Presenting theater doesn’t work in tandem with social distancing and the dilemma gets worse when the actors are children.
“I like the theater because I like performing in front of audiences and with quarantining it’s hard to do that. For me it’s hard because I like performing and being with my friends,” said 14-year-old Kaitlyn Woodward, a student of Gilbert Christian School who has attended Studio Three Performing Arts in Gilbert for three years.
Sadly, with the pandemic situation not showing signs of waning any time soon, Kaitlyn, and hundreds of others like her, will have to bide their time.
“Theater kids are by nature huggers and ‘in your face’ kinds of kids,” said Karen Rolston, producing artistic director of East Valley Children’s Theatre in Mesa. “Some are doing better than others.”
With cancellations and postponements of scheduled concerts and classes, new methods of performance, smaller purses and larger expenses and dozens of new rules to carefully adhere to, children’s theater in the East Valley is walking a tightrope.
“It’s frustrating, sad, discouraging, scary, and heartbreaking on many levels,” said Karli Kemper, co-artistic director and music director of State 48 Theatre Company of Mesa. “We also, however, feel a huge sense of commitment to our community and families to be supportive of safety precautions so that we can actually see an end to this awful time we are all experiencing.
“We want nothing more than to get back to our ‘normal’ and we are trying to stay positive and be creative in order to survive until that happens,” she added.
Emma England, who runs Studio 3 Performing Arts Academy and Limelight Performing Arts, said, “This is the hardest hurdle I have ever had to jump over, but I am growing every day.”
“I have put in more work the last few months than I ever would have imagined, but seeing the way we are making a difference for these kids and families is worth every second,” England said.
Undeterred by the challenge, Studio 3 Performing Arts Academy launched an online academy and may have set standards for the local industry.
After canceling “Wizard of Oz,” the children’s theater finished the last season with “Wonderland” – its original musical based on the story of Alice in Wonderland – via film.
Students were brought to the recording studio in small groups to record the audio and the theater did a professional film shoot for the visuals. The movie is being edited and will be shown as a drive-in movie in September.
The process was socially distanced and provided a safe environment.
Studio 3 also ventured into doing a virtual show called “The Isolation Project,” featuring two original plays by Colleen Porter that are performed online.
One is a drama dealing with the emotions and situations that arose from the sudden stay-at-home order and the other is a comedy in which teens try to win an online social media contest.
East Valley Children’s Theatre also recorded “Alice in Wonderland” via the online program Zoom, a radio play and a cabaret with live filming of the host and adding the kids’ pre-recorded videos.
State 48 Theatre Company is presenting “The (Possibly) True Tales of Little Red Riding Hood” and “Romeo and Juliet” as films as well.
The theater plans to do a live stream of the movies with the actors in small groups in the theatre answering questions and providing commentary on their experience during the stream. Viewers are expected to donate.
As expected, earning the dollars to keep operating has been a challenge across the organizations.
Studio 3 Performing Arts Academy, which offers sold-out summer camps that provide an outlet for 40-70 kids each summer, found its earnings dropped drastically because the camps are much smaller to incorporate social distancing. Its sister organization, Limelight Performing Arts, has no earnings because it’s temporarily closed.
At East Valley Children’s Theatre, the impact has been huge despite a successful virtual silent auction in lieu of its spring fundraiser. Attendance dropped in just the one summer camp it offered. Even when the rest of the classes went online, there aren’t as many children enrolled.
The group performs at Mesa Arts Center, which is closed until Oct. 1 or beyond. This meant no performances in the spring or summer while fall is “up in the air.”
“We are not bringing in as much revenue, and we have had to reduce the number of teaching artists that normally work for us,” Rolston said. “In the long term, we worry about keeping the theatre solvent while we wait to get back into the theatre space to perform.”
State 48 is hurting similarly and is hoping to boost donations with the film release of “The (Possibly) True Tales of Little Red Riding Hood.”
“Our ticket sales are everything,” Kemper said. “We are both a youth and a community theatre, so when we cannot sell tickets, we are in real financial straits. Currently we have been able to raise enough through donations to cover a few months of rent and bills, but we are most definitely concerned for the future.”
Not everyone has found success with using Zoom either. Studio 3 has found it unsuitable for children ages 3-5, and those children have left the school.
State 48 finds the challenge comes in many forms.
“It has removed the actors’ ability for on-stage chemistry and rapport with each other, the physical movement itself and contact in person, and then of course the timing—to be able to deliver a back-and-forth with impact and tension,” Kemper said. “There is a lot of lag and awkwardness over the internet.”
Still, acting on Zoom is better than nothing. Kempe said managed three weeks of online rehearsals from home using Zoom, then came in person to the theatre in small groups by scene. Safety protocols included masks, hand sanitizing and cleaning after each rehearsal.
“They have been remarkably patient and respectful and have worked through the hardships of the new protocols. So many of them were so anxious to be a part of something that they are more than willing to respect the safety measures,” she added.
And always, a silver lining shines through the direst situations.
For the children’s theater, it’s the support it receives from parents and the extended community.
“They donate, they show up to work and wear a mask, they paint with us and sew costumes, and they bring their kids to rehearsals prepared and respectful of all of our policies—which has made this tough time both bearable and rewarding,” Kemper said. “It’s truly humbling to be surrounded by so much love and support in this current climate.”
Rolston has a similar experience.
“People seem to be more receptive to helping each other and wanting everyone to be successful. It has been heartwarming too, to see our teaching artists step up and just figure out how to be successful teaching classes on line,” she said.