Community

Riverside Theatre leaving home stage, but like Theatre Cedar Rapids, is exploring virtual realms

COVID-19 quarantine protocols canceled the final two performances of #x201c;Stages#x201d; at Riverside Theatre in Iowa C
COVID-19 quarantine protocols canceled the final two performances of “Stages” at Riverside Theatre in Iowa City after March 13. The solo show by playwright and actor David Lee Nelson of Greenville, S.C., took audiences on the roller coaster ride his life became after being diagnosed with Stage 4 early-onset colon cancer at age 38. And now Riverside is entering a new stage, vacating its home on North Gilbert Street at the end of June. (Rob Merritt)
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Two of the major players on the Corridor theater scene are re-imagining the ways they can connect with community outside their familiar surroundings.

Theatre Cedar Rapids and Riverside Theatre in Iowa City, not content with putting their content on pause, are hitting the restart button as they navigate through pandemic protocols.

For Riverside, that means planning for life on the road, while moving out of its home this month.

For 30 years, the small professional theater company has blurred the lines between action and audience by staging meaty stories in intimate surroundings at 213 N. Gilbert St. But the lease expires June 30, and Producing Artistic Director Adam Knight said it doesn’t make sense to sign a new lease for a space that most likely can’t be used in the coming year.

“All of its strengths suddenly became weaknesses,” he said. “Because it’s a space with such intimacy, it’s a space that’s impossible to socially distance in.”

New Territory

So he said Riverside is taking a page from Hancher’s post-flood playbook, creating community partnerships to allow staging plays in other venues until a new permanent home can be found downtown, projected for fall 2021.

All the world becomes a stage when seeking to place shows in such diverse surroundings as restaurants, churches, art galleries, Riverside’s outdoor Festival Stage or perhaps even at FilmScene. That’s the kind of theater Knight produced in New York City before coming to Iowa City in 2018.

“One of the first questions I asked the board was, ‘What would Riverside do if it didn’t have a stage?’ It forces us to think beyond what we think theater is and what we think Riverside’s role in the community is,” he said.

“The trick is not to take venues and make them into what Riverside was, but to tailor the play to the performance space, and to find performance spaces that have their own stories to tell — the space almost becomes a character. And especially in this moment, theater companies need to be flexible and need to be thinking of new ways to achieve our mission.”

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One of those ways is through the virtual realm, which both Riverside and Theatre Cedar Rapids have been exploring since closing their doors in March, as COVID-19 spread into Iowa.

TCR is suspending its 2020 season until it’s deemed safe to bring audiences, performers and crew members back into its historic home at 102 Third St. SE.

Whereas Riverside’s live performance decisions are guided by Actors’ Equity Association, the labor union representing professional theater, TCR, living in the community theater world, is taking its cues from the Linn County Public Health guidelines — and ultimately, from Broadway.

When New York theaters do reopen, the shows staged there and going on tour will influence the licensing and script availability for regional and community theaters, said Katie Hallman, TCR’s executive director.

“The puzzle of how performing arts venues will reopen is so much bigger than our immediate locale,” Hallman said. “When you speak to our friends at venues that rely on booking in shows, they’ll share that as well. What they’re beholden to is so much bigger than just a booker that they would work with normally, at least in this region. There’s a national puzzle going on for how (performances) will come back.”

Virtual Realities

Both theaters have been moving toward online programming this spring, with TCR creating staged readings of “The Skin of Our Teeth” and the Underground New Play Festival shows.

Riverside created “Thirty Days of Shakespeare.” This “April project in exile” featured a month of daily Facebook posts with a Riverside artist performing a Shakespearean monologue. Designed to raise awareness for the free outdoor production of “The Winter’s Tale,” the project also turned into a fundraiser.

Knight is hopeful that Riverside’s annual gift to the community, postponed from its June dates, can be performed later this summer on the Festival Stage in Iowa City’s Lower City Park.

The public’s response to the virtual programming has been so positive that both groups are planning to use this tool to reach new and wider audiences in the immediate future and in years to come.

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TCR has been offering online meetups for script readings and cultural conversations, and this week announced virtual summer camps for students from preschool through high school.

Monetizing these events also is new territory, with so many online arts events streaming free, with suggested donations. Going forward, Hallman projects more activities will go behind a pay wall, like TCR’s summer camps.

Even with some money coming in from these initiatives, as well as donations, sponsorships and grants, Hallman said that by the end of the year, TCR will see a seven-figure deficit in its $2.3 million operating budget. Ticket revenue makes up half the budget, and with the summer blockbusters of “Kinky Boots” and “Mamma Mia” on hold, the loss is significant, and all but five of the staff members have been laid off.

Riverside, with an annual budget around $450,000, also has had to lay off its box office staff and reduce some employee hours. But it still was poised better for the COVID-19 quarantine, Knight said, since its season was nearly over. Rehearsals hadn’t yet started for “A Doll’s House, Part 2” and a five-week vacation already was in the schedule.

“So we dodged a bullet,” he said. “But long-term, it’s not sustainable. We have to be producing theater, not only to fulfill our mission, but also to survive as a company. Over the last months, we’ve had a lot of amazing support from the community. It’s been incredibly heartening, how many people have stepped up. We’ve been crying some at work.”

While charting these uncertain waters, both Hallman and Knight are embracing the challenges to keep their troupes moving forward.

“We could contingency-plan ourselves to oblivion,” Hallman said, “but what we have to do right now is get to work. By not putting a deadline on (reopening), our goal is to stay as nimble as possible and just start getting programming out to the community.”

Staying positive is key. “It is absolutely my honor and it’s my responsibility,” she said. “It’s imagining how the spirit of TCR can drive the vitality for our city and our community. ,,, I love it so much.”

To View

• What: Theatre Cedar Rapids, 102 Third St. SE, Cedar Rapids

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• Virtual programming: Theatrecr.org/tcr-online/

• Day of Giving Birthday Bash: 12:00:01 a.m. to 11:59:59 p.m. June 11; Theatrecr.org/support/dayofgiving/

• What: Riverside Theatre, 213 N. Gilbert St., Iowa City

• Updates: Riversidetheatre.org

• Sweatpants & Slippers: Online gala and silent auction benefit, 7 p.m. June 14; Riversidetheatre.org/gala

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

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