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Must the Show Go On?

the show must go on
By Jennifer Estlin

I remember starting out the week of March 9th being pretty proud of our theatre (The Annoyance) for being quick to pivot and adapt to the potential threat from this new pandemic we were starting to really hear about. We had sent out mailings to all our patrons describing how we’d cut our seating capacity in half, set all the chairs and tables 6 feet apart, and I had put in an order for disposable microphone covers so we’d be ready for our open mic on Saturday. That was Tuesday. By Friday, we’d closed.

Just 7 days later, I was proud of us for coming up with and quickly implementing the idea of doing a “quarantine show”. We put together a cast of 5 and production staff of 3; everyone got food supplies, bedding, air mattresses, packed up a suitcase and arrived at the theatre on Friday. We were locked-in to live in the theatre. No one left; no one came in. For 14 days we live-streamed our rehearsal process and our daily lives as we created an entirely new sketch show and then broadcast it as a fundraising event on the 14th night. When we finished our show, the reality began to hit. We were leaving our safe bubble to go back into the world that had begun a state-mandated quarantine while we had been locked in. The world we came outside to looked a lot different than when we had gone in.

“The show must go on.” For more than 30 years we’d lived by this standard theatre motto – we’d gotten understudies, made last minute changes, rewritten scenes, songs, added improv… whatever it took to allow a show to go up. In all our 33 years we’d canceled only a handful of shows for extreme reasons. Hanging the sign on our front door that said “Closed until further notice” was a gut punch, but we had no choice; everyone was in the same boat. We had no idea, then, that a much harder decision was soon to come: when to reopen?

My daily routine changed drastically. I watched Governor Cuomo’s daily updates, scoured the internet for results of studies, watched for CDC recommendations and IL Dept. of Health statistics, and hung on Dr. Fauci’s words. At the same time, I was applying for every grant and loan I heard about, writing to legislators to #Save Our Stages, and negotiating with our landlord and two attorneys to try and keep the business from permanently closing. My dear friend Lilly, also a theatre owner, spoke with me almost daily to compare notes and try to figure out what to do, who to listen to, and how to survive.

When Chicago finally achieved Phase 4 “Revitalization” status, instead of celebrating the moment as I had thought I would, I felt terrified. We could legally re-open in a limited way: 50 people or under, masks on, patrons seated at all times (socially-distanced), and limited hours that would have us close at 11pm. But was it safe??

My husband/business partner and I scootered to the theatre (no car; afraid to take the train or an Uber) and set up the chairs in each space to see how many we could fit for a performance or class. Small theatre – too small and the audience would be dangerously close to the actors. In our MainStage theatre, we could fit 20 (10 couples) – possibly more if there were groups of 4 that were quarantined together.

In the bar, we hung plexiglass ‘windows’, thinking the barriers could help keep the bartender and patrons safe. The day after we hung them, renewed findings came out that the most common means of virus transmission was likely airborne. I imagined our HVAC system freely blowing the virus under, over and to the sides of our now ludicrous seeming windows. I looked for guidance from Actors Equity and SAG/AFTRA, discussed it endlessly with Lilly, and watched way too many Zoom webinars. We surveyed our students, teachers and patrons and quickly learned there was a very low appetite for returning to indoor gatherings. We watched as another Chicago theatre announced their opening and then immediately closed amidst a torrent of outrage from the acting community and many audience members.

As of this writing, more restaurants and bars have opened with indoor service and the city has increased the allowed percentages of occupancy. Lilly’s theatre in Chicago’s suburbs has opened in a very limited way and adhering to all guidelines, for small eager audiences that are grateful for the opportunity to come together and laugh again. Not many actors are willing to perform, but enough are, and they’re glad to be back on stage. The Annoyance remains closed.

We were lucky enough to negotiate a rent deferral until November 1 and ultimately made our decision based on the one question we couldn’t get past… is it worth it to risk someone’s health and well being for a show? I second-guess our decision constantly (which is grueling), especially as November draws nearer, threatening to close our doors forever.

I learned that supposedly, the quotation “The show must go on” originally came from the circus world and referred to keeping the show going to distract the audience when someone was injured or an act went wrong. Whoever it was that coined it likely wasn’t imagining a potential threat to both the artists and audience as well; a tiny, invisible threat that could wipe out a multitude of people who might never even have seen the show or been to the theatre. Perhaps the show must not go on… yet.

This article was written collaboratively with Lillian Frances. For Lillian’s article on the topic, click here.

Also by Jennifer Estlin:

Actors: How Will You Know if You’ve Made It?

What to Read? Recommended Books for Actors & Improvisers

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