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Theater Producers Go Rogue In The COVID Era

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(AP Photo/John Locher)

Natalie Senecal performs during a drive-thru theater performance at the Majestic Repertory Theatre, Saturday, May 16, 2020, in Las Vegas. The theater held interactive performances for people in their cars as they sold masks to raise money while closed during the coronavirus outbreak.

We’re well over six months into the pandemic and most things have opened back up - casinos, restaurants, even bars.

But even with Governor Steve Sisolak relaxing some of the guidelines that previously shut down nearly all forms of entertainment, thousands of actors, musicians and professionals remain without a paycheck. 

For local theater companies to survive COVID-19, the show must (somehow) go on. 

So, some of them have found clever workarounds, including “ambient” performances -- the only ones allowed under the state’s guidelines.  

Sabrina Cofield is an actress and board member for The Lab LV, and director of the theater company’s latest play, "Pass Over," which debuts Oct. 15.  

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The performance will take place outdoors with the audience wearing masks and socially distanced. The producers have described it as a panel discussion with the "ambient dialogue" of "Pass Over" by Antoinette Nwandu. 

Cofield told KNPR's State of Nevada that the idea for ambient dialogue came about because there has not been any clear information from the state about how to safely conduct live performances.

“It’s just making sure we stay within the mandates set by the state, but still allowing ourselves to be creative and to express ourselves and also have these really important conversations that we think will happen with ‘Pass Over,’” she said.

The Lab LV will hold the performance at a private location, and the audience will have to bring their own chairs or blankets. Cofield said that will add to the overall ambiance of the play.

“The lovely thing about what we are doing and specifically the ambient dialogue of ‘Pass Over’ is it takes place outside and so being outdoors fits perfectly within the idea of us all sitting out in an open space and people bringing their own chairs,” she said.

The play itself is centered on two Black men standing on the corner of an unnamed city longing for life to be different. The play has been described as "Waiting for Godot" in the era of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Cofield said she hopes the play opens up a conversation that is needed in Southern Nevada, which is why the theater didn't want to wait until live theater is entirely open again to put on the play.

“I think it is very clear that we cannot wait. That what was really front and center for this particular show, at this particular time," she said.

Another theater company that as come up with a unique workaround of the pandemic rules is the Majestic Repertory Theater. 

The company will be performing "The Parking Lot" like a drive-in theater, but it's a bonus to the merchandise item you're buying because Majestic can't sell tickets to live performances.

“It’s a drive-in show," said Troy Heard, artistic director. "You arrive in your vehicle. You stay in your vehicle for the duration of the show and you can’t sell tickets to live events, but you can sell retail," he said, "So, we’re selling a customized air freshener that you can sit in your car and enjoy the new car scent while enjoying the ambient experience of the show.”

The actors' microphones will be tuned to an FM frequency that people can get on their car radios.

Heard said that Majestic is already known for immersive-type theater and so this production was not too far off base from what they did before the pandemic.

“We do miss the one-on-one experience not separated by a plate of glass, but for now, this is the story that was given to us to share and we’re rolling with it,” he said.

He noted that creative people will come up with a way to get their work in front of an audience.

“It’s going to be a long time before we’re even allowed to set foot back into the theaters, but I think what Sabrina and Kate at The Lab are on the same path with me is we’re just trying to find a way to get back together to tell stories and share space in some way or another," he said.

The play itself was written by Adam Szymkowicz. It is about a couple who has been together for 10 years, but now after quarantining together, they are considering getting a divorce.

Heard said the play is a metaphor for the world right now.

“Like a parking lot, we’re stalled. Theater companies are stalled, venues are stalled, artists are stalled, but what do we do to survive and breathe and connect while we are stalled and [explore] how can we have hope for what’s next?” he said.

Heard has been vocal about his opposition to how the rules about live performances are being enforced in the state. He said there is a crisis going on now in Las Vegas' theater community because they are not allowed to produce.

“If you’re Ford or Chevy, you produce cars in your assembly line. Our assembly line are performers, writers, technicians, designers who come together to create this product, and right now, we are not allowed to create the product because we supposedly can’t [ensure] safety [of] our consumers?” he said.

Heard understands why Gov. Steve Sisolak shut down much of the economy to stop the spread of the virus but he doesn't believe the rules are consistent.

For example, the governor was criticized for going to a restaurant that had ambient entertainment in the form of a band and a singer. When pressed about the issue, the governor noted ambient music is allowed.

Heard doesn't understand how that is allowed but a drive-in theater experience is not.

“How is that any less dangerous than sitting in a car in a drive-in?” he said.

He said he would love to sit down and talk with the governor about the issue. If the rules don't change, he had a dire prediction for Southern Nevada's theater industry.

“Here’s what’s going to happen: If we can’t generate income and the government is not going to subsidize these nonprofit corporations, you’re going to see A) a quick shutdown of venues and B) drainage of performers, of artists, of entertainers out of Las Vegas, and you’re seeing that right now,” he said.   

Guests

Sabrina Cofield, director of "Pass Over," actress and board member, The Lab LV; Troy Heard, artistic director, Majestic Repertory 

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