According to Shakespeare, all the world’s a stage, but the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing quarantine resulted in performance theaters across the world to shutter their shows.
But the show must go on, and a year and a half after the March shutdown in Los Angeles County, the live performing arts have returned to Santa Clarita.
“People are anxious and hungry to get back to theater and have that shared experience,” said David Stears, founder and executive director of the Santa Clarita Shakespeare Festival. “Audiences and artists have not had that sustenance.”
Like many theater companies, Santa Clarita Shakespeare pivoted to online shows during the pandemic but eagerly anticipated their return to the stage.
“I’ve seen some great Zoom theater and I’ve seen some horrible Zoom theater, and we did some last year but it’s not the same,” Stears said. “We were getting ready to do something this summer and then news started to bubble that things were going to reopen this June so I thought, like a phoenix out of the ashes of the pandemic, ‘How do we come together as a community?’”
And thus the Phoenix Festival was born. Organized by the Santa Clarita Shakespeare Festival and in partnership with local theater groups like Bridgeway Theatre Company and Hope Theatre Arts, the Phoenix Festival opened on July 17 at The MAIN and features seven different shows including productions of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” and the Starkid musical “The Trail to Oregon.”
Planning for the festival was, according to Stears, “like trying to hit a fly with a peashooter at 100 yards.” During the planning stages it was unknown whether audiences and actors would have to wear masks and would have to social distance, due to public health protocols. Originally the Phoenix festival was to be held outdoors at Newhall Park and even received support from the LA Opera, however as more pandemic restrictions were lifted, the city decided to use that space for a youth summer camp previously cancelled. Stears said that while plans and details kept changing, the festival’s partner groups were committed and willing to work through the setbacks. In a stroke of good fortune, the city agreed to reopen The MAIN early to host the Phoenix Festival.
“Being in a theater makes it even easier to have a different show each night because there’s lights and sound capabilities and bathrooms,” Stears said. “People are still a little cautious about being in a theater, and I get it. You spend a year and a half sheltering in place and it becomes hard to just jump out. The air conditioning in The MAIN is non-circulatory and we have masks, wipes, hand sanitizer and the temperature gun available. It’s all about making people feel comfortable.”
The MAIN itself was not scheduled to open until September, according to Jeff Barber, arts supervisor for the City of Santa Clarita and the manager of The MAIN. However, Santa Clarita Shakespeare assisted in repairs and maintenance, and the theater was able to open early.
“I think especially now people are looking for a diversion from reality, but even in normal times seeing a play or listening to a musician perform is important for people to get lost in creativity,” Barber said. “The place was packed for the opening night of ‘The Trail to Oregon’ and it was so gratifying to hear people talk about how much they needed [to see a live show] as they were leaving.”
Shortly after the quarantine went into effect, Barber and the staff of The MAIN moved their performances from the 81-seat theater to a virtual space, accepting video submissions for the “10 by 10” and “You’re the Best” variety shows and creating the “Stage On Screen” series of virtual plays. Though the online screenings were successful and attracted viewers from around the world, Barber said there are no plans to continue uploading videos with the exception of the “New Heights” artist lecture series.
Barber also used his time during the pandemic to plan for The MAIN’s future programs. For the remainder of the year, the venue will host one-off events like a magic show, a comedy show and concerts. Barber’s particularly excited for the 2022 season, which will feature the full return of monthly live theater as well as different variety events like international film screenings and music performances. Barber added that for the first time, theater companies will have the option to perform for three weeks instead of two.
“We wanted to give groups the option to do their craft in a longer format,” he said. “Every week we’ll have something going on. The theater scene in Santa Clarita has blossomed in the past few years and now there are more than 10 theater groups in the community. So for the city, it’s great to see that growth. As a musician myself, we played a few weeks ago for the first time and it’s kind of child-like, this anticipation of playing in front of people again. It’s all about connecting, seeing people have a great time and giving opportunities to local artists.”
Just down the street from The MAIN, life has also returned to the Canyon Theatre Guild (CTG), which opened with its first performance of the farce “Suite Surrender” on July 24.
When the shutdown went into effect, the guild was two weeks away from opening “Suite Surrender” and “Pride and Prejudice.” As restrictions relaxed enough for CTG to reopen, rehearsals resumed for those two shows though some roles had to be recast due to some actors moving out of state and others not being vaccinated.
“We had over a year’s worth of shows lined up and I made a commitment to the directors of those shows that are going to do all those shows, but not necessarily in the same order,” said TimBen Boydston, CTG’s executive artistic director for 22 years. “We started with ‘Suite Surrender’ and ‘Pride and Prejudice’ because they were in rehearsal and the sets were two weeks away from being finished and had been sitting on the stage for 16 months just waiting for us.”
This is not the first time CTG’s faced lean times. Boydston credited his ability to manage the theater’s budget and make cuts to his background as a small business owner and his experience leading the theater during the Great Recession when the organization went from making over $900,000 to $480,000 in two years. In addition to making budget cuts, Boydston was able to keep the theater afloat by applying for loans and grants.
“It’s been amazing and wonderful as a director, for the actors and crew and for the audience because there’s nothing like seeing live theater,” Boydston said. “During the quarantine you could watch movies and TV on your devices, but live theater is almost participatory because theater is written to evoke a reaction from the audience and the actors then feed off the audience. Human beings aren’t meant to be by themselves and in general people didn’t have any social interaction during Covid. It was so great to hear the audience laugh again, to see people and mingle with people.”
Nancy Lantis stars in “Suite Surrender” and is also the vice president and artistic director of Eclipse Theatre LA. Lantis said that initially the cast believed the shutdown was short-term and would last a month at the longest.
When it looked as if the quarantine would soon be lifted, the cast tried to rehearse via Zoom, but Nancy said that the process was “disastrous” and the idea was abandoned after the first rehearsal. Lantis said that when the cast was finally able to return to rehearsals in the theater it felt like a “reawakening,” and in spite of recasting three roles, the show quickly became performance-ready.
“I never realized how much of an attention hog I was until we started doing virtual stuff and I’d put in all this time and effort into something I thought was hilarious for it to only get 12 views,” Lantis said. “Being on stage has the instant feedback and gratification that I’m doing something right and connecting with [people]. You can’t get that over Zoom.”
When the shutdown went into effect, Eclipse Theatre LA (ETLA) was in the middle of being incorporated as a nonprofit, but did not have any active productions. Lantis said that this left the company in a “Goldilocks zone” where they didn’t have to worry about salvaging a production and now had the time to further develop their board and a plan of action for future productions.
ETLA produced one Zoom play which was written by Lantis’ husband, but transitioned toward short videos and skits that returned to the group’s roots of adapting Greek plays.
“It was tough because I was directing [the actors] over the phone while they filmed themselves on Zoom, and it was a bit clunky,” Lantis said. “I am a control freak and an actor as well, so [directing over the phone] was a little out of my comfort zone but luckily I had actors who understood and seasoned enough to get what I was going for and have fun with it.”
ETLA also created a virtual original monologue competition called “Monocorpolis” to give local actors a creative outlet and try their hand at writing. However, like other theater companies, ETLA does not plan to continue with their video content with the exception of their “The Real Housewives of Mount Olympus” series since it will tie in with and help promote their next play “The Real Housewives of Troy.”
As gratifying as it is for the actors and audiences who have been able to return to the stage, Lantis recognizes that there are many factors that might stifle the return of theater. On top of coronavirus concerns, the slow return to performance theaters may be met with the same struggles movie theaters have experienced in competition with streaming.
“I worried that there would be the same thing with live theater, but it’s really apples and oranges because watching a movie at home is just a smaller screen but watching live theater is a completely different gratifying experience,” Lantis said. “It’s slow and the audiences are not what we’re used to but we’re just starting out. I think that people will get the bug again and realize it’s okay to come out and we’ll get that normalcy back.”
Lantis believes that Santa Clarita’s strong theater community stems from people in the community not wanting to have to drive all the way to Los Angeles to either perform or watch shows.
“It’s a great experience not only for the audiences but for the kids here who are artistic, who don’t know how to kick a soccer ball like me, it gives them something to do and a trying ground where they can learn their skills and improve their confidence,” she said. “The experience coming back to live theater as opposed to over Zoom or watching is threefold: you’re experiencing the performance, the joy from the actors on stage and also this communal joy of being there with an audience.”
“Nobody really went away, it was really just a hibernation,” Lantis continued. “We’ve been waiting and honing and getting ready and the anticipation will only make us come back even stronger.”
The Phoenix Festival will run until Aug. 15 at The MAIN. “Suite Surrender” will play at the Canyon Theatre Guild on weekends until Aug. 15. The next show will be “Out of Touch” by Randall Greenwald, and will premiere Aug. 6 at 7:30 p.m. Eclipse Theatre LA will open their next play “The Real Housewives of Troy” at The MAIN in September 2022.
Tips? Leave a message with The Santa Clarita Valley Proclaimer: (661) 463-3228