[Editor’s note: Since this article was published, MSU-Mankato announced on Sept. 17 that it is suspending its theater and dance season for two weeks in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19. Be sure to check the university’s website for the latest information.]
Organizations that produce theatre – from community theatres to academic programs – were forced to cancel productions in their seasons ending in spring 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world. With continued concerns for the health of their audiences and participants, and ever-changing restrictions on access to large theatre spaces, different approaches were taken as to how to open – or if to open – for the season in the fall.
Mankato Playhouse made statewide headlines when it chose to open “Forever Plaid” for a run in July and August, with strict procedures in place to protect those who attended. As a dinner theatre, the company reduced the number of tables available; sold tickets for a table of two, four or six rather than individually; increased sanitizing products available on-site; and required masks be worn when moving around the space (and recommended masks be worn at tables during the performance).
“We have modified our season to smaller cast shows for the remainder of 2020 and have plans to change out shows for the rest of our 2020-2021 season if we need to,” said Executive Director David Holmes. “But we will continue bringing the community a premier dinner theatre experience as long as we are able to.”
Now, a month after “Forever Plaid” performances were held in the downtown Mankato location, no COVID cases related to attendance have been reported. But even with the greatly reduced numbers available, seats went unsold for most performances, perhaps indicating that the traditionally older theatre-going audience wasn’t ready to venture out.
“Once it was determined that we could safely reopen with a minimal four-person cast and changes made to the theatre and stage, there was no doubt that we would forge ahead and persevere through these challenging times,” Holmes said.
The Mankato Playhouse’s hope is to bring its Broadway Teen workshops back to youth within a few months.
MSU-Theater Reimagines its Theatrical Season
With many in-person classes now being offered at Minnesota State University, Mankato, and Bethany Lutheran College, those academic theatre programs are finding ways to continue to offer the opportunity for their students to practice what they’re being taught.
The hardest hit theatre company in the Mankato area was the Minnesota State University Department of Theatre & Dance. When the pandemic hit, MSU-Mankato was just past halfway through its 2019-20 season and, with dance concerts and the annual Highland Summer Theatre season included, had to cancel 10 productions. It was a rude welcome to Matt Caron, who joined last year as the successor to now-retired Chair Dr. Paul J. Hustoles. Among the canceled shows were Hustoles’ planned directing finales, “Mamma Mia” in April and three of the four summer shows.
“We knew that, moving forward into the 2020-21 school year, having shows was going to be critical for bringing students back,” Caron said. “From what we could tell, student actors want to perform [and] the student designers want to design, so any way we could figure out to actually have real shows, live shows, was a priority.”
As a State institution, the department had many guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) and State University System, Caron said. Those guidelines set the framework for precautions the department instituted for students and audiences. The department recently sent out season brochures and is accepting ticket orders, with updated safety guidelines available.
“All of our seats are general admission now,” Caron said. “No one can purchase a particular seat, which might be problematic for some of our longtime supporters that really love to sit in that one seat all the time.”
Instead, with just 25 percent of seats in the approximately 480-seat Ted Paul Theatre available, seats will be assigned based on ticket sales for each performance. People may buy tickets in a “family group,” and they will be assigned seating together by box office and house staff before each performance. The theatre will be opened earlier so people can be directed to their seats, providing adequate distancing between designated seats. Intermissions will be lengthened as well, allowing more time for safe trips to the restrooms.
In addition, performances have been added to each production. All performance weeks will have six performances: Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings, with Saturday and Sunday matinees as well. This also applies to Mainstage and Studio Season shows staged in the Andreas Theatre, where the maximum seat count will be just over 60 per performance.
Expanding the number of performances “was absolutely a way to try to get more people in, but also to try to offset some of the revenue lost that we experienced last year and that we’re certainly going to be experiencing this academic year as well,” Caron said.
Caron noted that some of the companies that hold the rights for plays being produced have agreed to reduce rates. Rights for musicals are primarily based on the number of seats available, the percentage of seats traditionally sold at that venue and the number of performances. Caron said some companies have been willing to negotiate rates that could be well over $1,000/performance. Rates for “straight plays” (those without music) are much lower; those rates haven’t generally been reduced, but because they’re often below $100/performance, they’re more easily recoverable.
Bethany Lutheran Adapts its Stage
Like Mankato Playhouse, which moved its two-person-cast show “The Last Five Years” to October from this February to improve safety, Bethany Lutheran College has made adjustments to its standard performance schedule. The “Theatre Physics” show, which is usually performed at the very start of classes, has been moved to November 19-22 and converted to a “Christmas Radio Show,” said Department Chair Peter Bloedel.
Instead, the Bethany season will open Oct. 1-4 with “Black-Eyed Susan,” followed by “Rikki Tikki Tavi” by Rudyard Kipling, adapted by Amy M. Edwards, from October 22-25.
“We’re creating what we are calling ‘Play Bubbles,’” Bloedel said. “The first semester will consist of three shorter shows that will be practiced within the social distancing paradigm. These shows will be technically supported with full lights and sound, but scenery will be less of a priority.”
When they closed in March, construction on Bloedel’s design for the set of “Treasure Island” was put on hold and left on stage. One of the first decisions that had to be made was if that set, which included a canted ship deck among other ship features, could be utilized. Bloedel recounted that decision-making process in a video he posted to YouTube. Ultimately, in large part because the Sigurd Lee Theatre and its stage space would be needed for socially distanced classes, it was decided to take down the set. Although a financial loss to the department, money spent on the set construction was offset by the unused money due to cancelled shows, Bloedel said.
“The whole thing ended up being probably a wash for the school, but a disappointment in general,” he said.
Bethany has a tradition of doing original plays and adaptations, which allows them to record and share the plays online. In fact, Bloedel said, at least one play this year will be livestreamed and recorded for broadcast on Mankato’s cable access channel, KTV, which is housed on campus. Patrons can visit their YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/user/bethanylutheran to find a “Theatre Play List” and watch recorded theatre.
Mankato’s Merely Players Community Theatre has adjusted its season offerings with the health of participants and audience members in mind.
“With the current restrictions in place and our patrons’ safety being our first priority, we have made the difficult decision to post-pone the first two shows of our season – ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’ and ‘Matilda,’” Merely Players informed patrons through an email this summer. This came after the nearly 40-year-old community theatre cut short its spring performance schedule of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
“We opened ‘JC Superstar’ and closed ‘JC Superstar’ in the same weekend,” said Interim Artistic Director Maggie Maes, citing the health concerns to cast, staff and audience members as the reason. “The board had a lot of discussions about whether we should even have our last two performances [of “Superstar”], but working together with the [venue] Kato Ballroom and changing how the meal was served, allowing audience members to sit where they liked [and] limiting the audience size, we were able to go through with the full weekend.”
The Merely Players recently received $11,000 through a Prairie Lakes Regional Arts Council Arts and Cultural Heritage Grant to meet social distancing guidelines beginning in March 2021. Plays “Rex’s Exes” and “The Spider’s Web,” an Agatha Christie mystery, have been moved to the 2020-21 season schedule.
Merely Players will still begin their season with “Minnesota Shorts,” a collaboration with founder Greg Abbott of North Mankato. But instead of being produced live, selected plays are being filmed and shared on KTV.
“We picked shows with a two-person cast, allowing couples or family members to be the actors,” Maes said.
The community theatre has been hard hit because traditional fundraising events, such as MoonDogs 50/50 raffle ticket sales and Breakfast for a Cause at Wow! Zone, could not take place. The Merely Players Board of Directors continues to meet, including with other arts organizations in the Mankato area.
“I think my final comment would be please support the arts,” Maes said. “If you see the price of theatre tickets has increased, know it was done out of necessity. And if you see a fundraiser or are able to make a donation, please do so.”