As COVID-19 Calms But Remains in the Picture, Theaters Reflect On Its Toll

From left, Armin Shimerman, Jen Mays, Jerry Kernion, R.H. Wilhoit and David Fritts (on couch) in “The Play That Goes Wrong” at the New Theatre and Restaurant. (New Theatre and Restaurant)

Diminished audiences and pricey changes pose new challenges

In late 2019, the COVID-19 virus erupted in China, then migrated to Seattle and New York. Kansas Citians knew it was only a matter of time before the pandemic came here. And it did, in the early spring of 2020.

The highly contagious airborne virus prompted a massive, unprecedented lockdown. Theater companies, orchestras and museums cancelled seasons and closed their doors for the foreseeable future. And for good reason. So far COVID has killed more than 6 million around the world and more than 1 million in the U.S. Many who became infected but survived are now dealing with long-term disabilities.

Some theater companies pivoted to video and online performances as a way to continue producing and reaching an audience, albeit on a much smaller scale. Others just locked their doors and waited.

But once mask mandates were lifted and vaccines became widely available, the arts community began gradually to come up for air. That was certainly true for local theaters, which are now in the midst of their 2022-23 seasons.

“Our first production back was ‘Christmas Carol’ last year (2021),” said Stuart Carden, Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s artistic director. “It was our first indoor performance and a huge one for us. It was a big lift coming back.”

Stuart Carden, artistic director, Kansas City Repertory Theatre (photo by Jim Barcus)

So far, this season has been relatively smooth sailing for the Rep.

“We have not had to cancel, for COVID reasons, a single performance,” Carden said. “I can attribute that to two things. One, we have a very thoughtful, care-centered approach to our testing and masking process . . . We hired a full-time safety officer whose only job is to make our people as safe as possible. We test multiple times a week and we’re very serious about masking during the (rehearsal) process. I can attribute our ability to not cancel shows to a very thoughtful approach. The other thing is an incredible amount of luck.”

The Rep has also invested in understudies for every production. In some cases, an actor in a supporting role will step into a lead role when necessary, while another actor will fill in for the understudy.

“We have invested heavily in an understudy program,” Carden said. “Traditionally at KCRep, we have not had understudies for our productions. Our shows typically run three weeks. So KCRep, like most theaters, did not invest the time and resources to doing that. But we’ve been doing it for the last year.”

In some cases, including “A Christmas Carol,” two understudies will be assigned to a lead role.

“We are really focused on the support and care of our artists and our audience experience with our shows, so we are keeping up to date with where the trends are going with COVID, but also keeping up to date with our (labor) union partners and what their expectations are.”

The Rep traditionally holds annual general auditions to fill roles for the coming season. For the last two years, those auditions have been via video. The long-term goal is to eventually get back to normal practices, including live auditions.

The changes, whether temporary or permanent, are “all from the point of view that this virus is a disease we’re going to have to live with,” Carden said. But the constant attention to safety protocols and the insistent presence of COVID takes a toll.

“It is exhausting,” Carden said. “It’s not just every day that we’re talking about COVID. It’s every hour. It continues to be an exceptional drain on human resources, emotional resources, and financial resources.”

Testing, Testing, Testing

The first theater in Kansas City to upgrade its air filtration system to provide clean air for both audiences and actors was the Unicorn Theatre. Other theaters, including Kansas City Rep and Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre followed suit.

At the New Theatre in Overland Park, the only for-profit theater company in the Kansas City area, the dinner theater also invested in a kind of air-distribution system, mainly for the benefit of the actors onstage.

Dennis Hennessy, co-founder and co-owner of the company, said the reality of COVID came with a vengeance last spring during the run of “The Play That Goes Wrong,” a farcical play within a play. Hennessy and co-founder Richard Carrothers have opened four theaters in their decades together, and Hennessy said COVID was the biggest challenge yet.

“Some of the audience is hesitant to come back,” Hennessy said. “We still have people coming to the theater wearing masks and we have no problem with that.”

But the theater used to routinely sell out its 625 seats. When the company resumed production, Hennessy said, “we could barely fill 500 seats . . . I was going to retire this year, but before we get the theater back to where it was, I’m gonna stay.”

All things considered, Hennessy said the theater faced four problems: getting the audience back, actors catching COVID, hiring standbys and understudies, and the rising costs of the culinary department, which Hennessy said had “gone through the roof.”

Just how badly COVID can lead to near chaos in a show happened with “The Play That Went Wrong,” a farce about a performance where everything, per the title, goes wrong. During the run, several actors contracted COVID and had to miss performances while they quarantined.

“We started hiring standbys and of course that killed the budget,” Hennessy said. In one week, he added, seven standbys performed in the show. The director, Todd Lanker, stepped into various roles during the crisis. “Part of it was that the play did go wrong, so an actor would call out ‘What’s the next line?’ and the audience wouldn’t know the difference.”

Actor Jen Mays, one of those who contracted COVID, described the show as “above and beyond a slamming-door farce,” meaning that timing was of utmost importance. Each cast member was an actor playing an actor. At one point in each performance, she was thrown through a window and the show ends with the entire set collapsing.

After catching COVID, Mays was out for about 10 days.

“Mine wasn’t terrible,” she said. “I was sick. I had to get prescription cough medicine.”

When she returned to the show, she was less than a hundred percent.

“The thing that got me was how tired I was,” Mays said. “But then again, I was being thrown through a window eight times a week.”

She said she was foggy headed when she returned to the production, “which for an actor is not great.” She found herself struggling to remember lines that she knew “inside and out.”

Another actor in that show, David Fritts, said everything about the production was a first.

“That was my first real experience testing three times a week and wearing masks in rehearsals,” Fritts said. “The weird thing to me, of course, was seeing the audience in masks.”

Fritts said he missed about six performances after he got COVID.

“The theater was great,” he said. “They paid for the extensive testing to double-check everybody.”

Soon after “The Play That Goes Wrong” closed, Fritts and Mays went into rehearsals for the Kansas City Actors Theatre production of “About Alice,” a two-hander by Calvin Trillin, a kind of love letter to his late wife. COVID struck again.

Karen Paisley, artistic director, Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre  (photo by Jim Barcus)

“I tested positive and missed four or five rehearsals,” Fritts said. During that time, he and Mays rehearsed via Zoom.

At Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, which kicks off the year with a production of Eugene O’Neill’s epic barroom drama, “The Iceman Cometh,” protocols are followed closely.

Artistic director Karen Paisley has worked hard to keep the MET operating, but she said the continued existence of theater as an art form is crucial.

“There is something about live theater that is different from Netflix, that you want to have in your life,” she said. “What’s the big outcome of all this? My opinion is that we need things to bring us together. Theater has the capacity to create a common experience and if ever there were a time we needed that, it seems like it’s now.”

John Rensenhouse, artistic chair of Kansas City Actors Theatre, said the company shifted to radio drama after the pandemic hit. The productions were broadcast on KKFI-FM before becoming available via the KCAT podcast. It gave employment to local actors and helped the company maintain a public profile. One of the pieces was a major undertaking: “Kansas City: 1924,” an imaginative multi-part evocation of the city’s past by Forrest Attaway.

A middle aged/older white could playing a scene on stage in front of a simple white backdrop
Jen Mays and David Fritts in Calvin Trillin’s “About Alice” at Kansas City Actors Theatre  (photo courtesy of Kansas City Actors Theatre )

One result of the pandemic, Rensenhouse said, was fewer people working in technical theater — those who design lights and sound, for example.

“Now that it’s coming back, we’re finding that people we used to turn to for contract jobs aren’t necessarily available anymore,” he said. “If you’re a technical director you can pretty much name your price.”

Meanwhile, COVID isn’t going away. The more researchers learn about this novel virus, the more unlikely a permanent solution seems.

Rensenhouse said he had never faced anything comparable to the pandemic in his years as a professional theater artist.

“This is the most uprooting experience in the theater I have seen in my lifetime,” he said.

Robert Trussell

Robert Trussell is a veteran journalist who has covered news, arts and theater in Kansas City for almost four decades.

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