As the Civic Theatre’s 2020-2021 season approached, the Civic Theatre staff and board of directors had a big decision to make.
Across the country, theater troupes and groups were delaying their seasons for six months or canceling them outright.
COVID-19 has made the whole prospect of profitable (or, at least, not-too-unprofitable) theater more remote.
The Civic’s executive director and artistic director Philip Colglazier said he was sitting in on a meeting of arts professionals and something caught his ear.
“The one item that kept coming up is that people felt more comfortable outside and attending events that are outside,” he said. “The word outside stuck in my mind: ‘Outside, outdoors…Foellinger!’”
Thus, it came to pass that the Civic Theatre arranged to move its season opener, Legally Blonde The Musical, from Arts United Center to the Foellinger Theatre. The show will be performed five times from Friday, Aug. 7, to Sunday, Aug. 9.
The second show of the Civic’s season, an all-female production of 1776, will also happen at the Foellinger Theatre for two weekends starting Sept. 12. 1776 is the recipient of an NEA grant, Colglazier said.
This move to the Foellinger could not have happened if the covered, outdoor venue in Franke Park had been experiencing anything like a normal summer season.
Like other venues that host national acts, the Foellinger was temporarily shuttered by the postponement or cancellation of most national tours.
Bringing a show to the Foellinger allows the Civic to offer socially distanced seating without having the whole enterprise be an exercise in futility.
“With the Arts United Center, we can normally seat about 630 seats,” Colglazier said. “With social distancing, we can only sell 160 tickets. That wouldn’t even honor our sponsors.”
The Foellinger Theatre, on the other hand, seats 2,751 patrons. With social distancing, the seating capacity is somewhere between 400 and 500.
Of course, for the Foellinger to seat above 400 in these unusual and perilous times, Gov. Holcomb must decide to move Indiana on to the next stage. Otherwise, the seating capacity for each of these Legally Blonde performances will be capped at 250.
Recapturing its past
Even though the Foellinger Theatre hasn’t been known for hosting theatrical productions in recent years, live theatre was part of its raison d’être.
“It was developed, much under the guidance of Helene Foellinger, to be a summer home for the Fort Wayne Philharmonic and to be able to host big traveling live theater,” said Mitch Sheppard, a deputy director for community outreach in the Fort Wayne Parks Department. “Mitzi Gaynor graced our stage.”
The 61-year-old theater has successfully reinvented itself several times over the years, she said, but the challenges of 2020 have no parallel.
Whereas 400 to 500 patrons might be attractive to a regional theater troupe, it’s the sort of number that keeps national acts from hitting the road.
“Most shows that are fee-based aren’t going to be able to function in that environment,” Shepherd said. “Because of the expenses that would need to be paid, the cost per ticket would be astronomical. Most cash-based performances, either ones that we offer ourselves or ones that are offered by our renting promoters, just couldn’t even break even. And that’s why we are not doing any of our own commercial shows.”
All national shows have been deferred until next year, she said.
This cloud has a sliver lining, however, Shepherd said. Collaborating with the Civic allows the Foellinger to return to its roots.
“The thing with the Civic is sort of like, ‘Everything old is new again,’” she says. “It’s lovely to have live theater return to that stage. It’s a massive, gorgeous stage.”
Ironically, the director of Legally Blonde has been involved with theatrical productions at the Foellinger in the past. And the connection is wholly serendipitous.
Beth Turcotte recently retired after a 37-year career in the Ball State University theater department. She retired to Fort Wayne to care for her mother. Turcotte said Ball State used to bring theatrical shows to the Foellinger Theatre.
Turcotte agreed to direct the show a year ago, long before a change of venues was discussed and long before a reason existed to have such a discussion.
The rehearsal process for Legally Blonde in the Arts United Center rehearsal space has involved masks and shields, she said.
“Everyone wears masks and there are shields that the Civic has provided,” Turcotte said. “Every time you come on or off stage, there’s hand sanitizer. Every time a prop is used, it’s cleaned. Any time a chair is used, it’s sprayed down. At the end of the evening, everything is disinfected.”
She admits that is has been a little awkward rehearsing a musical with mask-wearing singers.
“They’re only getting three-quarters of their sound,” Turcotte said. “Plus, they’re hot and uncomfortable. But everyone was so happy to do something positive and creative in their lives that they’ve just been champions.”
It’s all been challenging, but unexpected challenges are to be expected in live theater, she said.
“It’s fine,” Turcotte said. “It’s an opportunity and an experience under whatever conditions you have. We’re up for any type of challenge, whether it’s social or political or COVID-19.”
Shepherd said the Foellinger has waved its usual rental fee for the Civic shows. And the Foellinger’s regular concessionaires will be on duty, so the food and drink options should be somewhat more elaborate than what is usually offered at the Arts United Center.
Patrons must mask up when moving about the facility, but they can take their masks off while seated, Colglazier said.
As for upcoming shows that will happen in the cold-weather months, Colglazier said the Civic is negotiating with area indoor venues where the seating capacity is considerably larger than that of the Arts United Center.
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