Show must go on: Yankton theater prepares to reopen

In this June 18 photo, Lewis and Clark Theatre Company President Michael Schumacher stands in front of the Dakota Theater marquee in downtown Yankton. (Kelly Hertz/Yankton Press & Dakotan via AP)

YANKTON (AP) – Even during a pandemic, Lewis and Clark Theatre Company (LCTC) members believe the show must go on.

The stage has remained dark since mid-March, when the first COVID-19 cases were detected in Yankton and the theater was shut down. The precaution was taken to protect the cast, crew and audience members.

Even the theater marquee remains frozen in time, still announcing last March’s showing of the movie “Hoosiers.” The event was held in celebration of the Yankton Bucks’ berth and top seed in the State “AA” boys basketball tournament – which was later canceled because of the pandemic. The movie screening was the last event held at Dakota Theatre before the COVID shutdown.

However, the LCTC board has reopened the building and is taking the next big step – auditions for the first production since the pandemic. The LCTC will stage “M*A*S*H” during the first and second weekends of August.

The board feels comfortable with its decision, President Michael Schumacher told the Press & Dakotan.

“We just felt the time was right to bring back the theater,” he said. “We looked around at the number of (coronavirus) cases in Yankton County and our surrounding counties. The number seems to be holding fairly steady. Churches have re-opened, and businesses have re-opened, so we thought it was time for us, too.”

In addition, the LCTC board took cues from other theater companies in South Dakota and elsewhere, Schumacher said.

“Mitchell and Pierre are putting on productions in late July or early August, so it’s not like we’re going rogue (here in Yankton),” he said.

However, not all theaters are moving forward with business as usual, Schumacher said.

“Vermillion isn’t putting on its community theater production. The Shakespeare festival’s outdoor performances (at Prentis Park in Vermillion) are also canceled,” he said.

“In Yankton, the Dakota Players (an outreach of the Black Hills Playhouse) aren’t holding their youth theater camp. And we’re waiting to see what’s happening with things like Music at the Meridian and the second part of the summer concert series (at the Riverside Park amphitheater).”

In deciding to stage a summer production, the LCTC also took into account the projected peak of around July 4 for the pandemic in Yankton, Schumacher said.

“Our next production is two months out,” he said. “It’s hard to project, but I think people will be much more comfortable by the time we put on the show.”

TAKING PRECAUTIONS

A number of safety precautions will be taken for the “M*A*S*H” auditions. The cast calls for 30 members ages 12 and older.

“We’ll be taking the temperatures of people who show up, and we’ll ask them to wear a mask when they’re not auditioning on stage,” he said. “We’ll also space things out by using assigned seating for those sitting out in the audience and waiting to go on stage.”

Precautions will continue not only for rehearsals but also for the productions themselves, Schumacher said.

Those steps include the usage of masks during certain times and the availability of hand sanitizer at the theater. In addition, temperatures will be taken not only for the cast and crew but also audience members as they enter the theater.

“We’re asking people to wear masks while they’re in the lobby, mingling and close to so many others,” he said. “They don’t need to wear masks in the theater, during the performance. We’re roping off every other row, and we’re seating people depending on the ticket sales. A family of four would sit together, and we could leave open spaces before seating the next people.

“Because of that, we’re really encouraging early ticket sales so we can plan for the seating arrangements.”

The same seats won’t be used for each performance, Schumacher said. The theater company will alternate rows of seats used for two consecutive performances. In that way, workers have more time to clean all the seats and the entire theater.

Dakota Theatre seats 600 viewers, including the balcony. The new seating arrangement will reduce the number of audience members and ticket sales, thereby limiting revenue at each production.

However, Schumacher thinks the LCTC can make things work financially, or at least reach the break-even point.

“It’s much more difficult with a musical, where you have more costs because you’re paying for music rights,” he said. “In those cases, you need to sell, 200, 300 or even 400 tickets for each performance. If a production isn’t a musical, you can get by with selling around 140 tickets.”

TRYING TIMES

The past three months have created trying times for the theater, Schumacher said. A number of events were canceled, which hurt both the theater’s offerings and finances, he said.

“The pandemic has really affected us in so many ways,” he said. “It started with canceling our gala in mid-March. It’s a major fundraiser, but that’s when the first (coronavirus) cases were being seen and there was so much uncertainty. We believed that we just had to cancel it.”

The gala was only the first casualty of the pandemic, Schumacher said.

“Then we canceled our April showing of ‘Stuart Little.’ The (COVID) outbreak was starting, and we were only a couple of weeks out from opening night. We had to make some really quick decisions. We just couldn’t see moving ahead with the production,” he said.

“However, we are planning to bring it back next April (2021). We don’t have any of our current cast who are graduating and moving on, so we’ll see about bringing them back for next year’s production.”

As the pandemic continued, the gala and “Stuart Little” were followed by more cancellations of the improvisational show in May, another theater production in June and stage performances by Ted and Alice Miller, James Dean and the Rough Diamonds.

“We estimate we lost $16,000 in net revenue during that time,” Schumacher said. “Fortunately, we had some past dollars (in reserve) that helped us weather things.”

In addition, LCTC didn’t qualify for federal funds for protecting jobs during the pandemic, Schumacher said.

“We’re all volunteers, so we didn’t actually lose any jobs, as many business owners did,” he said. “For that reason, we didn’t qualify for the stimulus money aimed at keeping employees.”

The LCTC did receive a timely boost from a Yankton Area Foundation grant. The funds enabled the theater to purchase new microphones meeting Federal Communications Commission regulations.

Besides replacing lost funds, the theater board also sought to replace lost connections with the public during the pandemic, Schumacher said.

“We worked to keep our visibility through Facebook,” he said. “We did things like a musical matchup, similar to the NCAA basketball tournament. We made up brackets, and we posted old and new musicals, just to mix things up. People voted on their favorites, and the winners kept moving on to the next round. People really seemed to enjoy it.”

In addition, the LCTC turned to its own membership to create self-promotion.

“Our LCTC alumni were used for short videos,” he said. “We had a variety of people from young kids to older members. They talked about what their theater experience meant to them. It wasn’t just the enjoyment of being on stage. It also helped them become more confident for things like practicing law and standing in front of a courtroom.”

The video series helped spread a much larger message, Schumacher said.

“It showed the importance of theater and the other arts for our community and region, and actually for the entire nation,” he said.

The use of social media and virtual performances has helped satisfy some of the craving for entertainment, but it’s not a wholesale, long-term substitute, Schumacher said.

“We really need the arts, and we need people to come out and support us,” he said. “It’s one thing to watch ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ on Facebook or television, and it’s good, but it’s nothing like watching a concert or theater production in person and having that shared experience.”

On the other hand, Schumacher realizes the perilous times created by the coronavirus.

“We want people to feel safe and comfortable in coming out,” he said, noting some people may not feel they have reached that point.

MOVING FORWARD

The LCTC board plans to continue its schedule for later in the year, including a Buddy Holly tribute show Oct. 24 and a LCTC theater production in October. Plans include showing the movie “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” during Halloween along with performing a Christmas show in December and another theater production next February.

“There are just some shows you can’t postpone, like doing your Christmas play in February,” Schumacher said.

He is also mulling some other ideas, spawned by the unusual circumstances created by the pandemic.

“I would like to build up our base of actors and create a bigger theater company,” he said. “I’ve also thought about doing things like radio plays or using Zoom. I’ve heard of other companies doing it, with some dressing up (as characters) while others didn’t.”

However, his biggest goal for now is regaining the momentum from the start of 2020. Those early shows included the U.S. Air Force Heartland of America Band performance – featuring members from Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha – and the Rachel DeeLynn concert.

“I think people are really ready to get out and enjoy live performances,” Schumacher said. “They want to be entertained and to socialize after being cooped up at home for months.”

The public has already shown comfort in attending church, shopping in stores, eating at restaurants and going to bars, Schumacher noted. He thinks that comfort will grow even more by the time the LCTC raises the curtain on its production in two months.

Unlike a play, there is no script to follow in today’s setting, Schumacher admitted. However, he’s hoping for the best as the LCTC moves ahead with its plans.

“This is all once-in-a-lifetime stuff,” he said. “But I’m cautiously optimistic.”

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