When the city shut down in March to flatten the coronavirus curve, the first reaction of Kelly Roush, general and artistic director of the Classic Theatre, was a venerable show business tradition. She and fellow actors said, “The show must go on.”

Other leaders of San Antonio theater groups agreed, but the question was how to stage live performances during the pandemic era, with local coronavirus cases spiking, large group gatherings banned, and a murky future.

With looming risks to the health of her company and patrons, Roush and her colleagues came to understand that live theater would be forced to adapt to a once-in-a-century pandemic threatening the very foundations of live performance.

She cited a phrase she’d heard: “This is not just an interruption, this is a disruption. The world’s not going to go back to the same.”

Despite the devastating impact of lost revenue on the city’s theater companies, live theater will survive, said George Green, CEO and artistic director of The Public Theater of San Antonio.

“This art form, this craft, has endured 25 centuries, pandemics, and world wars,” Green said. “People are going to want to be together again, and when it’s safe to do that, we’ll do that.”

In response to the need for safety, Roush’s solution for the upcoming season would call upon an ancient theatrical tradition.

“Let’s return to what theater was at the beginning. Let’s do ‘the Greeks,'” she said of classic Ancient Greek plays. “Let’s go outdoors.” All three of the Classic’s planned productions would be staged at outdoor locations, at established performance venues such as the Arneson River Theatre or the Sunken Garden Theater or even nontraditional settings such as parks or parking lots.

“We are adaptable and creative. We’re also lean and mean as a company,” she said, able to make adjustments to productions as locations demand. “Our phrase has become ‘theater in the rough.’”

Our Town by Thornton Wilder was ready to go as the last of five productions for the 2019-2020 season, but was postponed. That play will anchor the new season, with two other productions yet to be announced.

O Solo Mio

The season schedule of The Public Theater of San Antonio is more complex, with productions of varying sizes running concurrently. In considering how his company might adapt to the new realities of the pandemic era, Green realized a whole new approach was needed. But he also relied on a tried-and-true theatrical tradition: the one-person play.

Green started by examining the coronavirus risk factors involved with musicals (aerosols spreading through the air from energetic singing), and small-ensemble theater (more people involved means heightened risk of transmission), and came to a conclusion. “You’re down to one-person shows where everything is relying upon that one individual,” he said.

Pandemic conditions will dictate whether those shows will have a live audience and how large it will be. As a backup, Green invested in livestreaming equipment and a new ticketing platform to broadcast plays for remote audiences paying to watch in their own spaces.

“We’ve made this malleable process, and we’ve gotten approval from the publishers and authors of these titles to allow that entire process to take place,” he said. “So we’ve given ourselves the opportunity to do theater [this fall and] next year.”

The resulting plan is the Public’s “2020-202ONE” season, with eight one-person shows produced on the Russell Rogers stage in the company’s old San Pedro Playhouse home. As an Actors’ Equity Association playhouse, certain rules must be followed for performers, stage managers, and performance rights to plays, though Green said the association is realizing it, too, must be flexible during the pandemic.

Sharing Socially Distanced Space

In the meantime, Green offered to share the theater space with three smaller companies, the Overtime Theater, the Renaissance Guild, and Teatro Audaz.

The Guild had been on hiatus, and unable to perform at its home in the City-owned Little Carver Civic Center after Department of Arts and Culture employees were laid off and services shut down. It will emerge in 2021 “re-energized, regrouping, and planning for performances,” according to its Facebook page.

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Teatro Audaz had performed previously as a nomadic company, producing events at locations throughout the city. Staging productions in the Public Theatre’s space will help Teatro reach a wider audience, said co-founder Laura Garza.

“This pandemic has given us a bit of leeway,” Garza said, in finding a venue and expanding to five productions from two in previous years.

Though Garza and company had prepared to keep strict social distancing protocols in place for actors, stagehands, director, and audiences, “because of rising numbers, known cases for [the coronavirus], we really don’t want to be irresponsible and put a bunch of people in one room.” If the spike in local cases persists, livestreaming will work.

“We want to give the audience the best live theater experience that we can with being safe and healthy,” she said.

Though all three directors said live theater provides a “shared heartbeat” experience between audiences and actors, Garza said for now the screen may have to suffice.

“Watching on screen is different than being in an audience and enjoying, but we still want those stories, we still want to be able to share those feelings and emotions and experiences,” she said. “Even if it’s through screen, we can still do that. It’s a little different, but for now, as we have seen, as times change we have to change with it.”

Plan After Plan After Plan

While other theater companies generally run shows in fall and spring, with summer as the time to plan the next season, the Woodlawn Theatre typically begins its season in January. Thus, it might have been hit hardest by the pandemic shutdown.

“We were smack dab in the middle of our season” when the pandemic shut down San Antonio in March, said Chris Rodriguez, executive and artistic director. We only actually got to produce one show before all of this happened.”

The day before the company was to go into dress rehearsals for the San Antonio premiere of On Your Feet, “we shut down the theater completely,” he said.

Woodlawn Theatre.
Woodlawn Theatre Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

As things developed, Rodriguez said the company began making “plan after plan after plan,” finally deciding on a live broadcast format for upcoming productions. The format will allow the Woodlawn to celebrate the 75th anniversary of its home building (the company has been a nonprofit organization since 2012), while celebrating its own history.

Rodriguez will host “Woodlawn Theatre Cast Reunions,” live, cabaret-style virtual events featuring past Woodlawn performers broadcasting via the Zoom videoconference platform from their own homes alongside prerecorded content that includes performance clips. Guests will reflect on their experiences with the company and even perform the auditions that won them their roles, he said.

The first installment, planned for early August, will reunite the cast of last summer’s production of Beauty and the Beast.

The virtual cabaret broadcasts will be “a way for us to give something to the community saying we’re still trying to do our best to perform in this current situation, where we’re staying afloat and trying to keep people entertained as best we can during these hard times,” he said.

Mobile Theater

The Magik Theatre reopened in June for performances of Dragons Love Tacos, but Artistic Director Anthony Runfola wasn’t sure it was the right move given the risks. However, “people were so appreciative that we were there and they were so willing to work with the policies we have in place,” including required face coverings and assigned seating to maintain social distance.

The show closed June 21, and the Magik has been shuttered since. “We had actually thought we would do a few more things over the summer, and it just didn’t seem like the right thing to do” as San Antonio faced a spike in coronavirus cases.

Runfola and his colleagues decided to pivot to virtual theater, relying on three recent performances that had been videotaped: Dragons Love Tacos; Everything Is Round, for very young audiences; and Jack and the Beanstalk, which was streamed live on Facebook July 4 for a suggested donation of $10.

The Magik Theatre participated in a market research survey conducted by national organization Theater for Young Audiences, which showed that 50 percent of respondents said they’d be ready to venture out to live theater only when a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available.

The other half of respondents said they would consider attending an outdoor theater event, “so this is something we’re really looking at,” Runfola said. “What we’ll be doing, as we go into the fall, is we’re looking at producing shows that are smaller in scope, in size, with small casts of no more than four actors, that are tourable,” which is the “bread and butter for theater for young audiences.”

The productions “are shows that will fit into a cargo van, that the actors can take anywhere in the city, or for that matter anywhere in the state, if the opportunity arose,” he said.

Though outdoor theater presents its challenges, such as ambient and unexpected noise from the city, Runfola said, he looks forward to the challenge. A play such as The Odyssey would be ideal for a setting on the river such as the Arneson River Theatre, since the play features a boat.

A new San Antonio River Barge passes the dance performances at Arneson River Theatre during Diwali San Antonio: Festival of Lights.
A new San Antonio River barge passes the dance performances at Arneson River Theatre during Diwali San Antonio: Festival of Lights in November 2017. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

When asked when the season might see a restart, Runfola said, “in the best of all possible worlds, around the middle of September.”

Change Can Be Transformative

These directors all said moving to online streaming theater has created broader accessibility for audiences they might not otherwise have reached by staying within their physical spaces.

Runfola recalled a standard practice in music to describe the opportunities for theater even when society emerges from shutdown mode. “I love the idea that you buy your ticket to come see the show, and then the next day you get the download code to watch it for another five days online,” he said.

Green said, “this has been a really enlightening and educational process to add [to] and complement what our craft will be doing in the future.”

And though “our industry is going to be challenged financially for many more years to come coming out of this,” he said theater ultimately will find its way.

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...