Stage Left, Spokane Civic Theatre pivot online during pandemic

·4 min read

Apr. 29—Virtual concerts and comedy shows don't have the impact of live performance. However, theater, which doesn't break the fourth wall, is another story. That's what Jeremy Whittington discovered during the pandemic.

The managing and artistic director of Stage Left Theater started airing online theater productions in August, which were successful. "We've done two main stage productions and multiple festivals since last summer, and it's been nonstop since then," Whittington said.

Stage Left is in fine shape, according to Whittington, since it has made money with productions from the last eight months, and its staff is volunteer. "We're doing well financially," Whittington said. "Most of our online production dollars have been through donations. We didn't charge for festivals, but we did for the two one-person productions."

The silver lining of the pandemic for Stage Left is that the theater has discovered a new business model. "We're never going back to relying on in-person production," Whittington said. "The future is in-person and livestream for those at home. We've seen how it works not just in community theater, but look at HBO Max and films in theaters. You can watch a film at home or go to the theater. You have to adapt, or you will not survive."

Thanks to an online partnership with other community theaters across the country, such as Teatro Audaz, a San Antonio community theater, Stage Left offers additional productions such as the Texas venue's "Curanberas and Chocolate," which will stream via Stage Left from May 5-9.

"Empower," an all-female production, which will run June 26, features new works from playwrights around the world. The theme is how women define being empowered.

"Words That Changed the World," which will run July 3 and 4, will feature historical speeches throughout history. Speeches range from Abraham Lincoln's Gettsyburg Address and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" oration to Ronald Reagan's "Challenger Speech."

"We're excited about our future," Whittington said. "We're looking forward to in-person and continuing to go livestream."

The Spokane Civic Theatre has a staff but also discovered there is a market for online productions during the last quarter of 2020. Civic streamed a young artist showcase for teenage performers and "A Christmas Carol," which aired via Spokane Public Radio.

Will Civic continue to stream shows when its doors open? "Absolutely," said Jake Schaefer, Spokane Civic Theater's creative director. "We will do it, but we will do it irregularly when we open the doors."

Like every other venue, money is needed to propel the facility and organization. "Our venue is a beast and costs so much every month with utilities and everything," Schaefer said.

Civic, which requires more than $10,000 a month for operations, has been fortunate enough to receive considerable support during the long period of darkness. "Donations and sponsorships have been instrumental for us to survive this pause," Schaefer said. "We also were subsidized by grants, which are huge for a nonprofit. Grants are what we need to survive."

Civic is preparing for reopening, but, like all venues, they're not all the way there since no one knows what will be required for safety.

"We're getting close, but it's a fool's errand to conceptualize what will be necessary for patrons and staff," Schaefer said. "We can budget for next season until we're blue in the face, but it won't matter."

Schaefer realizes that live entertainment will be the last industry to come back. "There's no doubt about that," Schaefer said. "We have people breathing in the same space. It's safety first. That's our responsibility."

But Schaefer is excited about the day when shows will return. "I'm an optimist," Schaefer said. "I'm confident we'll be back sometime soon. I'm a planner, so I'm very much looking forward to it. In one way, it will be unimaginable when we come back. It will be a privilege to be in the building with the community again. I'm looking forward to being part of the new normal."

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