COVID-19 has upended just about everything in our lives — a fact theaters and artists know all too well. Months and months of live performances were canceled as COVID-19 barreled into the community in spring 2020, and entire seasons of fall performances were postponed or canceled outright. Now — fingers crossed — Broadway seems to be coming back, and local theaters plan to raise the curtain on a new season of live family performances starting this month.
Valley Youth Theatre — an award-winning professional youth theater in Phoenix that boasts alumni including Emma Stone, Jordin Sparks, Kimiko Glenn, Nick Cartell and many others — took its camps, classes and annual fundraiser virtual during the pandemic. VYT is bringing back in-person events this month, starting with fall performing arts classes Sept. 25-Nov. 18.
VYT is also planning in-person performances of “Spookley The Square Pumpkin: The Musical” Oct. 1-31 and MTI’s “All Together Now!” — a global event celebrating local theater — tentatively scheduled for Nov. 12-15. The musical revue fundraiser features 15 song selections from a variety of well-known musicals. VYT’s longtime holiday tradition of staging “A Winnie-the-Pooh Christmas Tail” is also scheduled for Dec. 3-23, with more live shows to follow.
East Valley Children’s Theatre in Mesa had to regroup when Mesa Arts Center, its performance venue, was closed for an entire season. “Our goal this past season was to keep theater alive and available for kids,” says Karen Rolston, East Valley’s producing artistic director, “and we feel we did that well.”
During the pandemic, EVCT performed four virtual plays and a holiday cabaret and hosted a virtual “East Valley Kids Got Talent.” They also held a student playwriting festival and had 18 of the 30 plays entered performed in a virtual format, with judges’ comments and awards given. They also performed two live-streamed shows with small audiences this spring and hosted a full in-person summer camp schedule.
“We were able to keep the theater going with some grants and a very generous community,” Rolston says. “We are looking forward to the fall when we will begin 90 percent of our programs in person, with a few virtual offerings and a couple of programs that will begin January of 2022.” She adds that “the latest from the Arts Center is that they will be open to audiences at a 100 percent capacity.” Those who haven’t been vaccinated will be encouraged to wear masks. “Hopefully we will be live at the MAC on Sept. 23,” which is when “The Clumsy Princess” is scheduled.
TheaterWorks in Peoria kept live theater alive with some innovative changes. Chris Hamby, producing artistic director, and Cate Hinkle, managing director, launched “immersive theater” performances. The two came up with a production titled “Curiouser & Curiouser,” which was based on “Alice in Wonderland.”
“Our solution to the constraints of the pandemic was starkly different than others, and certainly riskier,” says Hinkle, who adds that “in the span of four months, we devised and created an immersive theater experience that would typically take two years.” Dressing rooms, hallways, rehearsal spaces and performance spaces were converted into realms within Wonderland. Strict safety guidelines were put in place “so we could welcome back patrons safely and in person as well as keep our actors safe during rehearsals and productions.”
The show opened to “resounding community support,” according to Hinkle. The six-week run sold out within 12 days of opening and was extended two weeks. That extension sold out one week later. “No other theater in Arizona has done or is doing anything similar. With this show, we have not only been able to generate revenue and help sustain our organization, we have also created a new business model, secured a new audience for the theater and given artists work,” Hinkle adds.
The success of “Curiouser & Curiouser,” coupled with audience feedback, prompted Hamby to devise a holiday version of the show that combined the world of “Alice in Wonderland” with “The Nutcracker.” “A Curiouser Nutcracker” — a family-friendly version (recommended for ages 8 and up) — opened to sold-out performances, but with a surge in COVID cases in mid-December, TheaterWorks closed the show early.
This past June, TheaterWorks opened its third iteration of the production, this one a grown-up version of “Alice in Wonderland” recommended for ages 16 and up. This one too sold out and drew new audience members. “Through all three productions, people who did not think of themselves as ‘theater people’ figured out they loved immersive theater,” says Hinkle.
Safety precautions have been paramount through each production, says Hinkle, with masks and physical distancing of patrons, who also had their temperatures taken upon arrival. However, due to the rising number of COVID infections, TheaterWorks has decided not to bring back the family-friendly “A Curiouser Nutcracker” this season as planned.
“We are still in an uncertain time,” says Hinkle. Though they haven’t yet announced plans for additional programming, Hinkle says, “I am excited for what’s coming and for our future.”
Doris Nehrbass is a West Valley freelance writer, editor and proofreader. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org