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COVID cancellations weigh heavily on Twin Cities theater scene

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COVID cancellations weigh heavily on Twin Cities theater scene

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After weeks of rehearsals, Tonia Jackson was days away from opening as the matriarch in the Guthrie Theater’s “A Raisin in the Sun” when society’s breakthrough cases of COVID-19 forced the show to be postponed.

The empty decor haunted her like a ghost.

“It’s devastating, not just for the actors, the director and everyone who put so much into it,” Jackson said. “I cry for our industry.”

As COVID cancels Broadway shows at Hennepin Avenue, the ensuing stampede is straining theater companies. Theaters plan their schedules months, even years, in advance, paying to build sets and sew costumes while hiring cast and crew, choreographers and coaches.

They operate on the razor’s edge in normal times. Now they are absorbing additional costs to keep employees and customers safe.

The challenges of theater are rooted in the form itself: “Our main ingredient is the human being,” said Michael Brindisi, artistic director of Chanhassen Dinner Theatres. “We have to be together to rehearse and play and we need an audience to play. That’s a lot of people in the same space.”

Despite the challenges, theaters believe their mission is vital. People need inspiring stories. “From a mental health perspective, our children and families need theatre, history and community,” said Kimberly Motes, executive director of the Children’s Theater Company.

A growing risk

Sudden cancellations were unheard of. Now they are the norm.

A week and a half ago, three Broadway tour performances of “Come From Away” were canceled at the Orpheum Theater due to COVID cases in the company. The 9/11-themed musical only resumed after replacement cast members flew in from London, New York and Toronto.

Despite hiring additional stunt doubles for “The Music Man,” Chanhassen Dinner Theaters had to drop the show’s final week — originally scheduled to close on Sunday — due to COVID.

“Once you lose your one-liner, you’re in trouble,” Chanhassen public relations manager Kris Howland said.

Chanhassen could afford stand-ins. But not all theaters can. Some had to leave the playground. When COVID hit the cast of “Into the Woods,” which was supposed to open in January at Artistry, the Bloomington Theater put the production on ice.

“I was just completely shocked,” said Sally Wingert, the acclaimed actor who was set to direct his first musical. She had put in countless hours of work before rehearsals took place.

The Guthrie also had to cancel the last three performances of “A Christmas Carol,” which sold out, and his spring Broadway production of “Destiny of Desire.”

Blow to budgets

Theaters levy their production expenses, investing money in the design and construction of elements such as sets and costumes. For musicals, there are choreographies and dance practices as well as musicians to hire and orchestras to rehearse.

These expenses can run into the millions for Broadway shows. When a show is stopped, these expenses cannot be recovered.

At the Ordway Center in St. Paul, “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” was scheduled to give eight performances at the end of the holiday — a crucial season when theaters make up to a third of their revenue. The 1,900-seat hall was forced to cancel the last four performances.

“It was a great show for us and [the lost income] will have a significant impact on our bottom line,” said Ordway CEO Chris Harrington. The cancellation reduced the show’s revenue by 41%, he said.

Theaters have also suffered a series of additional costs due to the pandemic. Chanhassen has hired 20 more people to check proof of vaccinations and work with reception staff. The Guthrie increased his usher corps and stopped relying on volunteers.

All of the city’s professional houses have hired COVID Safety Officers — medically trained on-call professionals who administer tests, sanitize areas, and ensure the well-being of cast and crew. It’s a requirement set by Actors’ Equity, the performers’ union that has enforced strict protocols, including testing actors three times a week at community hotspots, which Minnesota qualifies for.

These tests are not cheap. In Chanhassen, where they test about 60 to 80 people several times a week, it costs $1,000 a day.

“Raisin” cast member Jackson said “acting was a contact sport” for her. But now between work [at the Guthrie], on TV sets and teaching at school, I’ve been tested for COVID more than 200 times in the last six months.”

Actors like hermits

Rehearsals have changed into an art form that relies on gesture and non-verbal communication.

“I found it particularly difficult directing actors that I can’t see or hear because of the masks,” said Brindisi of Chanhassen.

Sun Mee Chomet, who plays a mother and a merchant in “Bina’s Six Apples” at the Children’s Theater, also found it odd to rehearse with masks on for 4½ weeks.

“Someone is playing my daughter and I only got to see her face two days before the previews started,” Chomet said.

Aware of the virus, the director modified an intimate mother-daughter scene. “We used to touch foreheads, but that was changed to wiping eyebrows with a tissue,” Chomet said. “We have to do everything we can to protect the show – we don’t want to shut down.”

This includes carrying the bubble they maintain in the theater into their personal lives. The actors compare their lifestyles to hermits.

“That’s how we live,” Jackson said. “But I can’t be selfish. If I’m not careful, I can shut down production and take food out of people’s mouths.”

The Guthrie hopes to bring “Raisin” back in the spring.

“I never imagined I would have to add epidemiology and public health to the list of things I need to run a theater,” Motes said.

COVID cancellations weigh heavily on Twin Cities theater scene

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