Ryan Watson rehearsing Church and State Radio Show

The Status of Live Theatre in Louisville At This Moment

By Keith Waits

Entire contents are copyright © 2020 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.

Just under four months ago I wrote about the pending return of the Louisville Repertory Company after four years with a production of Jason Odell Williams’ Church and State. The shutdown due to the rising pandemic was expected to delay opening night by perhaps two months. On July 15, they will instead open the show as a radio play on Facebook Live, a deliberate turn to a virtual event, streaming on-line free for five days.

Local theatre companies are still trying to respond and project a return to live theatre, except that they can’t…because they don’t know. If you think being outside in the hot, open summer air protects you? Kentucky Shakespeare just announced, after several delays, that they will skip this year (although they tease a virtual production for September) and rescheduled the 2020 roster to open May 26, 2021 with Shakespeare in Love, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor.

While the institutions like Actors Theatre and Louisville Ballet have committed fully to an entire 2020-21 season of online programming, smaller companies are still struggling with the question of rescheduling productions for masked audiences seated to allow for social distancing, and whether placing theatre into virtual formats should even be called theatre.

Derby City Playwrights’ New Play Festival is moving online July 25 and 26 with premiere readings of eight brand new plays workshopped and developed over the last ten months: The Players of the Time After by Clare Hagan, A Fall Planting by Gray Shaw, The Airplane Game by Sean Fannin, InQuest by Erin Fitsgerald, Lazarus Commits Suicide (Twice) by Zoë Peterson, The Curse of Blue Moose by Vidalia Unwin and Lex Mitchell, Deer Island by Brian Walker, and It Is What It Is by Matt Jablow. 

Derby Dinner Playhouse became the first company to return to live performances when they opened Cinderella on July 7. The large dinner theatre space is seating no more than half of its usual capacity, which will mostly accommodate the company’s season subscribers, and meals are being served to the table rather than through the customary buffet format.

“Our employees are required to get temperature checked upon arrival to work, explains Annie Myers, “and also are required to wear face masks but we are only strongly encouraging our patrons to wear masks. We have had to reduce our audience to 50% or lower in order to allow for social distancing – every other table will be empty.”  

Three companies perform in the Henry Clay Building on 3rd Street, Bunbury Theatre, Pandora Productions, and The Liminal Playhouse, which is set to open Punts, by Sarah Page, on March 4, 2021, almost a year after the originally scheduled opening.

Bunbury Theatre also hopes to reschedule postponed productions, but in the meantime Producing Artistic Director Juergen Tossman initiated a virtual summer play reading series with Alexandria by Vince Gatton; other titles TBA. As to the fate of spring productions, Tossman’s company is changing it up more dramatically than any to date. “Since we weren’t able to present Imagining Heschel in April, we are working with a filmmaker to bring that project to fruition. Currently, we are talking about a hybrid of shooting in various locations and in the theatre. We are also working on a Virtual performance of Helper by Patrick Tovatt”. Rehearsals will begin in July for an expected opening at the end of August.

Head of Pandora Michael Drury outlines a hybrid season of live and virtual. “Our plan is to present live performances but also videotape and deliver our shows in that way for patrons who aren’t comfortable attending in person. The plan for this is still in flux, it may be a live-streaming of each performance or videotape of a performance set up to be viewed over a weekend then taken down. This is all dependent on the publisher’s licensing requirements. We anticipate that half of our subscribers will watch live and half virtually.”

In the actual theatre space, the rules followed by all three companies will be strict but also might push creativity Drury explains, “since the shows will be small we’re planning to play them in the round or thrust and place more audience on either side of the stage and back with a safe distance from actors. We’re replacing all of our programming but most especially the musicals since they were larger casts and singing is thought to spread particles around a room more quickly. Audience members will be asked to wear masks. Seats will be assigned in advance so that we can have some control over the patron’s social distancing. We’ll plot out the house in advance to maintain 6′ between groups and 8′ from the first row to the actors. We’ll make changes to our refreshment service as well, service personnel will be gloved and masked and we’ll not offer snacks in a communal bowl. We’ll not have a greeting line after the performance to minimize contact with actors and patrons.”

Tossman and Bunbury are on the same page: “We’ll be sanitizing the venue, seats, door handles, restrooms, and surfaces between shows and during each act and we’ll have sanitizers available throughout the venue.” 

It has become clear that to plan any return to a live, in-person audience in the coming months is fraught with uncertainty and risk, yet on-line alternatives are unsatisfying to some, and unlikely to match previous revenues. One thing that does seem certain is that the 2020-21 theatre season in Louisville will be very, very unusual.

Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in LEO Weekly, Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.