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Marion's Giving Tree Theater is area's first to reopen after coronavirus shutdown

Stage is first to reopen in the Cedar Rapids area with shows beginning this weekend

Andrea and Jamie Henley of Robins have spruced up the lobby of Giving Tree Theater in Marion during the three-month pand
Andrea and Jamie Henley of Robins have spruced up the lobby of Giving Tree Theater in Marion during the three-month pandemic shutdown. The couple have owned the theater since last June and plan to reopen for audiences Friday with an onstage script reading of “The Savannah Sipping Society.” (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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Giving Tree Theater in Marion is celebrating a pair of firsts this weekend.

Owners Jamie and Andrea Henley of Robins are marking their first year in the space — known for its cozy couch seating — by being the first Corridor theater to reopen its doors to audiences.

“We had a very busy nine months that came to a hard standstill,” Andrea said of their inaugural year.

They’re ready to be back in business. This past Friday, Gov. Kim Reynolds’ proclamation allowed venues featuring live performances to reopen, as long as they comply with physical distancing, hygiene and public health measures.

Andrea is directing and Jamie is tech directing an onstage script reading of “The Savannah Sipping Society” at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. More shows entertainment, camps and classes will follow this summer.

“We’re going to do it safely,” Jamie said. “We’re certainly going to make sure that people are spread out. We want people to feel comfortable coming to the theater, and we’re excited to have people come back. We’ve got a variety of different things happening — we’re trying to offer some fun and uplifting stories in the next few months.”

Safety measures

While Giving Tree’s cozy seating still is in place, audiences will be restricted to 40 people per performance, to allow for physical distancing within the 100-seat space. Couches won’t be removed, but seating will be restricted to every other row, and the actors will be at least 6 feet away from patrons in the front row.

Staff and volunteers will be wearing masks; audience members will be asked to wear masks in the lobby and restrooms, but may remove them during the show. Sanitation stations also will be available, and intermission will be lengthened to control the number of people in the lobby at that time. And instead of having patrons purchase beverages and snacks at the concession stand, masked wait staff will serve them at their seats.

Unlike other Corridor theaters that operate with nonprofit status, supplementing ticket income with donations and grants, Giving Tree is a for-profit small business. It has no paid staff, and relies on ticket sales, concessions and instruction fees to offset fixed costs like rent and utilities. Getting back to business was paramount, the Henleys said.

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“For us, for our livelihood, it was, ‘How do we make this happen,’” Andrea said.

The theater isn’t their only gig. She also teaches language arts at Regis Middle School and Jamie is COO at the Community Health Free Clinic, both in Cedar Rapids. But this is their passion project, so while other area indoor stages remain dark, Giving Tree is ready to flip the switches.

“Our theater being different is what helps us to make that decision,” Andrea said. “A lot of other theaters, the way they’re set up, it’s hard for them to do social distancing and half-capacity when they’ve got a row of seats and you have to climb over each other to get through.”

Also, many Corridor theaters were planning big musicals for their spring and summer programming, requiring large casts and orchestras, making it difficult to keep actors, crew and musicians safe from the threat of catching the novel coronavirus. Musicals aren’t part of Giving Tree’s programming right now. (The musical “Cabaret” has been postponed to January.)

“The biggest thing is how we could do it safely,” Jamie said of the decision to reopen. “How could we continue to provide theater when everybody else has to close down, or choose to stay closed. How can we do it safely and still provide some of the entertainment for the people who are coming to shows, but also for the actors who really enjoy performing, and giving them a place to be able to do that.”

Programming

The Henleys turned to a comedy from a writing team they enjoy — “The Savannah Sipping Society,” by Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten. Giving Tree previously has staged a script reading of the trio’s “Always a Bridesmaid” last July, followed by a fully staged production of “The Dixie Swim Club” in November.

“(‘Savannah’) is about four women who have all experienced an unexpected change in their life, and they’re all trying to find a way to start new,” Andrea said. “They happen to meet up, and end up going on a journey of self-discovery.”

Unlike “Swim Club,” which had a sad turn of events, Andrea said audiences will be in for a show full of laughter this time around, as well as “some heartwarming moments as the girls come to terms with their new lots in life. ... It will be lots of laughter and smiles, which is our summer goal right now.”

Andrea has been directing cast members Dyanna Davidson, Michele Hinz, D Vizecky and Lissa Novitch mostly via online sessions. During final rehearsals and productions, with the cast generally spread out onstage and Jamie being the only crew member, they can physically distance themselves.

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Like so many other local troupes, Giving Tree has turned to online platforms during the pandemic. The theater hosted an online version of “Couples” at the end of May, and since the COVID-19 quarantine cut short the run of “26 Pebbles” in March, the live show was adapted for online performances June 6 and 7. This past Friday, the theater hosted a free Zoom webinar with Iowa City spoken word artist Caleb Rainey, who performs as “The Negro Artist” and is a co-founder of the literary magazine “Black Art; Real Stories.”

Upcoming shows include Darrin Crow’s solo storytelling performance of “The Mosquito’s Revenge,” June 26 to 28; three one-act plays dealing with the aftermath of the Vietnam War, July 2 to 5; local storytellers in “A Show of Sunshine & Laughter,” July 10 to 12; “The History of Dating,” July 17 to 26; and “The Curious Savage,” Aug. 14 to 23. Summer camps and classes also are in the works.

It’s all part of the couple’s plans for Year 2, taking shape right as the pandemic hit home.

“Right before this happened, we had come up with a plan to start tweaking some things out, and then everything stopped,” Jamie said. “We’re excited to start trying to roll that back out. Our shows are going to go to two weekends instead of three or four weekends, but we’ll do a Friday, Saturday, Sunday, then a Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday run.”

In the off-weeks, the theater will stage a variety of other entertainment options, including karaoke nights, live bands, improv comedy and comedians.

“We want to become an entertainment stop for Uptown Marion,” he said.

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

If you go

• What: “The Savannah Sipping Society”

• Where: Giving Tree Theater, 752 10th St., Marion

• When: 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday

• Tickets: $11, givingtreetheater.com/collections/shows

• Safety: Reduced seating capacity to allow for social distancing; hand sanitizer station in lobby; patrons asked to wear masks in lobby, restrooms — optional when watching the show

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• Summer education: Camps for youths; classes for youths and adults: givingtreetheater.com/collections/education

• Information: (319) 536-0257 or givingtreetheater.com

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