WLAA Exclusive: Local Theaters and HS productions dealing with pandemic fallout

By Jen DeGregorio / WLAA

When my now 12 year old son Adam was just 5 years old, I took him to see the stage production of Pinoccio at Riverside Arts Center in Ypsilanti.  It was our first time attending a live show together, and I wasn’t sure if he would be able to sit still through the 2 hour performance.  30 minutes into the show I glanced over at him. His mouth was open, eyes wide, and he was fully entranced.  As we walked out of the theater, my shy little boy looked at me and said, “Mom. I want to do that.”

Thus began my entry into the world of theater.  A shy child myself, the theatrical world was entirely foreign to me.  I had no idea how many hours went into each production,  fueled almost entirely by the infectious enthusiasm of the cast and crew.

Now, seven years and numerous shows later, I’ve learned why theater is so important to our community.  I’ve watched so many children, so shy in their auditions, find their voice and their sense of self by the end of a production with a community theater.  I’ve seen adults who work full time office jobs step on a stage and completely transform.  As an outsider, it’s a powerful thing to watch.

Like many small businesses around the country, theaters across Washtenaw County have been devastated by the impact of COVID-19.  Not only has the shutdown taken a financial toll on some of the county’s professional theaters, but also forced all productions from community theater to high school spring performances to come to a halt.

I spoke to some of Washtenaw Counties seniors that were planning to be part of their high school’s final performances.  For some, missing their final curtain call is even more heartbreaking than losing out on their senior prom.

Elena Garcia-Schroder is a senior at Skyline High School and has been performing in more than 20 theater productions throughout Washtenaw County since she was in just third grade.  In the fall, she plans to double major in Musical Theatre and Political Science studies at Northwestern University.  Despite the number of shows under her belt, she was most excited about what was intended to be her final stage debut in her high school’s spring performance of “The Little Mermaid.”

“I was beyond nervous about the audition for The Little Mermaid, not so much because of the actual audition requirements, but because of how much my last high school show meant to me,” said Elena.  She had been dreaming of playing the iconic role of Ariel her whole life.  When she found out she did indeed score the lead part, Elena was ecstatic.

Then, just weeks into her bliss, COVID-19 crashed into our world and Elena learned the show had been cancelled.

“I was absolutely devastated,” said Elena.  “I cried harder than I ever have before.  I still ache when I think about the losses of everyone experiencing this pandemic, but specifically artists during this time of quarantine. I can’t wait until this is all over. It’s hard to find motivation to create without the ability to collaborate.”

The Dexter Drama Club (the theater group for Dexter High School) had been planning to end the season with their stage production of CLUE.  The show, meant to open on April 30th, was to have taken place at the Dexter Center for Performing Arts.

“The cast and crew were really looking forward to navigating through the murder mystery on stage in a 9 room, 3 story set,” said Martin Ruhlig, Theatre Director for Dexter Community Schools.  He is still hopeful that the show could safely be produced over the summer months, “if restrictions are lifted.”

Among the cast and crew of CLUE were four Dexter High School seniors, equally excited to be a part of their very last high school performance.  All four agreed that being a part of the Drama Club positively defined much of their high school experience.

Angela Garza

Angela Garza, who had been in more than 11 productions with Dexter Drama Club, was cast as Miss Scarlet.  She explained how DDC “gave us the opportunity to escape from the stresses of high school.  It allowed me to grow individually, learn more about myself and step out of my comfort zone.”

Bailey Scheller, the production stage manager for the show, said “Between working costumes and stage management, I’ve been able to gain experience in leadership roles that I would not have gotten otherwise.  Working as a technician on shows has made me realize that I want to continue theatre in some form after high school.”

The DDC president, Victoria Ward, attributes most of her friendships to being a part of the drama club.  She moved to Dexter just before her Freshman year and decided to be a part of the Fall show.  During that production, she made bonds with other students that hold strong to this day.  When she heard that Clue would not be performed in April as planned, Victoria, who was cast as Mrs. White, was devastated.

“Every year there has been a sense of finality to the spring show,” said Victoria.  “Everything seems so much more important and it’s an opportunity for seniors to have their last hurrah before going there separate ways.”

Anna Withrow, who was responsible for creating all of the hairstyles for Clue, adds “Every year I have watched seniors receive special acknowledgement through the spring show and have an opportunity to say their final goodbyes.”  She is still hopeful that the show will indeed go on.

All four Dexter High School seniors are confident that if they are somehow able to produce the show over the summer months, the entire cast and crew would put aside other summer plans to make it happen. “I can’t imagine a better way to end my senior year,” said Anna.  I am not ready to say goodbye to DDC just yet.”

While the seniors involved in theater are experiencing the emotional impact of missing out on yet another high school milestone, community and professional theaters are suffering as well.

Dexter Community Players, a volunteer run community theater group, were forced to cancel their spring musical Great American Trailer Park.  Fortunately, for them, they lease space and equipment as needed, so won’t suffer financially by the loss of the show.  However, “the uncertainty of what will happen with COVID-19 makes it really difficult to plan the rest of the season,” explained Abby Briggs, president of the Dexter Community Players.  “It typically takes 3 months of rehearsals, set builts, etc. to put on a show.  It’s not just something that can happen overnight.”

Other professional theaters, like Ann Arbor’s Theatre Nova, are taking a financial hit and hopeful for community support.  In an email to their patrons, Artistic Directors Diane Hill, Carla Milarch and David Wolber say, “Although it is unclear how long we will be shut down and how that will impact us financially, we are vigorously pursuing all means of supplemental support, through grants and donations.”  Donations can be made through their website or via their Go Fund Me page where donations are being matched up to $1,000.

The Purple Rose Theatre canceled the last three performances of its world premiere of “Roadsigns” by Jeff Daniels and had to stop rehearsals and building the set, costumes, and props for its spring production of “Paint Night” by Carey Crim.

“Keeping up with Michigan executive orders and the need to keep our patrons, staff and artists safe, our hope is to continue with “Paint Night” in early June and run it as our summer show. This is a hope, but may not be possible,” said Katie Hubbard, Managing Director of Purple Rose Theatre. “It depends on when we can safely resume gathering in groups.”

The financial hit to The Purple Rose is substantial.  The loss of their spring production and possible summer production, as well as their summer “Rustic Rose” fundraising event, the theatre will lose $300K-$600K.

The Purple Rose has also applied for multiple COVID-19 Emergency grants to help with continued expenses and was fortunate to have received a grant from the Chelsea Community Foundation to help with general operating expenses.

“We also reached out to our loyal patrons and donors through email and social media to ask for help through donations,” said Hubbard.

In addition, Purple Rose Theatre Founder, Jeff Daniels, set a $20,000 match to online donations that was surpassed by patrons and donors. Jeff Daniels has also scheduled a live stream concert fundraiser for Monday, April 27 at 7:30 p.m. to help support The Purple Rose during this difficult time. This concert will be free to view, but donations are encouraged.

My hope is, like so many other things we used to take for granted, that we re enter the post-COVID world with a bigger appreciation for local theater.  Theaters throughout Washtenaw County enrich not only the lives of those involved in bringing the story to life on stage, but to those of us in the audience, allowing us an escape; an opportunity to look inward and sometimes leave having gained an entirely new perspective on life.