CORONAVIRUS

Old Creamery cancels 2020 season

Amana troupe moving some programming online

Performers join their voices in an April 3 virtual cabaret, which raised $17,000 to benefit area theaters. #x201c;Songs
Performers join their voices in an April 3 virtual cabaret, which raised $17,000 to benefit area theaters. “Songs to Make You Smile: A Virtual Encore!” is in the works for May 23, to raise funds for the Old Creamery Theatre in Amana, Riverside Theatre in Iowa City, Coralville Center for the Performing Arts and Theatre Cedar Rapids. (Old Creamery Theatre)
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The lights that went out March 15 after the first weekend of “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story” will remain out until 2021 at the Old Creamery Theatre.

The remainder of the 2020 season, running through Dec. 20, has been canceled at the professional, not-for-profit theater in Amana. That includes such heavy-hitters as “Steel Magnolias,” “Legally Blonde” and “Miracle on 34th Street: The Musical.”

“Our added layer of complexity is our union (Actors’ Equity Association),” Executive Director Ashley Shields said. “We have to negotiate with them when it’s safe to bring our actors back, and they haven’t released any guidelines. So as of now, we can’t safely assume we’ll be able to hire our actors for the rest of the season, so that’s obstacle number one.

“Obstacle number two is there’s just really no clear evidence that we are going to be anywhere closer to having large group attendances come September, October or November,” she said. “And with theater, all your expenses happen up front. We would be hiring our designers, our actors (and) we would be paying deposits on royalties for shows that ultimately may still not be able to happen.

“With theaters and most nonprofits running on such thin margins, it’s like rolling the dice at this point. In the long-term interest in the health of the theater, we feel like this is really the only option we can make right now.”

Ticket holders are being contacted about cancellations, and the loss of that revenue will be difficult.

“We’re trying to be creative in finding ways to ask for donations,” Shields said. “Certainly we need the love and support of our patrons now more than ever.”

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Project losses are “a moving target,” she noted. “A lot of it will depend on the capability of our patrons to donate their tickets back to us. That will be our first line of defense — the ticket-buyers who are able to convert their tickets to a tax deductible donation. We won’t then have to refund that money, which is a profound help to us at this time. After that, we’ll have to begin the triage process.

“It’s hard to judge until we make this announcement and get a feel for where all of this will land.”

But if a miracle like the one on 34th Street comes early to the theater’s home on 38th Avenue, “You can betcha we’ll bust open our doors,” Shields said.

“Theater people are wildly creative and nimble and responsive, so we will be able to put together shows,” she said. “They won’t necessarily have the same kind of upfront costs and expenditures, but we’ll certainly be ready to entertain.”

Online offerings

With help from the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), the theater’s core staff of eight are still on the job, trying to figure out ways to bring educational outreach and other mainstay programming to the online realm.

“We want to play in that (virtual) space as long as people still need that kind of content,” Shields said, “and it looks like people are going to need that content for weeks and months to come.”

Since about 80 percent of the theater’s $1.1 million budget is generated through ticket sales, Shields said: “We’re hopeful that in the months to come, we will find ways to generate revenue, whether it’s opportunities for shows that we are able to produce because restrictions are lifted, or we’ve found creative ways to monetize some of our online programming.

“We’ll try to keep people employed as along as we can and as long as it’s healthy for the theater to do so.”

Acting classes by the theater’s interim artistic directors, Keegan Christopher and wife Katie Colletta, have already gone online. Designed for children ages 3 to 12, cost is $40 for four sessions, with lengths varying according to ages.

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Now in Session 2, Shields said they’ve had “some really great feedback from parents,” and the theater will “continue to explore that space in terms of educational opportunities.”

A virtual Camp Creamery has been created, as well, combining live Zoom and prerecorded content. Session are being offered to the various host cities and sites around the state.

Scholarships are available to help defray costs for the educational offerings.

An initial bright spot after the darkness was the April 3 “Songs to Make You Smile” virtual cabaret, which raised more than $17,000 for area theater troupes and featured 54 performers.

An encore is planned for 7:30 p.m. May 23 on YouTube live, with proceeds evenly divided between the Old Creamery, Riverside Theatre in Iowa City, Coralville Center for the Performing Arts and Theatre Cedar Rapids.

“We’re really excited about that,” Shields said. “That project filled us with joy, just working on it. I’m getting all of these submissions from our high school and elementary school students, and they’re just, ah, you can’t help but smile.”

Videos from the young people will merge with the adult performers on music from “Shrek” and “The Little Mermaid.” And the finale will entail a large-group number, after a program full of variety.

Looking ahead

With the Old Creamery’s 50th anniversary on the horizon, the staff and board are planning a banner year for 2021.

“We’ve been thinking a lot about it,” Shields said, adding that while they’ve loved the 2020 season lineup, “We have some really special titles for next season. I think everyone will be really excited about what we’re putting together for 2021.”

Those shows will be unveiled Aug. during an ice cream socially distant announcement.

One aspect that is on ice at the moment is the plan for relocating the theater’s home.

“I think the enthusiasm remains with the partners we were talking to before all of this happened,” Shields said. “We are understandably pausing that activity for now, so we can focus on the long-term outlook for our organization before finding any new partnerships.”

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She came onboard the Old Creamery staff the week “Buddy” opened, and immediately began planning how to keep the show open, or ultimately, close it at the end of that week. But she’s determined to keep forging ahead and staying positive through these tough times.

“In those lower moments — everybody has their ups and downs with this — I can start to feel really sorry for myself,” she said. “But really, I don’t know what I would be doing if I weren’t fighting for something that I love so much.

“At least in this world where there is so much unknown, I know that I believe in theater and that fighting for Old Creamery to be around for another 50 years is something that gets me out of bed, even on the hardest of days.”

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

Online

• What: Songs to Make You Smile: A Virtual Encore!

• Benefit: For Old Creamery Theatre in Amana, Coralville Center for the Performing Arts, Riverside Theatre in Iowa City and Theatre Cedar Rapids

• When: 7:30 p.m. May 23

• Where: YouTube livestream on each theater’s Facebook page

• Cost: $5 or more suggested donation; proceeds divided among the participating theaters

• Details and donations: Oldcreamery.com/shows-and-tickets/songs-make-you-smile-encore/

Education

• Camp Creamery: Oldcreamery.com/education/camp-creamery-workshops/

• Acting classes: Oldcreamery.com/education/actingclasses/

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