Like Broadway, and like Starlight Theatre, many community theater stages have gone dark since the pandemic hit and decided not to light up again at least until 2021.
City Theatre of Independence decided this month to join that list, along with Encore Theatre and Children’s Performing Theatre, all groups that use the Powerhouse Theatre at Independence’s Sermon Center.
Blue Springs City Theatre has decided to not throw in the towel for 2020, though it won’t be lighting up the stage. Instead, the community theater group plans to stream an online children’s musical next month – a show composed when the pandemic started.
"The Show Must Go Online!" will be available for streaming Aug. 7-16. It’s a series of short songs performed by various single actors, with the videos strung together for one recording. Viewers will be asked to make a donation.
When COVID-19-related restrictions started, Blue Springs City Theatre had just finished a production of "Stuart Little." Vickie Miller, a board member of the theater group, said they had canceled the late-spring and summer shows but still wanted to put together something for the community. For a director they hired Julie McKinley, who has been on stage in Blue Springs, runs her own company in Blue Springs called Storybook Theatre KC and has already guided a streaming of the same show.
"It all happened around the same time," she said of the cancelations and finding the online show. "We looked at things we could do to keep our actors and even our audience a little bit engaged.
"Fortunately the (theater) publishers went right to work when the pandemic started. It’s not a full production in the sense that you would see on stage, but it’s an opportunity to keep our children engaged, and we decided this would be good for a first go-around."
Blue Springs City Theatre traditionally does a Christmas-themed show in December, and Miller said they’re still considering a performance of some kind. Next month’s show streamed online could help with that decision.
"Our best-case scenario for December would be a partial audience with live-stream options," she said.
Nancy Eppert, president of the City Theatre of Independence, said the decision to certainly close the stage for 2020 did not easily.
"This was a tough one; this has been a tough year for everybody, including those in performing arts," Eppert said. "We were in final rehearsals for ‘Grapes of Wrath,’ when, as the words go in ‘Hamilton,’ the world turned upside down.
"The sad thing was, not knowing like everyone else how long it would go, we tried to put it off as long as possible."
Eppert said they tried to orchestrate safe parameters for both the cast and participants, but it became obvious this summer that wouldn’t be feasible.
"Everybody’s been in the same mode, across the board. We’re thinking of how can we continue doing what we do, not lose contact with our audience and still survive?"
Eppert said she’ll solicit any idea of how to create a viable theatrical performance during the pandemic. Browsing online, she’s seen examples of theater in a parking lot with actors wearing face shields, masks and microphones, a mobile performance on the bed of a pickup truck and puppet shows from a fire escape. A virtual collaboration to stream something online, like in Blue Springs, would be possible.
"For me, everything is on the table," she said. "We need to keep a presence for the community, and want to fill in where we should fill in. The publishing houses are changing their royalties and rules to help keep theater alive."
Eppert said when "Grapes of Wrath" eventually makes it to stage in Independence, its lessons should draw some similarities to people’s current experience.
"What we were about to portray is exactly what we’re going through in this pandemic," she said. "Families having to pull together, relying on strangers in a dangerous situation."
Miller says she believes that when pandemic settles, live streaming will continue to be part of community theater going forward.
"I don’t feel it will go away," she said. "It can open it up more to an audience, especially family members from out of state. The industry has responded to the pandemic by being creative."
Ultimately, Eppert said she tries to view current events as an elongated pause in the theater world, not a cancelation.
"We are taking an extended intermission," she said.