By Connor Dziawura

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit earlier this year, the Phoenix Theatre Company found itself in a tricky place. It was in the midst of a production of “Sondheim on Sondheim” and was opening “Something Rotten!” But concerns were mounting.

“When word was spreading around Phoenix specifically about how the cases were going and what other states were recommending, we had really difficult conversations about what our plan was and how we were going to keep our staff safe and our actors safe,” explains Karla Frederick, director of production.

Because Phoenix Theatre Company puts on productions for large audiences, utilizing people with other day jobs, potential exposure between people is greater, she says. So, for the first time since it was founded in 1920, the organization ceased programming, shortly before Gov. Doug Ducey issued a statewide stay-at-home order.

“We felt like it was smarter and safer to be on the more cautious side, just because of how big our safety bubble actually is, to go ahead and close our doors,” Frederick explains.

Now, with the economy slowly turning around and events resuming with health guidelines in place, the Phoenix Theatre Company is gearing up for its 2020/2021 season—but with some modifications of its own.

The fall/spring season will launch on a new outdoor stage at the nearby Central United Methodist Church, a block north of the theater. The first show, “Happy Birthday Dionne,” a tribute to Dionne Warwick featuring local trio We3, will run from November 10 to November 22.

The new, 32-by-24-foot stage will seat roughly 250 attendees in pairs, with 6 feet of distance in all directions—and a wall of screens on the back of the stage. The Phoenix Theatre Company is also following various health protocols on-site for all guests.

It was a struggle to figure out how to resume shows safely, Frederick reveals, with planned relaunch dates coming and going. The hope was to return to the usual operation, but that possibility went out the window as COVID-19 case counts continued to rise.

“Early on, none of us really knew how long a hiatus would be, and so of course you’re optimistic,” she says. “You start with two weeks … and those two weeks became two months and it extended and extended, and the longer it got the scarier it was, for sure, for all of the live events industry.

“We are lucky enough that our patron base and our COVID impact is smaller than, say, the festival circuit,” she adds, explaining that an entire industry essentially crumbled overnight. That side of the entertainment world, she says, doesn’t have the same opportunity to return to programming.

“We are so fortunate to have been able to find a path to program—but still not programming at the extent in which we are accustomed,” she continues. “We are making the best out of a difficult situation, but not every company is able to do that. Particularly larger festival-like companies, they obviously aren’t going to be able to find a happy medium like we have, so it has been devastating for this entire industry.”

With in-person shows on pause, the organization was forced to turn to digital experiences—something which proved to be a challenge. Phoenix Theatre Company is not experienced in that realm, so it had to make a quick pivot to still be able to reach audiences—who, Frederick says, aren’t used to engaging with the organization in that capacity either.

Frederick feels live events don’t translate as well digitally as they do in person either, so the team had to get creative with online engagement.

But audiences ultimately want to—safely—return to live, in-person events, Frederick says.

“We tried a bunch of things and we’re still trying a bunch of things, and I do think that desperate situations create invention,” she says. “I feel like we are going to continue succeeding in the digital world and we’re never going to let it go after this. We’re learning as we go. It will now be an additional tool in our toolbox.

“Yeah, we’ll go back to our live, our bread and butter, the thing we do best, but now we can come up with interesting ways to reach patrons in their homes that we never explored before. So, in some respects, it’s pushed us to do things that will benefit us in the long run, even though it’s definitely not what we do.”

The new stage is intended to be a temporary structure, but it’s convertible to a long-term format if the need arises. The full potential for programming hasn’t yet been explored in detail, though the space is available to the church for outdoor services as well as other community partnerships that could arise.

“Once this exists, it’s a great opportunity for other programming,” Frederick says. “Obviously in the summer it wouldn’t be great for Arizona, but at some point it’s another venue that we can program and that other community members can program.”

The season is slated to run outdoors through May, with the usual indoor theaters tentatively resuming activity in June with productions of “Becoming Dr. Ruth,” “The Rocky Horror Show” and “Something Rotten!”

“It doesn’t mean necessarily let go of or forget about the outdoor space,” Frederick clarifies. “We’ll always have that as an opportunity, and quite frankly we’ve now figured out how to do that, so we can recreate that at any point that we need to.

“But our hope is, of course, to return to our spaces. That’s what we function best in; it’s really the showcase of what we do. And we have all of our tools then at the ready at that point, whereas the outdoor experience is going to be a little more limited on the production values. It will still look amazing; it’s just different than what you get when you’re actually in the theater itself.”

With a long and uncertain journey now coming to a sort of end, Frederick admits she’s “exhausted but excited.”

“It’s been a process, and I know that at the end of it, we will be so proud and excited to be able to bring live events back, even in this capacity,” she says. “It is thrilling for us; it’s thrilling for the community; and ultimately, the thing that we need most right now is to be able to commune in a safe way and come back to this art form that so many of us love.

“We do this for a reason, and the fact that we’ve been handicapped has been almost detrimental, not only just for us but for our audience. So it’s thrilling to be able to bring live events back, even in our small little corner of the world.”

Phoenix Theatre Company outdoor venue, Central United Methodist Church, 1875 N. Central Avenue, Phoenix, phoenixtheatre.com.

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