Staging a play? Hard. Staging a play in the middle of a pandemic? Harder. Staging a play in a pandemic where rules to protect artists and audiences are constantly changing? Hardest.
Theatre Elision's "Islander," one of the first indoor productions in the Twin Cities in 16 months, premieres Thursday. The whimsical musical has been in the planning stages for months, including a couple of false starts when it looked like COVID-19 was ebbing, and rehearsals began in mid-June. But it wasn't until the third week of rehearsal that Christine Wade, who's in the show and is a member of Elision's artistic team, believed it would actually happen.
A big part of that uncertainty has been safety considerations that changed dramatically after the Actors Equity union approved Elision's plan for "Islander," in which two women play 30 Scottish villagers who become obsessed with the fate of an ailing whale.
The May 13 agreement allowed actors to rehearse unmasked but required them to wear masks in public at all times. They needed to be vaccinated and have weekly COVID-19 tests. Microphones and props had to be constantly sanitized. Food and beverage use was restricted. Costumes had to be disinfected. Audience masks would be required.
Most of those were loosened on June 30, including audience masks, although Elision will still require theatergoers to mask up. The new Equity provisions reflect progress in curbing the pandemic except one: Instead of the audience needing to be at least 6 feet from performers, as previously dictated, they must be 10 feet away.
"We originally blocked it with 6 feet apart, so we're going to have to evaluate how far [toward the audience] we can go," said Wade on June 30. "This will definitely have an impact. I know we don't currently have 10-foot clearance but we'll be able to create it."
Before adjustments such as that, even Elision's choice of "Islander" had a lot to do with COVID-19 (it was originally announced as part of the postponed 2020 season).
"We picked a show that has two actors, although we ended up casting three, and it's short. One act. So it felt like the safest option. And the cheapest option to back out of, if we had to," Wade said.
She's recalling "First Lady Suite," the most expensive show in Elision history. It was supposed to have opened on March 19, 2020, the week after everything shut down (it's now scheduled for next spring). Conversely, "Islander" is thriftier because it has no band (the performers sing a cappella and operate a loop station, with recorded sounds), only two performers (Elision will rotate three women into the roles for safety reasons and to provide an option if someone gets sick) and minimal sets and crew.
That means fewer people to pay. And to keep safe.
"We got approval to offer home [COVID] tests because we thought it was asking a lot for actors to go out to a site every week, on their own time. We thought it was important that we take on the cost of providing rapid, 15-minute tests," said Wade. "If we had a cast of eight, say, that would be thousands of dollars to get all those tests, and there would be a band and everything, too."
Director Lindsay Fitzgerald said making theater in the COVID-19 era was surprisingly easy, in part because of adjustments we've all made.
"We are having to track the mics more, to make sure no one is sharing them, and sanitize things, but we're all so accustomed to this life," said Fitzgerald, who thinks the show's message of reconnecting with other people will grab theatergoers.
One early Equity rule that proved crucial was unmasked rehearsals because the "Islander" company members needed to see one another's mouth.
"We are working with a dialect coach. That was something we decided early on, that we were not going to be able to mask during those rehearsals because learning a dialect from someone with a mask on is impossible. Certain sounds get muddled. So we said, 'Let's take masks off and be distant,' " Fitzgerald said.
The show's demands on its performers, who sing, act and create sound effects, made casting trickier, too.
"Not everyone could do this show. The other two ladies in our cast are immensely skilled musicians," said Wade. "The loop station is very math-heavy, figuring out how it lines up with the music, and it takes a great deal of independence to say, 'We'll all be a cappella, with no one to catch us if we fall.' "
As it happens, Elision is suited to the present moment because that's how it rolls. Its focus on offbeat, singer-centric, smallish plays with music means it does work that can be pulled off more reasonably than a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical with a cast of two dozen hoofers.
Wade and Fitzgerald agree there are ongoing lessons to learn from how theater is adapting to the pandemic.
It's hard to imagine returning to the "gross" practice of sharing microphones, according to Fitzgerald, or the unthinking attitude that "the show must go on."
"Before, the mentality was, 'Oh, you're sick? Here's a bucket.' I don't think we're going to be able to do that anymore, and that's actually good," said Fitzgerald. "It's partly why I'm not a performer anymore. That anxiety around 'What if I'm ill and have to go on?' is so awful."
Wade is excited to get the piece in front of audiences. She thinks they'll find the way it blends voices and sounds "mind-blowing," but she's also jazzed to participate in shaping the theater community that is re-emerging.
"We're trying to move away from this attitude of 'make this your top priority in your life.' Most actors in the Twin Cities have other jobs, weddings to go to, babies, and I think the pandemic gave us this great opportunity to say, 'What if we do things differently?' " Wade said.
She insists that that's the silver lining of the past year: Many Twin Cities institutions are rethinking the way they make theater.
"Now, we have a chance to rewrite the script," Wade said.
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Who: By Finn Anderson, Amy Draper and Stewart Melton. Directed by Lindsay Fitzgerald.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thu.-Sat., 2:30 p.m. Sun. and 2:30 p.m. on July 21 and 28. Ends July 31.
Where: Elision Playhouse, 6105 42nd Av. N., Crystal.
Tickets: $20-$30, elisionproductions.com.