GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — John Vesbit is probably speaking for the whole theater community in looking forward to the time when they will be permitted to have full houses. “I think it's going to feel like a huge weight has been taken off all of our shoulders,” he says wistfully.
Vesbit’s title at Circle Theatre is experience manager, and he can recite all the ways the company has adjusted to COVID limitations on live performances, from seating to tickets.
What Circle Theatre never gave up in the past year was performing. Everyone knows the show must go on.
In 2020, the show and the stage was a little different, that’s all.
“It did feel like we were reinventing the wheel at one point,” recalls executive director Lynne Brown Tepper. “last summer we were able to produce some concerts, and we partnered with Wealthy Theater for a movie series.”
But it was quiet in the arena style theater at the Aquinas Performing Arts Center where Circle Theatre productions are usually presented. The lawn and veranda at the arts center, however, were used a lot. A theatre board member used connections to obtain a portable stage, which the company hopes to use in more outdoor performances at their home base and for performances off-site. Tepper even envisions renting out the stage to help with revenue.
The new outdoor performances were well-received. “Our patrons loved it, not just because they got to see some live entertainment but also because they liked being outside and enjoying it,” Tepper said.
Main stage productions for 2021 include outdoor performances of “Always ... Patsy Cline” (June 3-20) and indoor productions of “Cabaret” (July 15-21), “Noises Off” (August 12-21), and “Hair” (Sept. 9-25).
A series of five performances are planned in the Summer Concert Series, but the Magic Circle family series will not return until 2022.
The Circle Pop-Up Series will also be an outdoor feature on select Monday and Tuesday nights, 7 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Planning for a season that may still include some restrictions is complicated. Experience manager Vesbit decribes plans for social distancing indoors and outdoors and the elimination of paper tickets: “Normally, we can seat about 350 persons inside the theater, we cut that down to a max of 83 so we could socially distance people inside of the theater: three seats on all sides, including in front and behind for the groups, whether it's two or four, then all of the seats around them are spaced out, including wearing masks and a check-in process where people aren't using paper tickets anymore. They're just coming in and giving us their name at the front entrance. And then we guide them in.”
“It's been a challenge. But we've been really, really fortunate,” says Tepper. “We've had such wonderful support from the community, whether it's through donations or attending the performances.”