Many businesses have felt the impact of COVID-19, but according to San Luis Obispo Repertory Theatre (SLOREP) artistic director Kevin Harris, among the most affected businesses in San Luis Obispo County are local theater.
Harris said that the theater business relies on large gatherings of people indoors for extended periods of time.
“Before the pandemic, SLOREP was producing 18 shows a season on 44 out of 52 weeks each and every year,” Harris said. “The most pressing challenge we immediately faced was simply figuring out the mechanics of cancellations on that scale.”
Theaters across the country were not prepared to tackle such a crisis, and it took several weeks for the SLOREP staff to contact the thousands of patrons who had already purchased tickets for the remainder of the season, Harris said.
“Happily, the majority of them chose to generously donate the full value of their tickets back to the theater,” Harris said. “We cannot overstate how grateful we were for that initial outpouring of financial support.”
A source of income for many theaters is theater education, which Pacific Conservatory Theatre (PCPA) in Santa Maria has continued.
According to a September press release on PCPA’s news blog, they are offering two 12-part series of virtual programming for youth. This new education initiative includes 20 interactive workshops for K-12 students held over Zoom or Google Meet, according to their website.
SLOREP education director Kerry DiMaggio said COVID-19 regulations may prevent youth from engaging with theater education more.
“I’m so proud to say that the students who come through our doors almost always have a positive experience and are excited to recommend that experience to their friends,” DiMaggio said. “We realized pretty quickly that to remain closed for any length of time would mean to lose — or at least slow — that wonderful momentum.”
SLOREP’s education initiative, the Academy of Creative Theatre (ACT), has focused on keeping an active connection with their students through social media and weekly theater education “challenges” called the ACT Spotlight, DiMaggio said.
“We’ve got a core group of students who are still engaged and looking forward to auditioning and performing again as soon as we’re safely able,” DiMaggio said.
Like most other educational programs, a lot of what SLOREP has begun to do is now virtual. The very small groups of in-person classes that they are able to hold are all socially distanced, DiMaggio said.
“Because theater is, by its very nature, such a physical art form, it’s been quite a challenge to reimagine and reinvent our curriculum in a way that allows for physical distance between students,” DiMaggio said. “But sometimes constraints can be a good thing, right?”
DiMaggio said that SLOREP has made an effort to introduce students to some of the aspects of theater education outside of performing, such as implementing mini-units on scenic and costume design within their classes. They are also offering an Introduction to Technical Theatre class this year.
“These are things that wouldn’t normally be part of our offerings a year ago, and which we’ll certainly continue to offer,” DiMaggio said.
While virtual experiences have been implemented by many theaters, according to theatre arts senior Isabella Ramirez there is still something missing from these kinds of experiences.
“The thing I miss the most about attending live theater is watching a story come to life in real time,” Ramirez said. “Although I have watched, and greatly enjoyed, shows presented over Zoom or that were prerecorded, there is something so visceral about being in the room with artists and experiencing the creation of art firsthand.”
Harris similarly expressed that Zoom productions and virtual presentations of shows are difficult for him to enjoy.
“The staff knew from the beginning that we did not want to produce anything virtually that we would not want to watch ourselves,” Harris said.
Harris said SLOREP then decided to produce something different to maintain that “all-important connection” with their local audience.
“We landed on ‘The Intermission Show,’ a bi-weekly talk show hosted by me, in which I show videos submitted by SLOREP artists and collaborators from across the country,” Harris said.
The show is available to watch on YouTube, and it has allowed SLOREP to retain a consistent connection with their supporters, Harris said.
“Of course, we never expected to be shut down for seven plus months,” Harris said. “We are now up to 60 plus episodes and are very proud to have created over 700 minutes of completely original content for our audiences.”
Despite difficulties from COVID-19 restrictions, Harris said he believes that live theater is not going anywhere.
“We’ve been adapting for thousands of years,” Harris said. “Theater is the only art form that incorporates all other art forms — dance, visual arts, music, video, sound, etcetera — and nothing will ever replace the live experience of seeing a group of actors and artists present a story in real time for a group of human beings gathered together in one place.”
Ramirez also said she is confident that theater will reemerge as a staple of the arts.
“My goals for my career in theater have not changed,” Ramirez said. “I do think that what we are currently experiencing is temporary, but my interests moving forward with theater are still possible in the times we are currently living in.”
Theater will continue to exist, as it gives people the opportunity to experience a situation that they may not otherwise be presented with, Ramirez said.
“Theater has the remarkable ability to tell stories with messages that can be understood regardless of place and time, and this is something that is vital to maintaining and strengthening our connections with others,” Ramirez said.