Community Theaters Respond to COVID-19

by Judy Dixon Hebbe

When COVID-19 struck the Fox Cities in 2020, it brought the curtain down on all community theaters except Neenah’s Riverside Players, which plays in the shelter at Riverside Park.

The Neenah Department of Parks and Recreation, which funds the program through tax dollars, donations, and ticket sales, chose to produce a variety musical, “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” during the summer of 2020. The six performances were held free of charge in the bandshell at the back of the shelter. Park benches were placed at designated distances and patrons could also bring their own chairs.

“We felt that this was a safe outdoor program presentation,” said Superintendent of 

Recreation Jim Kluge. In the new year, he will be soliciting suggestions from area directors for a musical and a play for the 2022 season and plans to schedule the chosen presentations in the summer.

Attic Theatre, Kaukauna Community Players, and Papermaker Players, all community theaters that rely on academic facilities for performance venues, were closed for the year. The latter two companies were also prohibited from producing at their high school sites in Kaukauna and Kimberly this fall. 

“We are planning to resume production next fall,” said Linda Mongin, who serves on the board of directors for Papermaker Players and has directed many of their productions. “Although we were anxious to get back on stage, safety comes first. We are a family-oriented company and choose plays that have children as well as adults in them so families may participate together.”

Attic Theatre, which has been performing summers on the UWO-Fox Cities campus for the past 15 years, prepared to open a June performance of “Jeeves at Sea” in James Perry Hall following school protocols that required masking of patrons and ushers, social distancing, and restricted activity in the lobby.  

The weekend before the set was to be installed, there was a rainstorm and a false fire alarm went off backstage, causing the curtain to drop and the roof vents to open. Instead of drafting a fire up and out of the vents, the rain poured through. By the time firefighters and school staff arrived, the curtain was soaked, and the stage floor was beginning to warp. Although the school allowed the use of the Baehman Theatre without social distancing, Attic staff had to reschedule ticket holders and add a performance to accommodate those patrons. The second summer offering continued with the revised protocols, but they changed again for the November show. Attic Theatre will also be presenting a play in February and anticipates a summer season in 2022.

Attic President Bob Ernst described the developing protocols at the school as “a moving target.” It is a case of stop, adapt, and change. The protocols loosened up for the summer and tightened up this fall having everyone masked, actors with face shields, and no refreshments or lobby pre-show gathering. Any actor who tests positive for COVID will be immediately quarantined and an understudy, without rehearsal time, will step in with a script in hand.”

Unable to schedule a musical this past summer, Kaukauna Community Players produced an October reader’s theater presentation of “The Undeniable Sound of Right Now” at the recently renovated Vaudette Theater. The three performances drew small, but enthusiastic audiences. Masks were optional.

“We were devastated by the shutdown. Two years without a musical,” lamented KCP President Claudia Weaver. Although the board of directors and longtime company director, Linda Felten, are looking forward to producing “Cinderella” next June, the high school has yet to enter into negotiations for the space.  

All four community theater companies continue to receive expressions of interest in participation and financial support and are attempting to keep their volunteers informed of present and future plans.