A visitor to the Warehouse Theatre in March 2020 would have been able to take in a rehearsal of Roald Dahl’s “Matilda the Musical.” They would have seen actors young and old learning lines. They would have heard harmonies being formed, and they’d have seen footwork becoming fluid. The costumer was taking measurements. The marketing gears were in motion. The creative production team was putting its vision into action. The process of creating an artistic and entertaining musical was crackling with electricity.
Then on March 13, the coronavirus became real. And as it did for countless businesses and operations all over the nation, the pandemic caused a short-
circuit in local theater.
Just like that, the 35-plus children, women and men who had been so actively engaged were suddenly forced to stay home and shelter in place as rehearsals were suspended.
And then on May 29, the Warehouse canceled the show; on July 13, the entire season was lost. No live shows have been performed in the space since.
With only a few exceptions, theaters around the world were forced to make the same decision. That’s because by its very nature, a live theater hall is a place where COVID-19 would just love to hang out. Audiences and actors, stage crew and technicians all breathe the same air in these spaces.
“Speaking the speech” creates aerosol mist, and aerosol mist is the reason for mask mandates. Many a director has implored a cast to “hit those P’s, D’s and T’s” to fully articulate a line. Doing it right generally results in a bit of a shower. It sounds scary today — and maybe even a little disgusting — but there is an adage in theater that says, “If the front row isn’t getting wet, you’re not speaking clearly.”
All of this to say that the news of the CDC and governor’s office relaxing mask recommendations and mandates last week was, well, a breath of fresh air.
The notion that vaccines are now approved and recommended for anyone 12 and older is a genuine source of hope. Knowing that indoor spectator events will no longer have limits on the number of vaccinated attendees brings a sigh of relief. And the possibility of a June 30 state reopening date as announced last Thursday is downright inspirational. Theaters throughout Washington can’t help but view this as a light at the end of a very trying and frightening tunnel.
In the words of Nick Streuli, executive director of external affairs for the Office of the Governor, “We’ve all come together this year to keep our friends, family members and neighbors safe, and today we’re taking a major step to celebrate that success and continue a robust recovery.” Streuli could have been speaking for the Warehouse Theatre Company.
As the end of May is right around the corner, it’s highly unlikely that the WTC will mount a summer musical this year. There simply isn’t time to get rights to a show, recruit a production team, select a cast and find a musical director. However, a four-show-season that would start near the end of September has been tentatively approved by the WTC board.
Of course, the logistics of welcoming an audience back to live performances pose other challenges. Any theater looking to reopen will have to establish new policies and procedures. Things like touchless ticketing and electronic programs may need to be put in place. Plans for safe entrance and exit will need to be drawn up. Cleaning and sanitation upgrades will have to happen. In short, theaters will need to learn a lot from those businesses that have survived the shutdown.
It has become clear that one key part of the fight against COVID is having proper air transfer. The WTC has faced this issue head on thanks to the generosity of a former company member. Martha Stadelman, now a resident of Ashland, Ore., answered the WTC’s call for support to upgrade the HVAC system in the theater. The Warehouse has now fully replaced three HVAC units in the theater thanks to her gifts.
Certainly, every live theater venue in the state was listening closely to Gov. Jay Inslee last week. Hearing him say that, “What we know now gives us the confidence to close this chapter in this pandemic and begin another” had to inspire each one. They’re crossing their collective fingers that patrons will continue to get fully vaccinated so restrictions can be minimal.
That may leave only one question: “To mask or not to mask?”