The summer of 2020 has been challenging for everybody, but especially for people who sing for a living.
If you have COVID-19, singing seems to be a great way to spread it.
Community theater honchos contemplating long-scheduled-but-freshly-threatened productions have had two choices: ingenuity or surrender.
The staff at the Wagon Wheel Theatre in Warsaw decided to get creative about a production of Always…Patsy Cline. They’re having it under a tent in the parking lot throughout the month of August.
Hearkening back to history
There is ample precedent for this.
The Wagon Wheel started under a tent 65 years ago, according to artistic director Scott Michaels.
“It was a tent playhouse for years,” he said. “Then they put up some walls, but it was still open air. We still have subscribers who remember the tent and how hot it was underneath there and how fun it was, too.”
The 2020 edition of the tent will be a bit different from the 20th century version.
Only the performers will be under it. The patrons will be in the parking lot watching from their own chairs, cars, and blankets.
“It’ll be just like a tailgate party at a baseball game,” Michaels said. “There will be general seating like at a concert in the park. It’ll have a drive-in movie feel.”
What makes this enterprise safe for Michaels and the actors is their closeness off-stage.
Always…Patsy Cline is about the real-life friendship between the legendary country singer and a Houston fan named Louise Seger.
Segar is played by Michaels’ wife, Jennifer Dow. Kira Lace Hawkins plays Cline. All three are on staff at the Wagon Wheel. Hawkins is the theater’s education director and Segar is Michaels’ assistant.
Throughout the pandemic, the trio has occupied the same “bubble,” Michaels said.
“We’ve been working together,” he said. “We did the kids’ camps together. We’ve been pretty much isolating. We’ve all taken COVID tests and we’re all negative.
“We’re really fortunate that our staff is able to pull off this show and not have to get people from other parts of the country,” Michaels said. “There’s no way to be 100 percent safe. You can go to the store or to the gas station and get COVID. But I feel safer in our environment than I do at the grocery store.”
“It’s nice that we can make it work,” Hawkins said. “I have to imagine that we’re in a unique position, that we happen to have professional actors that are also on staff.”
Recreating an icon
COVID-19 isn’t the only perilous thing about participating in this production. There’s also the significant challenge of trying to recreate a real person as well-known and well-loved as Cline.
Hawkins said she didn’t really know much about country music when she started preparing for this production.
“So it’s been a pretty steep learning curve,” she said. “I grew up in Minnesota, so I wasn’t even as close to country music as we are here in Indiana.”
What Hawkins did to prepare is listen to a lot of recordings.
“There are those iconic, stylistic things she does,” Hawkins said. “So when I can, I honor her by adding those things in. She was also known so much for the cry in her voice, for her ability to get so much emotion into her songs. So I’ve just been trying to do my version of what she did so amazingly.”
Hawkins said she would never pretend herself capable of approaching Cline’s genius.
“I am just trying to have that spirit of honoring her music and the way she entertained the masses,” she said.
In her short career (and life), Cline established and maintained personal connections with fans in much the same way that performers do now digitally.
“Patsy was known for really corresponding well with fans and kind of making friends with a lot of her fans,” Hawkins said. “I read a book of Patsy’s letters to someone who would eventually become the president of her fan club. It’s obvious that Patsy cared individually and deeply for her fans and was passionate about communicating with them.”
Twenty songs a show
The show features 20 songs that are associated with Cline, Michaels said. A live band will accompany Hawkins but will do so from the safety (in both the meteorological and contagiousness senses) of the Wagon Wheel building.
The live music will be piped out, as opposed to being piped in.
Because the Wagon Wheel was forced to cancel its summer season, Always…Patsy Cline will perform the vital task for the theater of being a fundraiser.
“We were unable to do any other show,” Michaels said. “We are trying to recoup some of the funds we’ve lost over the summer, trying to stay open, trying to survive, trying to get to the point where theaters are allowed to have large gatherings. We just don’t know when that will be.”
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