COVID-19 prompts central Ohio community theater groups to improvise

Alan Froman
ThisWeek group
Luke Allen, 13, with the Abbey Theater of Dublin portrays Trivia during a rehearsal for a scene in the troupe's performance of "Land of Forgotten Toys: A Christmas Musical" on Nov. 10. The show will be a streamed performance from Dec. 18 to 27.

The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has forced local community theater groups to rewrite the script and improvise in their efforts to stay afloat.

"It's hit everybody hard," said Lisa Napier-Garcia, board president for the Little Theatre Off Broadway in Grove City.

As bans on public gatherings took effect in mid-March, theater groups have had to cancel plans for play productions and other shows.

"It was hibernation mode," Napier-Garcia said. "We still had two shows last spring. One was up and running and nearing the end of its run, so closing it was easy."

The LTOB's last show of the season, a musical version of "Bonnie and Clyde," was supposed to open April 17.

"That was going to be our biggest show for the season. We already had the cast in place and rehearsing," Napier-Garcia said.

LTOB relies on ticket sales to provide most of its funding, she said.

Although "gypsy" theater groups that don't have their own buildings and rent space for shows could find it easier to reduce costs when they weren't doing shows, the story is different for those like LTOB that manage a regular performing space.

The group has a mortgage for its theater at 3981 Broadway, a 115-year-old building in downtown Grove City, Napier-Garcia said.

"We still have to pay the water bill and electricity bill and pay the cost of maintaining the building," she said. "We do have some regular fundraising efforts and grant opportunities, but they are supplemental. The ticket sales from our shows are the main source of our funding. The other things are the 'ice cream on top.' "

The Little Theatre Off Broadway is at 3981 Broadway in Grove City.

The LTOB applied for Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funds, and Grove City Council approved a provision of $59,805 in funding for the theater group Nov. 2.

The funds will be used both for helping to pay expenses incurred during 2020 and for technological upgrades that will allow LTOB to "more easily open and operate in a virtual world," Napier-Garcia said.

The theater group held a virtual concert and fundraiser in September and offered an online production of "The Further Adventures of Nick Danger: Private Eye" from Nov. 6 to 8. The latter show was a satirical parody of an old-time radio show.

"We're working on another virtual radio-show production to be streamed Dec. 11 to 13 and Dec. 17 to 21. It's a radio version of 'It's a Wonderful Life,' " Napier-Garcia said.

Virtual shows that people could watch from home will be LTOB's focus until it can return to holding shows in its 96-seat performance space, she said.

The state's current COVID-19 regulations limit theaters to audiences equal to 15% capacity, Napier-Garcia said. 

"That would mean a limit of 14 people for our shows, and that wouldn't be enough to make it feasible to cover the costs of returning to the stage," she said.

The Abbey Theater of Dublin was preparing to audition about 140 youngsters for planned productions of "Madagascar" and "Les Miserables" when the pandemic forced the closing of its stage in the Dublin Community Recreation Center, 5600 Post Road.

All planned productions had to be canceled, said Joe Bishara, theater supervisor for the Abbey.

By May, the theater had pivoted to offering performances and shows online.

"I was determined to find a way to keep our stage in operation, pandemic or no pandemic," Bishara said. "If we couldn't put on shows in person, we'd figure out a way to present them online."

That spirit was reflected in the title of the group's first virtual theater project, "The Show Must Go Online," he said.

The virtual musical featured more than 20 youth artists who had rehearsed and performed remotely.

"It was a new experience for everyone," Bishara said.

The show included monologues and songs performed as solos, he said.

Each performer rehearsed with the director via video chat before his or her section was videotaped separately. When the performances were edited together, they provided an entire show viewers could watch online from home.

Bishara became the Abbey's supervisor a year ago, and his immediate goal was to increase the number of shows the theater would produce each year, he said.

"We wanted to do a minimum of four productions yearly, two with adults and others with a youth cast," Bishara said. 

The switch to virtual theater has allowed the Abbey Theater to offer even more productions, he said.

"We will be up to about 18 shows by the end of the year," Bishara said. "We've been able to make the most of a bad situation."

Theater always is important, but it is especially so during difficult times, he said.

Many of the shows the Abbey Theater has offered as part of its virtual theater project have focused on ways people respond and cope with difficult times, Bishara said.

The productions have included a reading of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail" and "Wellness Check," a portrayal of three teens trying to stay well during uncertain times and presented in the form of an online conference call.

Upcoming shows will include a virtual concert with The Floorwalkers streamed at 7 p.m. from Friday, Dec. 4, to Sunday, Dec. 6, and "The Land of Forgotten Toys: A Christmas Musical," a virtual holiday musical that will be streamed from Dec. 18 to 27.

So many youngsters had signed up to audition for the "Forgotten Toys" production that Bishara had decided to offer performances by two separate casts totaling 25 people.

Alethia Grace Hardjono, 11, with the Abbey Theater of Dublin rehearses for her role as Karaoke on Nov. 10.

This year was going to be a special one for the Worthington Community Theatre.

The group is celebrating its 50th year but not in the way it had expected, said Erin Gibbons, WCT board president.

"We started as a local nonprofit theater group in 1970 with a goal of bringing arts to the Worthington community," Gibbons said. "It's heartbreaking not being able to fulfill our mission this year."

A production of "The Sound of Music" planned for July had to be canceled, as did "Bare: A Pop Opera," scheduled Sept. 10 to 20.

"We were really looking forward to having some of our alumni come back for the summer musical, and 'Bare' was going to be the next production in our After Dark series we started just last year," Gibbons said.

The After Dark shows are "a little more geared for adults but still something that younger people can see," she said. "In our history, our focus has been providing family-friendly shows."

A virtual cabaret was streamed July 17 as a fundraiser and featured WCT alumni performing highlights from past shows.

Without shows to produce, a local community theater group has to create imaginative ways to stay relevant in its community, Gibbons said.

The Peggy R. McConnell Arts Center of Worthington is at 777 Evening St.

The WCT offers a Throwback Thursday feature each week on its Facebook page, with photos and videos of past WCT shows.

The weekly feature helps celebrate the WCT's golden anniversary, Gibbons said.

It's uncertain when the group will be able to return to in-person performances in the Peggy R. McConnell Arts Center of Worthington, 777 Evening St.

"We'll have to celebrate our anniversary in our 51st year," Gibbons said.

The WCT relies on ticket sales to help fund its operations, she said.

A donation button is available at worthingtoncommunitytheatre.com.

The Grandview Carriage Place Players is a joint project of the Grandview Heights Parks & Recreation Department and the Carriage Place Community Center in Columbus. 

The group was scheduled to hold a rehearsal March 12 for its production of "Arsenic and Old Lace." Cast members and director John Heisel arrived at the Grandview Center to discover the city had closed all its public facilities because of the coronavirus pandemic.

That meant rehearsals had to stop.

"It was stunning," Heisel said. "The show was really coming together, and suddenly, there's no show. We've been on hiatus ever since."

A  production of "Beauty and the Beast" planned for the summer also was canceled.

The GCP Players group was formed in 2011 to help provide theatrical opportunities to community members, Heisel said. 

"A lot of people have a desire to be involved in theater, but most of us are never going to make it to Broadway," he said.

Over the years, "we've really come together to form a family," Heisel said. "Now we're a family that can't be together."

Adding to the problem is that the Shedd Theater, the stage at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave., where the GCP Players group performs shows, is undergoing repairs after structural issues were found on the roof over the stage, he said.

"That stage isn't going to be available until next year, even if the pandemic goes away tomorrow," Heisel said.

Plans for mounting a production of "The Importance of Being Earnest" will have to wait until 2021, he said.

There was some consideration of trying to present the play this fall, but the continued limitations on public gatherings made it impossible, Heisel said.

The GCP Players will offer a virtual production in December – a version of "A Christmas Carol," featuring marionettes Heisel has designed and created.

"We have a group of about five actors who are members of two families who will be operating the marionettes," he said. "It's something totally new they're learning – how to make marionettes come alive as characters."

Heisel will play Charles Dickens in the virtual production.

Dickens arrives for a production of his famous story only to find the actors have not shown up. He tells the story with the marionettes portraying the characters, including Scrooge, Bob Cratchit and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future.

The show will be streamed at a date to be announced on the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department's Facebook page, Heisel said.

More information about the show will be posted as it becomes available at columbus.gov/theater.

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