahoman and Oklahoman.com. Reach her at email@example.com, www.facebook.com/brandybammcdonnell and twitter.com/BAMOK. Please support work by her and her colleagues by subscribing at oklahoman.com/subscribe.