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Face masks, drive-in shows and other ways live theater is changing during pandemic

A few theaters in Utah are reopening with strict social distancing measures, while others are finding new ways to stay connected with audiences

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Jake and Ann Despain clap following a showing of the “Corona Conundrum” at Utah’s Children’s Theatre in Salt Lake City on Friday, May 29, 2020. The theater reopened but requires guests to wear masks and sit in socially distanced reserved seating.

Ivy Ceballo, Deseret News

There are empty seats in the audience, which normally is not something a theater likes to see on opening night. But for this particular performance, the empty space is by design.

Whole rows separate audience members from each other, and each of them are wearing face masks. When the actors come on stage, there is separation for them, as well — each actor stands on an individual platform to keep distance from their fellow performers.

But as the show begins, the laughs and reactions from the audience are the same as any other pre-pandemic theater performance.

This is a scene from the Parker Theatre (formerly the Utah Children’s Theatre) in Salt Lake City, which received a mention in the New York Times earlier this week for its socially distanced performance of “The Corona Conundrum,” which runs through June 6. Other measures that the theater has put in place include limiting the number of entrances and exits to the theater and limiting open restrooms in order to comply with social distancing requirements.

However, other theaters in Utah have been in a state of limbo, unsure of when guidelines will be eased to the point that they can welcome back audiences.

Theaters like the Eccles Theater and Capitol Theatre in Salt Lake City will remain closed until at least June 30, by order of Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson.

CenterPoint Legacy Theatre in Centerville was able to perform only the first of its shows scheduled for the 2020 season before the novel coronavirus pandemic struck, leading theaters around the country to close their doors.

The theater still intends to stage all of the shows that were scheduled for 2020 — the question is simply when.

It’s a question that theaters across Utah have had to face: When will they be able to return to the stage? And for the few that have already begun to do so, what will theater performances look like if social distancing remains the norm?

A few theaters in Utah (including the Parker Theatre) have begun to reopen with strict social distancing measures in place, which could show a guideline of what could be next.

Meanwhile, the SCERA Center for the Arts in Orem is preparing to perform “The Scarlet Pimpernel” — which had been scheduled to run earlier this year before being postponed due to COVID-19 — in its outdoor theater beginning June 5.

SCERA will stage “The Scarlet Pimpernel” with social distancing measures in place, including reducing the number of guests, allowing for more space between chairs, and strongly encouraging members of the audience to wear masks.

For theaters that are still unable or have chosen not to reopen yet, some are finding ways to get creative in reaching out to audiences. Hale Center Theater in Orem began the Hale@Home series in March, streaming recordings of past performances through its website, with a new show each weekend.

CenterPoint will also be streaming an online performance, a virtual concert on June 6. The Reconnect Concert will feature performances from some of the theater’s actors.

The idea for the concert came about as the staff of CenterPoint asked themselves, “What can we do? You know, we’re designed as an organization to gather the community together,” Jansen Davis, executive director of CenterPoint, told the Deseret News in an interview.

The Reconnect Concert comes at the time of year when CenterPoint traditionally holds its fundraising gala, and although there will be opportunities to donate and support the theater during the event, the concert will be free to watch.

Looking ahead to the summer, Davis told the Deseret News that CenterPoint is looking into holding a “drive-in” concert, with audience members remaining in their cars and listening through an FM radio broadcast.

A drive-in theater production is also taking place at the Gateway in Salt Lake City starting June 4. “Through Yonder Window” is being called an “immersive theater experience,” performed by SONDERimmersive, a Salt Lake City-based dance and theater group. The show will take place in a parking garage, with audience members remaining in their cars throughout the performance.

Theaters will continue to find ways to keep audiences safe while also providing the entertainment that so many need right now.

“We’re just trying a lot of different things to try to figure out how we can still be a positive force here in our community and prepare ourselves for, hopefully, when we can all get back together,” Davis said.