Charlie Fee holds a unique position in the American theater scene. He is the producing artistic director of three independently operated, professional theater companies – Great Lakes Theater in Cleveland, Idaho Shakespeare Festival in Boise, Idaho, and Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival in Lake Tahoe, Nevada – that have created an innovative production-sharing alliance.
“Unlike co-producing models, our collaboration creates year-round opportunities for our artists and our production staffs by extending contracts across all three cities,” says Charlie. “In other words, we create all of the work seen in our three cities.”
And then came the pandemic. “We were in the second week of rehearsal for Much Ado About Nothing,” which was to open in Cleveland in March, move to Boise in May and then on to Tahoe in July, “and, early on, it was a continuously changing environment with constantly evolving information about the virus and compliance guidelines.”
When the directive came from Ohio Governor Mike DeWine to shut down operations, the acting company was on a mid-day rehearsal break and Charlie was in a production meeting with the various heads of production, stage management and design. “We went back to rehearsal knowing that it was over, that the show was done, but we couldn’t just leave each other. We decided to run the show, invite the whole company to watch it, and capture it on an iPhone for an archival record.” And then he cancelled the show in Boise and then in Tahoe as the possibility of a production kept evaporating. “It’s tough telling the same group of people, three times, that we are shutting down their show.”
The remainder of the Great Lakes 2019-2020 season, which ends in May, has been cancelled, but there is still the prospect of opening shows in Boise and Tahoe in the summer even though timelines are constantly shifting. “It is a long shot,” admits Charlie. “The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, a neighbor, has shut down entirely. But the Utah Shakespeare Festival, another neighbor, has announced that it is opening in July, but to do so they are planning on rehearsing in an isolated, quarantined location. We’ll see how that goes.”
And if theaters are allowed to open under new protocols, asks Charlie, what will their new productions look like? “Are musicals more dangerous than straight plays because singers project two or three times the distance as speakers? How far apart must musicians be in an orchestra pit? What will be the required distancing in rehearsal and on stage? Can actors kiss? Fight? And we live on ticket sales. Will people show up?”
With the added complexity of managing three theaters comes added opportunities. “I don’t see smaller union theaters opening anytime soon. Fortunately, we are in a stronger position to sit and wait and see.”
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