Fearing that their show, “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story,” would be put on hold shortly after it opened, the staff at Old Creamery Theatre in Amana — helmed by their new executive director, Ashley Shields — knew their artistry couldn’t be put on hold by the looming threat of the novel coronavirus.
After all, “What good’s permitting some prophet of doom to wipe every smile away?”
From that spirit captured in the 1966 Broadway musical “Cabaret,” a virtual cabaret is brewing. It’s showcasing a who’s who of area performers, while raising funds to be evenly split between five Corridor theaters: Theatre Cedar Rapids and SPT Theatre in Cedar Rapids; the Coralville Center for the Performing Arts, home of City Circle Theatre Company; Riverside Theatre in Iowa City; and Old Creamery Theatre.
Titled “Songs to Make You Smile: A Virtual Cabaret,” it will play out over YouTube at 7:30 p.m. April 3, and feature vocal solos, monologues, sketches and a group number at the end — all adhering to social distancing protocols.
While the artists may use a variety of recording and sharing platforms to create and submit their work, cabaret organizers decided to stream the final product over YouTube.
“We want to reach as broad of a patron base as possible, and make it easy and accessible,” said Katie Colletta, Old Creamery’s interim co-artistic director with her husband, Keegan Christopher. “We figured that platform was something most people already are quite familiar with.”
Among the participating artists are Marquetta Senters, Christopher Okiishi, Patrick Du Laney, Janelle Lauer and the SPT gang, Kristy Hartsgrove Mooers, Katy Hahn, Kristen Berenhardt DeGrazia, Mic Evans, Mia Fryvecind Giminez, Joshua Fryvecind and other familiar faces from all of the venues, including Old Creamery organizers. Adam Knight, producing artistic director at Riverside Theatre, promises not to sing.
“We want to be entertaining people here,” he said jokingly, later adding, “I think more things like this are going to be popping up as we figure out how to navigate this moment — and keep telling stories and keep entertaining people, which is what we exist for.”
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High school students can get in on the act, too, by submitting videos by Friday, showing them performing an uplifting song. For guidelines, click on the “Songs to Make You Smile” event at Facebook.com/OldCreameryTheatre/ and scroll down to Details.
Cost to viewers is a donation of at least $5, and with word spreading on social media, more than half of the $5,000 goal already has been raised.
“All you have to do is click this YouTube link, and you can watch it from your TV, from your computer, from your tablet, your phone — anywhere you can see it,” Christopher said. “It’s an interesting medium that due to the circumstances, most of the country is now exploring ways to get art out, and we’re pretty excited to be a part of that.”
Colletta and Christopher had been expanding the theater’s cabaret offerings, staged in various locations, including the Price Creek Event Center in the heart of Amana, and the troupe’s own outdoor courtyard behind the theater.
This virtual one, however, will be staged from “anywhere and everywhere you want to be — literally out of people’s kitchens, basements and anywhere,” Colletta said.
“It’s going to be a very different, real, authentic experience, because we’re all going through this unprecedented time together, so it’s really going to be a product of that: improvisation and a testament to what can be done if people commit to it,” she added.
“I’ve gotten so much joy already out of the artists being so excited, saying, ‘Oh, what about this?’ and ‘We could do this.’ Just seeing all these ideas and seeing their creativity sparked by it — it’s as much for the artists as well as the patrons.”
With all arts presenters canceling or putting their events on hold, it’s a tough time to make ends meet for the venues and for the artists, some of whom, like SPT’s Lauer, are contract players.
“I’ve already lost $2,400 worth of income, and I don’t know when the end is in sight. Everything is going out the windows,” she said, from teaching vocals, to SPT shows and directing music for shows with Old Creamery and Theatre Cedar Rapids. Like others, she’s worried about paying rent and utilities, since her church music job, which has become part of the new virtual reality, doesn’t pay enough to make ends meet.
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“My year is full, as far as stuff I’m already booked for, but I don’t know how much of it is actually going to happen, depending how long this (virus) goes on,” she said.
The virtual cabaret is a welcome project, not just for boosting SPT Theatre’s bottom line, but for boosting Lauer’s spirits. She said “yes” the minute Colletta contacted her.
“It gives me something to do, something to look forward to,” Lauer said. She forwarded the project to the SPT writing team, “core four” musicians, and the board, and everybody was ready to spring into action.
“The brilliant Chris Okiishi wrote a parody of ‘From a Distance,’ and it’s very funny,” she said. “So all of us are taping it individually at home with (musical) tracks that we came up with, and then we’re going to splice it together Brady Bunch style.”
Other possibilities include a song from Lauer’s mother, Jane Pini; new chapters of ongoing sketches from the Fat Guys and T. rex; and a possible sketch on Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” couple physically distancing the recommended six feet apart.
By Tuesday, the cabaret was more than halfway toward reaching its initial $5,000 fundraising goal, targeted for raising at least $1,000 for each participating theater.
“For an organization like us, no gift is too small,” Shields said. “Every dollar makes an impact with budgets that we work with to create our productions — and I can probably speak for all the theaters — that when our stages are dark, any dollar that we receive means a lot.”
Colletta added: “You can break it down any number of ways, but for us, $1,000 more than covers the salaries for three of our Camp Creamery interns to go out and bring a week of camp to up to 60 kids in a community. We travel all over the state. We do several camps in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, where kids already have plenty of access to the arts, which is so great. But $1,000 can bring a life-changing experience to a child two-and-a-half hours from here with no access to theater. So if this $1,000 makes that week of camp possible, that’s amazing and worth it.”
“There’s no replacing ticket sale revenue,” Christopher said. “We all know that when everybody shuts their doors for the good of the community as a whole, so everybody can get healthy, we can’t replace that revenue. It’s about trying to find different ways to supplement it in the meantime, until we can reopen our doors.”
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SPT in Cedar Rapids runs on a shoestring budget of $80,000 each year, Lauer noted, adding that the small professional company pays everyone involved in its five or six productions per year, from the director and performers to the behind-the-scenes workers.
“Our costs are always really high. We’re not a multimillion organization, so $1,000 for us is a lot,” she said. “That pays three writers for a show. It pays a couple of actors. It might pay part of our rent at Shores (building); $1,000 is a lot.”
The same is true for Riverside Theatre, another small professional troupe.
“At this moment, we have no earned income coming in,” Knight said. “So $1,000 for us means we’re that much more likely to stay lit during this crisis. We’re trying to keep as much staff as possible working and to stay as involved as we can in the theater and the community right now, as a whole. That’s very difficult when we don’t have very much product to share.
“For us, this is a chance to come together to raise some much needed funds for our organization and for these other organizations, which I know need it, and means we’re that much closer to being able to present a great show when we’re all ready to see one.”
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