Empty stages: Performing arts put on hold in area venues

While many local theaters have selected to postpone their upcoming performances rather than cancel them entirely, pushing show dates back has posed new challenges for actors and companies.


Jake Maish

The Riverside Theatre is seen on Sunday, April 26, 2020.

Josie Fischels, Arts Editor

The costumes are hanging patiently, the set is built, and the performance venue is secured, but for the University of Iowa’s anticipated spring production of The Light in the Piazza, the show must now wait until November before it can officially go on.

The cast members would have taken their final bows April 19, completing more than a year’s worth of work to put on the first collaborative production between the UI School of Music and Theatre Department. But because of restrictions on mass gatherings to contain the spread of COVID-19, both the UI performing arts and theaters across the country have had to decide whether to cancel their upcoming performances or move them to a later date.

The Light in the Piazza Director Bill Theisen, the UI director of opera, said postponing the production seemed like the right move given the amount of time and money already spent on the show.

Theisen said the cast was almost exactly halfway through the rehearsal process before spring break, and everything needed to move into the performance space at the Coralville Center for the Performing Arts, including the set and costumes, was ready to go.

“I’m certainly moving forward under the hopeful assumption that we will be able to pick up where we left off in the fall and be back in the classroom, because a good deal of [the show] has already been worked on,” Theisen said. “It won’t be like starting from scratch.”

One issue local productions have faced while ultimately deciding to postpone shows has been the potential to lose cast members in the process.

Theisen said he feels fortunate to have 16 of the original 17 cast members of The Light in the Piazza respond that they could continue with the production in the fall. This count even includes some graduating students who will return to perform while they spend the fall in Iowa City.

Other theaters have not had the same experience. The Giving Tree Theater in Marion, Iowa, puts on one show a month, and already had to cancel the remaining performances of its most recent show, 26 Pebbles, in March.

Giving Tree Theater will need to hold another round of auditions for the company’s production of Cabaret to fill the roles of members unable to continue in the production, said one of the company’s owners, Andrea Henley.

The theater had held only one rehearsal before notifying the cast that the show, set for May, would be postponed until January 2021.

UI second-year student Alex Granfield was one of the cast members who chose to drop out of Cabaret. He said that when he found out the production was being pushed until next year, the idea of committing himself to a show so far into an uncertain future quickly became overwhelming.

“I just don’t really know what opportunities are going to arise,” Granfield said. “It’s so hard for me to plan my life that far in advance, especially right now as a student. I don’t know how much things are going to change between now and then.”

Henley and her husband Jamie are in their first year co-owning Giving Tree Theater. She said the theater has already experienced a loss in revenue in the absence of performance opportunities, but declined to provide The Daily Iowan with the specific amount of funds lost.

Andrea Henley said the theater has experienced some unique financial challenges because Giving Tree is not a nonprofit organization, meaning it can’t rally together with other theaters to create and promote fundraising efforts, but is confident that it will be able to bounce back by offering script readings, karaoke nights, storytelling events, and shows once the doors reopen.

Riverside Theater in Iowa City and Coralville Center for the Performing Arts on April 3 participated in a “virtual cabaret” hosted by Old Creamery Theatre in Amana. While the fundraiser had an initial goal of $5,000, the collection of show tunes sung by local performers ended up raising almost $17,000, according to a post on Old Creamery Theater’s Facebook page.

Despite fundraising, local theaters will need to find more ways to stay afloat, even after they can start holding performances again, said Adam Knight, producing artistic director at Riverside Theater. Knight said Riverside is projected to lose up to eight performance weeks over the course of the pandemic — the equivalent of $40,000 in revenue.

“For a theater that really runs on the margins, that’s a big hit,” he said.

Riverside has postponed its production of A Doll’s House Part 2 to July, and while the company still has this summer’s Free Shakespeare production of “The Winter’s Tale” scheduled as usual, Knight said the performance date may soon need to be pushed back to August.

The company has not yet announced its upcoming season, which will start up again in the fall. Knight said productions may look different then, if they are able to go on at all. Right now he said he anticipates ticket sales to be down as much as 40 percent, and Riverside’s already-intimate theater of 120 seats may need to be filled to only half capacity to keep patrons safely distanced from one another.

Like all theaters, Knight said Riverside’s current plans are all subject to change as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc, but he shared the same sentiment as other theaters regarding their postponed productions: They will hold out as long as they can for their shows to go on.

“Theatre at its heart is about storytelling, and about collective storytelling, and not being able to do that — it’s very strange to be planning a season,” he said.