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Hawaii theater groups cope with COVID

Concerns about COVID-19 reached Hawaii in March. By the end of the month, Hawaii’s vibrant theater groups were all on lockdown. When the 2019-20 season ended it was with the expectation that everything would be back to normal in time for the 2020-21 season to start on schedule in late July.

It wasn’t — and it still isn’t. Oahu’s major community theater groups are coping with a new normal that makes traditional “butts in seats” theater impossible.

Kevin Keaveney and Kailua Onstage Arts presented a staged reading of a long-lost Marx Brothers radio show, “Flywheel, Shyster & Flywheel,” under a canopy in a Kailua parking lot in July. Cast members remained 6 feet apart while performing; ticket buyers were asked to bring their own chairs, remain in their assigned seating area with each group 6 feet apart, and to wear masks.

Hawaii Shakespeare Festival Founder/Director Tony Pisculli presented all three of this year’s plays as live virtual productions. Cast members — most of them in Hawaii, some in other parts of the country — performed in individual isolation for audiences that were potentially worldwide.

Kumu Kahua Theatre went virtual Thursday when it opened its 50th season with the world premiere of “Lovey Lee,” a locally written drama about the experiences of a gay prostitute in Hawaii and San Francisco in the 1970s.

“We are definitely going to stream the first two shows of our season,” Kumu Kahua Managing Director Donna Blanchard said via email on opening night. “After that, we will keep an eye on the situation and adjust accordingly, (but) we are prepared to offer our entire season online, if necessary.”

“We know it’s a big pivot for people to accept an online version of live theater as the theater they know and love, but we think our viewers will be amazed at what we are able to offer digital payers,” she said. “Also, our ticket prices are lower (this year), and if you stream onto your TV, an entire household can watch for the price of one ticket. We have ramped up our donation and sponsor drives, as well as grant applications to offset the income loss.”

Pisculli said that going virtual this year gave Hawaii Shakespeare Festival new options and broader exposure.

“We were able to include actors we normally wouldn’t have had the opportunity to work with, we were able to share our work with audience members around the globe — with viewers from five continents — and we were able to participate in what is emerging as a new medium. I believe online, live performances will continue to evolve, even after things return to normal — whatever and whenever that is.”

Diamond Head Theatre introduced another way to comply with the city’s fluid social distancing policies while also accommodating well-founded public concerns when its Sunset Serenade Fall Drive-In Concert Series began in August. Well-known DHT stage veterans — Laurence Paxton, Aiko Schick, Drew Niles, Mary Chesnut Hicks, Andrew Sakaguchi and Lindsay Rabe, among them — perform on the elevated balcony at the back of the theater to an audience watching and listening in the comfort of their cars in the DHT parking lot.

The concert sound is heard through the car radio. DHT Executive Director Deena Dray spoke from personal experience when she described the sound quality as “like being in the theater.”

“(The series) has been wildly popular, so we are happy to be able to offer at least a sliver of live entertainment, even if it is from a stage high above the DHT parking lot!”

So popular in fact that remaining shows in the series are sold out.

Looking forward, Dray said that DHT “is closely reviewing its plans for programming on every level” while the city’s policies on public gatherings and social distancing remain in flux.

A long-term challenge for all community theater groups is revenue. The current model for streaming shows doesn’t generate anywhere near the amount that comes in when each person in a theater audience has purchased an individual ticket to get in.

But what limits might the city set when it allows theaters to reopen? Will audiences return?

“We have passionate fans who would come to the theater tomorrow and sit shoulder to shoulder if it meant they could see a live performance. Others are not willing to come back until there is a vaccine,” Manoa Valley Theatre Executive Director Kip Wilborn said. Looking at things from a dollars-and-cents angle, Wilborn said that rules limiting theaters to a percentage of their intended design capacity could be problematic.

“If you have a 300-seat house, it makes sense that 150 is your 50% (of capacity) number. Here’s the caveat, if it’s 50% with distancing, the amount of space available with distancing reduces the capacity to about 33% or 100 seats. If your financial model is based on 66% capacity, it stands to reason that you can’t survive on 33% of that.”

For the foreseeable future, Wilborn said, MVT will “continue to be creative and provide digital content for our patrons as well as explore some outdoor concert opportunities. As for 2021, providing we are allowed to have an audience, we expect smaller audiences, particularly initially, which really disappoints me because we have an awesome season.”

Brad Powell, artistic director of The Actors’ Group, said his group’s 50-seat theater is already too small to make operating at half that or less financially viable. TAG also has been shut down since March.

“We’re surviving (now) thanks to the kindness of our regular patrons. We have been receiving many donations which are helping keep us afloat,” he said Thursday. “We had wanted to reopen the theater in November, but with the continuation of the lockdown we have had to revise that. Betty Burdick will be directing our first Zoom production. It will open on Nov. 12.”

TAG is looking at some other options. Powell has been in touch with a mainland playwright who specializes in plays written for performance in a Zoom format. There’s also the possibility of using Powell’s experience as a television producer to write and record TAG shows. They would not be live performances but could have more elaborate production values than is currently possible with Zoom.

In Kailua, Keaveney is trying to make the best of things. The seven-month shutdown cost KOA its storefront theater space, but for now it has a place to stage plays. KOA’s next two shows will be under the aforementioned canopy in the parking lot.

“One will run the last week in October — we’re doing an adaptation of (Alfred) Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds,’ which is actually an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s book, ‘The Birds’ — and then in November I’m going to do a one-man show on ‘The Iliad,’ ” Keaveney said. “ We’re going to try a little bit of a different setup as an actual drive-in theater and our actors will be miked and broadcast right into the cars themselves.”

“I myself don’t really see indoor theater happening until next summer at the earliest, and I think there are enough people who are interested in still seeing live theater, even if it is not the live theater experience (to which) we have all become accustomed. We’re going to try to stick out the rest of the season through next summer in the parking lot — or in other creative spaces if we find other spaces that will serve our needs. After that we’ll be looking for a new home.”


>> Diamond Head Theatre,

>> Manoa Valley Theatre,

>> Kumu Kahua Theatre,

>> The Actors’ Group,

>> Kailua Onstage Arts,

>> Hawaii Shakespeare Festival,

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