With COVID precautions in place, the show must go on at the River Campus

Madison Jackson sings through a clear plastic face mask in the role of Violet during a dress rehearsal of the musical production of "9 to 5" at the River Campus.

We've all heard it. For those in the performing arts, the axiom is as familiar as their own names.

"The show must go on."

But at many live theater venues across the nation, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it impossible, or at least very difficult, for the "show to go on."

Everything from Broadway shows to regional Shakespeare festivals have taken a back seat to corona virus with theater companies closing their box offices indefinitely, shutting down much of America's live theater industry.

"There's no question about it," said Ken Stilson, chair of the Jeanine Dobbins Conservatory of Theater and Dance at Southeast Missouri State University. "Every live theater and performing arts company in the country is taking a massive hit at the box office."

The conservatory is part of the Holland College of Arts and Media and since 2007 has produced and hosted hundreds of musicals, dramatic performances, concerts, dance performances, recitals, receptions and other programs on the university's River Campus.

Despite the pandemic, the River Campus has remained open and has found ways to deal with masks, social distancing, limited event attendance and the ever-present potential of faculty, staff and student quarantines.

"We took a hit, there's no doubt we took a hit," said Stilson's spouse, Rhonda Weller-Stilson, who serves as dean of the college. "Season ticket sales are down because many of our season ticket holders are older and are reluctant to come. Obviously we understand that completely."

Students practice movement exercises during an acting class held outdoors at the River Campus

Training students

The pandemic has forced the faculty, staff and students at the River Campus to deal with more challenges and obstacles than they've ever encountered.

"A lot of college programs aren't even producing this year or they're just doing everything remotely where the actors aren't even in the same space," Kenn Stilson said. "We're one of only a handful of programs in the country producing live events right now."

The River Campus could have chosen to cancel most or all of its 2020-21 performance schedule, but doing so would have been contrary to the university's mission, he said.

"Our mission is to train students," he said. "Our focus is on giving students experiential opportunities that are going to assist in their training and that's the reason we feel it's so very important that even though our houses are only at 20%, it important that we continue to produce simply because that's our primary mission -- to train these young professional artists."

Among River Campus faculty, staff and students, the pandemic is not viewed as an insurmountable problem, but rather as a challenge to be solved.

"Albert Einstein once said, and this is a gross paraphrase, but I really do believe it, that with every crisis comes great opportunity," Stilson said. "That makes sense as we adapt to the circumstances."

The faculty, staff and students have approached the challenges posed by coronavirus as a learning experience, a puzzle to be solved. And for the most part, they're discovering that for every obstacle, there is a solution.

"We talk daily about the health and safety of things and how to proceed," Stilson said. "That pretty much guides everything we do both in the classroom and in production."

New rules

Mask, social distancing and hygiene rules are in place throughout the River Campus, including the stages of the Donald C. Bedell Performance Hall, the Wendy Kurka Rust Flexible Theatre and the Robert F. and Gertrude L. Shuck Music Recital Hall.

"We have procedures and protocols to follow," the conservatory chairman explained. "The state has guidelines, the university has guidelines and there's a committee that determines procedures and protocols with regard to mass gatherings at the university for everything from football and basketball games to theater, dance and music performances. We have to follow those guidelines and then, on top of that, we have our own guidelines that are more specific to what we do."

For instance, all performers must be separated by at least six feet (12 feet if they're singing) and must be masked. That, alone, can be challenging. "Try staging a musical in which two people fall in love and they can't be within 12 feet of each other," Stilson said. "And they're wearing masks."

In addition, he said, "there's hand sanitizer all over the place, we do temperature checks when everybody checks in and we do daily checkups" with the student health clinic.

As for audience sizes, coronavirus has limited attendance in the Bedell Performance Hall to just over 200 socially distanced patrons, or just over 20% of the auditorium's 950 capacity. Depending on the performance, audience capacity in the Rust theater and Shuck recital hall has been limited to no more than a few dozen.

"We have a pretty short rein on how we are handling all of our protocols that center around COVID-19, keeping the students safe, and so far we've been really very successful," Stilson said.

Alec Hatchell gestures towards Patti Meadors and Madison Jackson during a dress rehearsal of "9 to 5" in the Bedell Performance Hall at the River Campus.

Tighter show budgets

With reduced income from ticket sales because of audience size limits, Stilson said River Campus productions are on a tight budget.

"We are box office driven and so if you don't have as much box office coming in, you have to find ways to proceed with the amount of money you have," he said.

To help make up for the revenue shortfall, and when allowed by licensing companies, access to recordings or "livestream" versions of River Campus productions are available for purchase through the box office.

Offering online access to River Campus productions not only allows theater patrons to watch productions in their own living room, but it also benefits university students who learn about video production.

Among the ways the River Campus is managing production costs is by reducing the costs of scenery, costumes and props whenever possible. Those measures not only reduce expenses, but also add an extra element of safety for student casts and crews.

"We're not using as much moving scenery because you can't have people touching common surfaces and you can't have as many props as you would in a normal production because the properties are handled by multiple people," Stilson explained. "And if you've got multiple people touching props or scenery, you risk spreading germs, disease and virus, so we have scaled back not just for economics, but we've also scaled back for safety."

Multiple costume changes, especially those that involve "quick" changes, have also been limited.

"Quick changes involve an actor walking offstage and they may have 20 seconds to go from one costume to another and to do that the actor has to walk offstage and essentially spread their arms out and have three or four dressers who are undressing them and redressing them in 20 seconds and to do that requires touch. We can't do that," he said.

"So what we're doing is we're making adjustments in our productions, but when it comes to the acting, to the singing, to the dancing and to the storytelling, audiences should expect the same high caliber work they've always seen," Stilson said.

And despite masks worn by the performers, audience members shouldn't notice any reduction in sound quality, something Stilson attributes to Hankyu Lee, one of the newest members of the conservatory faculty.

"It's just dumb luck as far as the timing is concerned, but we hired an extraordinary new faculty member who is a sound engineer and sound designer," he said.

Originally from South Korea, Lee earned a Master of Fine Arts Degree in sound engineering from the University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music, "one of the most prestigious programs the nation," Stilson said.

"Before that he had about 10 years of professional experience doing sound engineering in the upper levels of theater in South Korea, so he comes with a wealth of knowledge and experience," he said. "He is amazing."

Thanks to Lee's sound engineering expertise, Stilson said face masks used by performers don't affect the quality of their singing and speaking voices. "He is actually able to take out the muffled effect," he said.

As for the masks themselves, they've been specially designed by conservatory costume shop supervisor Deana Luetkenhaus and feature clear plastic in front of performers' mouths, allowing audience members to see more of their faces, and cloth sides to let performers breathe easily.

Lee and Luetkenhaus are just two examples of faculty members at the River Campus who are helping the Holland College of Arts and Media find ways to overcome pandemic obstacles.

'This has opened our eyes'

Overall, according to Weller-Stilson, the pandemic has made the college's faculty -- as well as faculty in the university's other colleges -- more mindful of student health and well-being.

"This has opened our eyes to see things happen that are out of our control," Weller-Stilson said, and explained that in years past, there were no excuses for missing a rehearsal or performance and an unscheduled absence often meant expulsion from a show.

"We took ourselves so seriously. It was like life or death, you had to be there," she said. "But now we're putting things in perspective. Physical and mental health is more important."

Students, the dean said, are still expected to put in the work. "We still expect people to be on time and we still expect them to do the work they're supposed to do, but now, if a student calls 15 minutes before a rehearsal and says they're not feeling well, we want them to stay home and take care of themselves," Weller-Stilson continued.

The pandemic has enhanced an attitude of cooperation at the River Campus and throughout the university, according to Robert Cerchio, assistant director in the Holland College of Arts and Media.

"I've been impressed with everyone's flexibility," Cerchio said.

"Before Covid it was 'no, we can't do that' or 'no, you can't do that,' not all the time, but there was some inflexibility and sometimes it was difficult to make things happen, but when Covid happened it seemed to bring out the best in people," he said

"It's like we've circled the wagons against Covid and we're going to protect ourselves, protect our audience and protect our students to get through this," Cerchio said. "In that way, it's been a wonderful experience."

"None of us were willing to give up," Weller-Stilson added. "Everybody was like 'how can we make this happen for the students?' and that's been our focus from the beginning."

Not only has the Holland College of Arts and Media faculty and staff put in extra effort to figure out how to cope with the pandemic, but so, too, have the students, almost all of whom, Weller-Stilson and Cerchio said, appear to have packed multiple masks in their luggage when they moved into the residence halls this semester.

"I was amazed the first week of class this semester when I saw the marching band people get out of their cars, park along Fountain Street and walk to marching band practice with their masks on, outside in the open air," Cerchio said. "Walking in ones and twos and they all had their masks on. For the most part, the kids are like 'look, we're here, we want to be part of this university, we don't want the university to close and we don't want to be sent home, so we're wearing a mask.'"

Staying connected with patrons

As for the financial impact coronavirus has had at the River Campus due to decreased ticket sales and reduced attendance, Cerchio said that's not the primary concern of anyone connected with the program.

"We're an educational institution, so we have a base from which to draw financially, but we still have to raise a lot of money," he said.

Cerchio said he and others are appreciative of the box office staff as well as season ticket holders and other patrons of the River Campus for their understanding.

"This has been difficult for some of our audience members simply because this (the pandemic) hit us so quickly," he said. "Our 20-21 season had been set, our season tickets had been mailed, and all of the sudden performances are changed from in-person to virtual or dates have changed or the venue was moved. Our box office manager would be on the phone from 8 o'clock in the morning until 5 o'clock in the evening calling ticket patrons, changing tickets, exchanging tickets and refunding tickets for people who did not want a virtual performance or who did not want to come to the theater."

In addition to sales of tickets for "livestreamed" performances when video productions are allowed, another new source of revenue this fall comes courtesy of the Theater Alliance in New York City.

The alliance has created an online program called "Keeping Live Theater Alive" to support professional theater companies across the nation as well as a small number of collegiate theater programs.

The "Keeping Live Theater Alive" program features a cast of Broadway stars such as Tony Shalhoub, John Lithgow, Bryan Cranston and others who have produced videos of themselves performing monologues and dramatic readings.

"These stars are doing stuff they wrote or things that are very personal to them as a 'thank you' to theater patrons," Kenn Stilson said. "We're one of a handful of university training programs, about five or six across the country, invited to participate in this."

The video segments have been embedded on the Dobbins Conservatory website, semo.edu/theatreanddance, and are free to watch.

"There's a 'giving' link people can use if they want to donate, but the site is free of charge," Stilson said.

Asked when things will things return to "normal" on the River Campus, Weller-Stilson said it's a good question.

"It's all such a crap shoot," Weller-Stilson said, "and it's based on what happens with a vaccine. And it's not going to get back to normal the day the vaccine comes out. It's going to be a while."

Cerchio agrees. "There's nothing like live entertainment," he said. "It's a wonderful way to experience a performance and so the longer this (pandemic) goes, the more people are going to want live entertainment to come back. It's going to take a while. How long? I don't know. It will take a while for us to get even close to what we've had in the past, but it will happen. It will come back."