For months, theater seats have been left empty and audience members have stayed home. Stage lights that once shone bright have gone dark. Pricey tickets have been donated and refunded. The COVID-19 pandemic left the performing arts community in Boise in a wake of furloughs, canceled shows and uncertainty. Through it all, the people behind Boise Contemporary Theater, Boise Little Theater and the Idaho Shakespeare Festival remain hopeful.
“We may well be living with coronavirus through next season. So here’s the thing, we have to learn how to live with and how to produce theater with coronavirus, but it has to be safe,” ISF Producing Artistic Director Charles Fee said. “Our goal in trying to open a play this summer, in August, and running it through September is really for us to say to our community and our industry, ‘You can do this, and you can do it safely.’”
Tentpole arts organizations across the Treasure Valley have gotten creative in the wake of COVID-19, exploring how to reopen and getting the approval of unions and government organizations, while also weathering hits to their revenue. If all goes according to plan, Boise Little Theater will reopen on Friday, Sept. 4, with its production of The Book of Will by Lauren Gunderson. Though that date is a ways off, the theater is already considering measures like fogging the theater with disinfecting solution, face masks and ordering extra hand sanitizer.
“It has been a hard intermission and Boise Little Theater wants to return to the magic of live theater as safely as we can,” BLT Marketing Associate Jeanna Vickery wrote in an email. “We are all in this together!”
The intermission for Idaho Shakespeare Festival, however, has been extended. Originally, ISF had five plays lined up for its summer season: Much Ado About Nothing, Ain’t Misbehavin’, Henry V, Emma and Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth. The company has since canceled four of those plays, while still holding onto the hope of putting on a smaller scale production of Sleuth. According to Fee, the only way ISF will be able to put on Sleuth is if it can convince three different unions to approve the production.
Fee said given the outdoor nature of ISF—along with other measures the company took, such as setting up a COVID-19 task force to explore safe ways to reopen and choosing to put on a non-musical—the unions were excited about the prospect of ISF reopening. But Fee said when Ada County rolled back to Stage III of the Central District Health’s reopening plan on June 24, it may have put a crimp in the play’s production. After seeing Boise bars get shut down after an influx of COVID-19 cases, Fee said he hopes that CDH will consider reopening approvals on a case-by-case basis, especially given the difference in nature between zealous crowds rushing to the bars and an audience enjoying an outdoor play.
“Is it possible that we can create circumstances for performance in a space like the Idaho Shakespeare Festival, that will be unique to the Shakespeare Festival and will be safe for our audience, our acting company, and our community?” Fee said. “We believe that we can do that. But we have to convince a lot of people to take that risk with us.”
Should ISF get the green light to reopen, patrons will be required to wear masks and will be socially distanced from the moment they step out of their cars. The theater’s normal 800-person capacity will be slashed to 300. Additionally, the Shakespeare Cafe will be closed, but patrons can still bring their own picnics to enjoy.
While ISF won’t profit financially from this extra effort to put on a play, the company was in a good position going into the pandemic, which helped take the brunt off some of the initial impact, and has allowed them to explore new models that other theaters can use to safely reopen. Boise Contemporary Theater was not nearly as lucky. Even after finishing the fiscal year with a large surplus, the company recently had to furlough four of its six staff members.
“I was a mess. I was incredibly emotional, and while I know in my rational brain that there is nothing more that we could have done, I still felt, and feel, a personal responsibility to everyone who works there,” Ben Burdick wrote in an email. “We started off 2020 with two really wonderful shows… Then… came this screeching halt that we all felt like a punch to the gut.”
Burdick is the producing artistic director for BCT. Despite the furloughs and the cancellation of spring shows, he is optimistic the theater will return for its fall season. Although he doesn’t quite know what social distancing procedures will have to be put in place yet, Burdick said he imagines the staff will have to take some additional sanitation precautions. He said it’s possible that social distancing will have to be enforced by having the audience skip rows and seats to ensure more space between people.
According to Burdick, while it’s “surreal” to envision the audience wearing masks and spaced out, BCT will do whatever it takes to ensure the safety of its staff and audience while also getting back to production. Burdick said he hopes production will be able to begin in August.
“I’m most excited that we get back to telling stories and providing a gathering place for the community to share these stories, and have conversations about them and live in this wonderful world of theater and storytelling in the arts,” Burdick said.