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From Parking Garage Performances To Building Furniture, Theater Groups Find Ways To Stay Viable

Abbi Houson (left) and Rainy Edwards stay socially distant while working on custom projects.
Abbi Houson (left) and Rainy Edwards stay socially distant while working on custom projects.

Stay-at-home orders went into effect in March, effectively ending live performances for months. Since then, professional and community theater groups have tried to find ways to survive. Some have found new platforms to reach audiences while others have created new revenue streams.

Rob Bucher runs the website Behind the Curtain Cincinnati, which provides an overview of local theater: what's showing, what performances are coming up, when auditions are, and so on. Since theaters have gone dark from the pandemic, Bucher says theaters have had to get creative. He says the Incline Theater has moved performances outside.

"They're taking over the top level of the parking garage, putting out tables of four, and performing cabaret style music."

Bucher says the Know Theater has taken its most recent show on the road. The stage for Fannie Lou Hamer, Speak On It! is the back of a pickup truck. "She is on the back of a pickup truck with her music man. They're performing anywhere from outside the Know Theater, to the Carnegie in Covington to the Fitton Center in Hamilton," he says.

A number of theater groups have gone virtual, with online, on-demand plays, while others are offering scripted radio dramas. The Cincinnati Shakespeare Company has offered some outdoor performances this year, but it's also taking a different approach to financial survival.

Justen Locke works on a mantel extension for a customer.
Credit Bill Rinehart / WVXU
Justen Locke works on a mantel extension for a customer.

"Shakes Makes" is the troupe's foray into custom building and creation. Justen Locke usually designs, builds, and lights sets for Shakespeare Company productions. Now, he's building bookcases, bed frames, and even a bar. "I used to work construction. This is just like going back to my roots. I grew up building furniture with my dad, so this is nothing new for me."

The Shakespeare Company is taking orders and creating things to spec to bring in revenue.

Producing Artistic Director Brian Isaac Phillips says when the state health orders came in March, it interrupted an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. "That had practically a sold-out run that we were halfway through. We were in rehearsal for our production of Hamlet."

He says they had to pivot quickly. "One of the things that was obviously in need right away was wearing masks and producing masks. Our costume shop and production department started doing that."

Production manager Abbi Howson says mask making was an obvious place to start. "We have the skills to do the thing. I think we started it and we were like 'Maybe we'll do 150 masks the first week' and we sold out that night. It was kind of like 'How many can we do?' I think we ended up doing 300 masks a week for the better part of a month."

From masks, Abbi and Resident Costume Designer Rainy Edwards started expanding into reusable napkins, towels, and tote bags. "We are also doing Halloween costumes, but that depends on how intricate it is because we can't have people come in here now. We're also doing alterations, suits, blazers," Edwards says. "I can also do bridesmaids dresses."

Rainy Edwards is the resident costume designer for the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company.
Credit Bill Rinehart / WVXU
Rainy Edwards is the resident costume designer for the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company.

Brian Isaac Phillips says the work has helped more than the company's finances. "Even if you can't do exactly what it is that you thought your job was going to be, to continue to be of service, and to make something that is going to be able to bring joy, that might only be tangentially related to Shakespeare but is still your craft, I think is very important."

Rob Bucher of Behind the Curtain says not being allowed to perform before a live audience has been tough on companies. "We have such a huge breadth and depth of arts in this city. To lose anything, especially some of the ones that have been around for so long, it would be a tragedy. I don't know if we would recover back to where we were if we do lose some of these," he says.

Bucher says Congress needs to approve aid for the arts. Phillips says Cincinnati Shakespeare received a PPP loan earlier in the year, and if they are approved for another, they will put as many people back to work as possible.

Phillips says he hopes the company can reopen its theater to the public soon, but in the meantime, will continue the Shakes Makes program. He says if its popular enough, they might keep going after the curtain rises.

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