Show of support as Riverside, Theatre Guild regroup

The Riverside Theatre in Vero Beach.

Their lights may have been temporarily dimmed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Riverside Theatre and the Vero Beach Theatre Guild are making the best of a bad situation.

The theaters were at the height of their seasons when they were forced to bring down their curtains indefinitely. Riverside was one week into the musical “La Cage Aux Folles” (with productions of “Bakersfield Mist” and “The Bodyguard” still to come), and the Theatre Guild was shut down during their ambitious production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” (with “Moonlight & Magnolias” and the Apron Series production of “Death of a Salesman” up next).

“When we closed, Allen (Cornell, Riverside’s artistic director/CEO) said it was one of the most difficult decisions he’d ever made, because the theater had never closed a complete production before,” recalls Oscar Sales, Riverside’s marketing director. “Theaters have never experienced something like this.”

Jon Putzke, VBTG board president, shared that after all the hard work and expense that had gone into “Jesus Christ Superstar,” its closure after one week was “heartbreaking.” To enhance the musicality of the rock opera, the theater had even purchased 16 new body microphones. All is not lost: The Theatre Guild now plans to reopen with the production next Jan. 8.

Riverside also had to cancel its annual fundraising gala, scheduled to take place one day after performances were halted.

“I really want to give a shout-out to the sponsors and everyone who purchased tickets and who donated that money to the theater to make sure that we were OK,” says Sales. “People weren’t asking for their money back. They didn’t get a product but they still allowed us to keep the funds from the gala, which is amazing.”

Fortunately, that support, paired with good management, enabled Riverside to fulfill payment to everyone under contract for the canceled shows.

In these unprecedented times, Riverside and the Theatre Guild are reviewing all their options and taking things one day at a time.

“We have various scenarios on the table, but until we can determine what conditions are like come September, no hard decisions will be made,” says Cornell.

In the meantime, on May 29 and 30, Riverside will reopen its free Live in the Loop outdoor concerts, as well as their popular Comedy Zone performances, held in the Waxlax Theatre. Both will have limited seating to comply with state guidelines, and each will offer optional dining, with servers taking orders and delivering the refreshments to your table.

Initial plans call for 80 seats outside and 40 seats inside, which could be increased if all goes well and as guidelines permit.

And, while the outdoor concerts will remain free and open to the public, everyone will be required to obtain a complementary ticket to uphold the seating capacity. Paid tickets will continue to be required for the Comedy Zone.

“We can’t have people just showing up. In the past, on some heavy weekends, we’ve had 300 or 400 people outside and we can’t have that, at least for the time being,” Sales explains.

Except while eating and drinking, everyone (including staff) must wear a face mask while walking about the campus or entering the building.

Applying its ‘show must go on’ mentality, the Theatre Guild has entered the virtual realm. The brainchild of VBTG volunteer Debbie Brandauer, they have introduced Monologue Mondays, with actors presenting monologues, and a Digital Theatre on Fridays, featuring 10-minute plays or musical numbers with a limited cast of characters.

“It’s comprised of a variety of things being done through a Zoom account. The actors are not in the same building or are sometimes miles apart from one another. These are either scripted things that she has picked up as royalty-free online, or has contacted authors who have been very gracious in saying ‘please use them.’ They’re trying to keep theater alive as well,” says Putzke.

“We’re going to continue that even after we reopen. It seems to be a fun, popular thing, and it’s the new wave of theater, I think.”

Looking ahead, Sales notes that Kevin Quillinan, director of Theatre Education, is looking into what to do about Summer Camp performances, scheduled for the end of June and July. Also at play is the August Riverside Dance Festival in partnership with Ballet Vero Beach, which is preceded by a two-week intensive dance program.

“We’re all navigating new uncharted waters. Every day is a question mark,” says Sales, adding that there is also the question of what to do about Riverside’s annual Friends Fall Luncheon and Festival of Trees.

“They’re coming up with Plan Bs if Plan A, which is the actual event as it normally is, doesn’t happen. It also is a mental thing with regards to theater. It’s one thing to have the Comedy Zone and Live on the Loop, but our bread and butter is theater,” Sales explains.

Riverside’s first show of the season, “Almost Heaven: Songs of John Denver,” is scheduled to begin Oct. 27, but if needed, the show could possibly be rescheduled to the end of the season. However, he says that extending the length of main season shows to compensate for having to sell fewer seats isn’t an option because of the domino effect. The theater needs time between performances to tear down and put up sets and allow actors to rehearse in the space.

The Theatre Guild, which had planned to open its 2020-21 season on July 15, has now revamped their entire season, including carrying over three of the previously scheduled 2020-21 shows into the following season.

“We took a survey with our customers about a month ago, and the feeling is most people are going to be ready to come back in the fall or could wait a month or two after restrictions have been lifted,” says Putzke. “But of course, you never know. It’s amazing how it’s changing every single day.”

Sales says theaters throughout the country are watching what Broadway does; projections of its reopening range from as early as this fall to as late as January or beyond.

“If that is indeed the case – and again, it’s a wait and see – then more than likely it will be up to the local theater communities throughout the country to start theater up again and not rely on Broadway,” says Sales.

While a Broadway reopening would be a huge shot in the arm for theaters everywhere, Sales feels that if Broadway delays until January or even the spring, the onus would be on regional theaters in safe areas to open up and give the boost to Broadway – and its unemployed actors.

Both theaters are also addressing the issue of maintaining the health and safety of theater patrons, staff and volunteers.

At the Theatre Guild, a specially appointed team of board members is carefully reviewing a 30-page Event Safety Alliance Reopening Guide, published by the ESA, which addresses those health and sanitary issues.

At Riverside, Jon Moses, managing director/COO, is working on the delineation of auditorium seating, and they are also looking into new cleaning methods.

Sales says that the electrostatic disinfectant spraying used by airlines “looks promising, but there’s a demand for it. Just like the scarcity of certain paper products, the question is, can we get it.”

Sales and Putzke say they are very appreciative of the overwhelming support given to the theaters by patrons and sponsors, and they hope that people continue to do so.

“So far we have been getting contributions without soliciting, and that’s wonderful. It’s always great to know that your followers are out there,” says Putzke.

Putzke is also founder and artistic director of Theatre-Go-Round, and hopes to be able to reopen their dinner theater presentations at Costa d’Este in July, continuing with “The Best of Abba: Thank You for the Music,” which closed prematurely on its one-year anniversary.

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