Oklahoma Shakespeare using COVID pandemic intermission to renovate Paseo Arts District space
A version of this story appears in the Sunday Life section of The Oklahoman.
Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park using pandemic intermission to renovate its theater space
William Shakespeare famously penned the line "All the world's a stage" for the morose nobleman Jaques, one of the characters in his iconic comedy "As You Like It."
But when the COVID-19 pandemic forced most of the world to exit their stages last year, the folks at Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park began laboring behind the scenes to improve theirs.
The venerable arts organization has announced plans for a spring grand opening - possibly on Shakespeare's April 23 birthday - for its expanded facility in the historic Paseo Arts District, where the nonprofit theater has made its home at 2920 Paseo since 2014.
"We had been trying to renovate the indoor space for three years. ... But when COVID hit and then when the space next door became available, we really thought, 'Now that we're closed this is the time to renovate if we're going to renovate.' And now that we have more space, it just makes it all so much easier," said Kathryn McGill, Oklahoma Shakespeare's executive and artistic director and co-founder. "We're going to have our own little theater complex ... and we'll be able to call the shots."
Working behind the scenes
After opening its planned 2020 season with a successful production of "Romeo & Juliet," the small professional theater announced in summer that it was canceling the remainder of the shows planned for the year due to the pandemic.
Behind the scenes, though, McGill and her team didn't take an intermission: They stayed busy making plans and applying for various COVID-19 relief programs, receiving multiple grants, including two earmarked for Oklahoma City small businesses that have made it possible for the company to enlarge and improve its facilities.
When the next-door tenant at 2924 Paseo moved out last summer, McGill said she approached the building's owner, Joy Reed Belt, about the possibility of expanding into the vacated space.
"Our offices are going to go next door. ... I get to have my own office now, and I get to move out of the lobby. And Tyler (Woods, the company's managing director) gets to move out of the closet. So, we're thrilled about that. ... We're expanding the back stage space. The lobby space we're configuring it so that it's more accessible; we'll actually have a real box office," McGill said.
"We have these new theater seats ... and we'll actually get our theater seats in and it'll be a real theater. So, that's very exciting."
The renovations also will add a new lounge area, a gift shop and another set of bathrooms.
"(It) will still remain sort of the intimate indoor space that Kathryn and Tyler have really developed over the past few years. It's really beautiful. The development of that has been great. But it's been enhanced and it's been complemented, and now it's a space that's a lot more professional," said Erin Woods, Oklahoma Shakespeare's outreach director.
"I think it's going to provide a really great backstage area for all the technicians, all the actors. It's this flexible space that has now been made to be super usable."
Plus, the improved space will be accessible according to Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines, she said.
"The expansion that Joy Reed Belt has enabled for OSP to do has really, really opened a bunch of doors for what we can do with the space itself," Woods said.
Putting on shows
The nonprofit has launched a capital campaign to help raise money for its expansion.
"We've got some great partners - and obviously Joy Reed Belt is a huge champion - but we need community support to open those doors," Woods said.
Plus, McGill said she is still working toward her dream of transforming the back lawn of the theater's Paseo location into a small outdoor performance space.
"We were able to kind of take COVID and pivot," McGill said. "We're really looking at this as an opportunity to really grow our programming."
Like many other theaters, Oklahoma Shakespeare shifted to online programming in the summer due to the pandemic. The nonprofit offered a string of virtual master classes with stage and screen actors from throughout the country and concluded last week a Zoom discussion series called "Undiscovered Country," which offered deep dives into some of the few Shakespearean titles the theater has not yet staged in its almost four-decade history.
Although the company is eager to get back to performing shows live and in-person, McGill said she isn't expecting to stage any productions until the second half of 2021 at the earliest.
"We're looking at all sorts of different options about how to really do it safely for our patrons and our actors," McGill said.
Working for a small, nonprofit professional theater, she said the work is more of a labor of love - and she doesn't want those labors to result in a loss.
"You have to look at the budget. It costs us a great deal to do one production, and we normally don't make money on a production - we break even. Well, when you're reducing then your audience, you're not going to even break even. So, you have to look responsibly at the money (even though) we want to give this to the community," McGill said.
"So, it's not only safety. We have to look at ourselves as an organization going forward. We're not a big-budget organization. We don't have a lot of financial underpinnings, so we have to be very frugal and very careful when we do a production."
But when patrons do return to Oklahoma Shakespeare's Paseo home, Woods said she thinks they will be impressed with the changes.
"I feel like we were the best-kept secret about the Paseo, that they had this great theater there. Now, I think it will have such a bigger presence there ... that you really can't miss us anymore," she said.
"It won't be this little great theater tucked away in the Paseo anymore. We'll be a landmark of the Paseo."
For more information, go to www.oklahomashakespeare.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.