After weeks of rehearsals, Tonia Jackson was days away from opening as the matriarch in the Guthrie Theater's "A Raisin in the Sun" when breakthrough COVID-19 cases in the company forced the show's postponement.
The empty set haunted her like a ghost.
"It's devastating, not just for the actors and director and everybody who's poured so much into it," Jackson said. "I weep for our industry."
As COVID cancels shows from Broadway to Hennepin Avenue, the ensuing scramble is stressing theater companies to their limits. Theaters plot their schedules months, if not years, in advance, paying to build sets and sew costumes while hiring casts and crews, choreographers and coaches.
They operate on a razor's edge in normal times. Now they're absorbing extra costs to ensure the safety of employees and patrons.
Theater's challenges are rooted in the form itself: "Our main ingredient is the human being," said Michael Brindisi, artistic director of Chanhassen Dinner Theatres. "We need to be together to rehearse and perform and we need an audience to perform to. That's a lot of people in the same space."
Despite the challenges, theaters feel their mission is vital. People need inspiring stories. "From a mental health perspective, our children and families need theater, story and community," said Kimberly Motes, managing director of Children's Theatre Company.
A rising risk
Sudden cancellations used to be unheard of. Now they're the norm.
A week and a half ago, three performances of the Broadway tour of "Come From Away" were nixed at the Orpheum Theatre because of COVID cases in the company. The Sept. 11-themed musical resumed only after replacement cast members were flown in from London, New York and Toronto.
Despite hiring extra understudies for "The Music Man," Chanhassen Dinner Theatres had to scrap the final week of the show — originally set to close Sunday — because of COVID.
"Once you've lost your understudy's understudy, you're in trouble," said Chanhassen public relations manager Kris Howland.
Chanhassen could afford understudies. But not all theaters can. Some have had to leave the playing field. When COVID hit the cast of "Into the Woods," which was to open in January at Artistry, the Bloomington theater put the production on ice.
"I was just utterly shocked," said Sally Wingert, the noted actor who was to have directed her first musical. She had put in untold hours of work before rehearsals went poof.
The Guthrie, too, had to cancel the last three performances of "A Christmas Carol," which were sold out, and its spring production of Broadway-aimed "Destiny of Desire."
Blow to budgets
Theaters front-load their production expenses, pouring money into designing and building elements such as sets and costumes. For musicals, there's choreography and dance practices as well as musicians to be hired and orchestras to be rehearsed.
Those expenses can run into the millions for Broadway shows. When a show is shut down, those expenses cannot be recovered.
At Ordway Center in St. Paul, "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical" was scheduled for eight performances at the tail end of the holidays — a crucial season when theaters make up to one-third of their earned income. The 1,900-seat house was forced to cancel the last four performances.
"It was a big show for us and [the lost income] will have a significant impact on our bottom line," said Ordway CEO Chris Harrington. The cancellation reduced the show's revenues by 41%, he said.
Theaters also have been dealt a raft of additional costs because of the pandemic. Chanhassen has hired 20 additional people to check proof of vaccination and work with front-of-house staff. The Guthrie has increased its usher corps and has stopped relying on volunteers.
All the professional houses in town have hired COVID safety officers — medically-trained professionals on call who administer tests, sanitize areas and ensure the well-being of cast and crew. That is a requirement set by Actors' Equity, the union of performers that has imposed strict protocols, including testing actors three times a week in community hotspots, for which Minnesota qualifies.
Those tests aren't cheap. At Chanhassen, where they test about 60 to 80 people several times a week, it costs $1,000 a day.
"Raisin" cast member Jackson said that "theater used to be a contact sport" for her. "But now between working [at the Guthrie], on TV sets and teaching in school, I've been tested for COVID over 200 times in the last six months."
Actors as hermits
Rehearsals have changed in an art form that relies on gesture and nonverbal communication.
"I've found it particularly hard to direct actors I can't see or hear because of masks," Chanhassen's Brindisi said.
Sun Mee Chomet, who plays a mother and a merchant in "Bina's Six Apples" at the Children's Theatre, also found it strange to rehearse in masks for 4½ weeks.
"Someone is playing my daughter and I couldn't see her face until two days before previews started," Chomet said.
Mindful of the virus, the director altered an intimate mother-daughter scene. "We used to touch foreheads but that was changed to wiping brows with a handkerchief," Chomet said. "We have to do everything we can to protect the show — we don't want to close."
That includes carrying the bubble that they maintain in the theater into their personal lives. Actors liken their lifestyles to hermits.
"That's how we're living," Jackson said. "But I can't be selfish. If I'm not careful, I can shut down the production and take food out of people's mouths."
The Guthrie is hopeful that it can bring "Raisin" back in the spring.
"I never imagined that I've have to add epidemiology and public health to the list of things I need to run a theater," Motes said.