Live Theater in a Parking Lot!
What does it take to do live theater during the time of COVID? A very creative, talented and committed board and production team, and a very agreeable business owner, willing to turn a restaurant parking lot into a space fit for “A Night Under the (Lone) Stars!”
What did we do?
Beth Gilles-Whitehead presented an idea to do two companion one-act comedies by James McLure, Laundry and Bourbon and Lone Star for a PPF PopUp Production. However, PopUp shows were shuttered along with all other theatre productions. Beth (Director, Laundry and Bourbon) did not want another Zoom production and asked if there was a way we could do it “live.” One night, during a conversation with her husband, Mike Donahue (Director, Lone Star), Jayne Victor said if Lone Star takes place behind a bar, why not find a bar to perform behind. With that, the creative wheels started turning. After speaking with our friend, Younes Jafarloo, owner of The Italian Café, we determined an outdoor theater experience was possible, as long as we could effectively mitigate the health risks, create a unique experience and market it in a way that would draw an audience.
The idea was presented to the PPF President, Danine Welsh, who along with the PopUp Committee members and the PPF Board were all willing to take the chance, and “A Night Under the (Lone) Stars” was born.
How could we make this event truly special? The planning began and the creative team came together all sharing ideas along the way. Since the shows took place in Texas, a band (Gretchen Purser and the Lone Star Band) was recruited to perform western classics for an hour prior to the performances, a local restaurant sold us Texas-style BBQ, and The Italian Café provided the wine, beer and non-alcoholic beverages.
In order to make this work, we needed to ensure that the cast and crew were safe. We instituted a number of protocols including temperature checks, cleaning and disinfecting rehearsal and performance spaces, masks, hand washing and social distancing, when appropriate. We had a safety kit for each cast which included gloves, a temperature gauge, masks and sanitizer for each actor, director and stage manager. (Thank you, Danine Welsh!)
To ensure a safe environment, John Coscia and team painted socially distanced squares which allowed us to seat up to 54 people per performance. Chip Gertzog and Dan Schrader set lights that we could move in and out of the restaurant, Brian O’Connor provided additional speakers and microphones, Mike McLaughlin and Nick Manicone strung bistro lights around the perimeter to make the space more festive, and roped off the space for security and protection. Susan Kaplan learned to operate the light board, and award-winning, Christopher Crockett, applied his sound expertise, Andra Whitt became a bartender, Janet Bartelmay arranged the food, Mike Daze set up an outdoor box office and Roxanne Waite organized several volunteers to help navigate the space. It took a team.
Why did we do it?
We were tired of “sitting on our butts” at home hoping for the James Lee Community Center to open and wanted to get back to what we all really enjoy: live theater. This was considered a “proof of concept.” Would patrons feel safe enough to come? Would they enjoy outside performances? Would they remember to bring chairs? Weather could be a concern (e.g., rain, cold), so how would we handle? If well received, could we do it again? Is this another type of venue we should consider – short term, long term?
How was it received?
Even at a cost of $75.00 per square, we sold out each and every performance accommodating more than 200 patrons in four nights. A critic from the Falls Church News-Press came to preview and gave a glowing review of the event, and audience members were open with their praise and appreciation for being able to see live theater again. We learned some things along the way. Please read on to hear Jayne Victor’s (Producer) take on what we learned in her interview.
David P. Whitehead
Editor, Providence Players WEBLetter
An Interview with Jayne L. Victor: What We Learned
Q: What was your vision for this event?
“I (we) wanted it to be a unique experience for people – dinner, drinks and a show. I thought, ‘if we are going to do this, let’s really do it.’ But first, we needed to convince the Board that this was a good idea. We decided to keep it lean – a lean show (small cast), a lean set, and a lean production team. It needed to be outdoors and conform with state law and CDC recommendations. We wanted people to have fun, which meant they needed to feel safe. We wanted people to be able to safely leave their homes and into a comfortable, festive space with music and quality theater productions – one they would remember and want to do again. I’m pleased to say, I think we achieved that.
Q: What kept you up at night?
Even after we had a clear concept and approval to do it, I started to panic. What if we couldn’t get enough help? Even though we had typical production needs and already had a cast in place, I knew this event was not a “normal” production. The actors would pitch in where they could, but we knew they could only do so much. I’m glad to say, even those who were skeptical in the beginning, jumped in with both feet to help. Every person I asked gave 110%, and people were good at problem-solving and trouble shooting. I was so pleased at the response.
Weather was a big question mark. I knew it could get cold, but knew if we asked people to come prepared, it would be fine. Then I worried about the possibility of rain. We would need to establish rain dates, and a process for communicating with patrons in case it did. Luckily, we had good weather for all four performances.
Q: Did you have open auditions, and if not, why?
“No, we did not have open auditions for two reasons. First, it was a “proof of concept,” which meant it might not work so the Directors cast people they knew, which turned out to be a good decision given the hurdles we faced periodically. Second, we just didn’t have enough time. We presented the concept to the Board at a special meeting in early September, which left us with just four weeks to mount the productions.”
Q: What are you most proud of?
“Creative people were so excited to be creative again. It wasn’t Zoom. It was real, live theater. Even the people standing to hold a light tree in the wind, were delighted to do it. People were hungry for theater! And it seems we made our audience members happy. The team was so creative, and it was a blast having everyone involved while maintaining safe social distancing. We felt like once we could make people feel safe, people would come out and enjoy themselves.
Of particular note, we reached out to the neighbors – the businesses and the residents. Great decision. We learned how important it was to connect with them, as we were having a party in “their backyard.” We invited them to the preview – for free. And many just stopped by to listen to the band for the first hour. I believe we garnered some good will, and I think the neighbors and other businesses felt good about us being there.
Also, we put this together in just four weeks, and we are so proud of how it came off.”
Q: What would you have done differently?
“I’m not sure I would have done this differently, but I was torn on how many shows to present. If it was really successful, which it was, we probably could have added a third weekend.”
Q: What did you learn?
“I learned where the fuse boxes are at The Italian Café, and that the garbage truck comes every Monday so we should have hung the bistro lights higher. Ha! Seriously, I learned that people were hungry for (distanced) fellowship, an adventure, a picnic and live entertainment. Even those who hadn’t left their house in months, came and enjoyed the event and felt safe. We learned it could be done and done safely.
It was a good decision to build the event around a theme – “a Night Under the (Lone) Stars.’ With these shows, it was right to make “everything Texas.” It made it fun, and it made it interesting and fun to market. The band was great, and I’d do music again. I might even start a little earlier, giving people more time together in a unique experience.
We are already hearing, ‘when are we doing it again.’ I’d do it again!”
Thank you, Jayne, for your wonderful insights!
Save the Dates: Providence Happy Hour & Play Reading Event
Providence (Virtual) Happy Hour – The next Happy Hour will take place on Tuesday, November 10. Prepare your own beverage at home. Via Zoom!
Word has it that we will be playing a holiday-themed game based on “two truths and a lie.” More information to follow.
Play Reading Night (Virtual) – The next Play Reading event will take place on Tuesday, December 8th. Our last virtual event went so well, we are going to do it again! Make sure you save the date for our next Play Reading evening: Tuesday December 8. Only members can attend, so make sure you renew or join if you need to.
Here are a few photos from our last in-home play reading and happy hour events. (Sniff. We miss those days.)
- Welcome back renewing members: John Barclay Burns, Larry Craven, Mona Kay Helper, Fred & Donna Lash, Christopher Persil, John and Kathy White and Mal and Linda Zerden.
- New members: Bob and Nancy Goldsmith and Denise Manos. Welcome to Providence Players!
- If your membership is lapsed and you wish to renew, you can click here.