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COVID outbreaks are canceling shows at St. Louis theaters and testing small troupes

The ensemble of New Line Theatre's 'Urinetown' performs a song from the musical. Theater leaders had to cancel 25% of the production's shows after cast members tested positive for the coronavirus.
Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre
The ensemble of New Line Theatre's "Urinetown" performs a song from the musical. Theater leaders had to cancel 25% of the production's shows after cast members tested positive for the coronavirus.

Cherokee Street Theater Company made its second ill-fated attempt to stage a parody of the “Kill Bill” films this month.

The scrappy troupe had postponed a 2020 adaptation of Quentin Tarantino’s work when it shut down operations early in the coronavirus pandemic. With live performances happening regularly around St. Louis, the theater’s leaders felt good about being able to pull it off this summer.

“Then it gets canceled because my whole cast and crew got COVID,” said Ron Strawbridge, who co-founded the company with Suki Peters.

Their experience is increasingly common. Dozens of cast and crew members at St. Louis theater companies have tested positive for the coronavirus this month, causing show postponements and cancellations.

Smaller organizations with tighter budgets are less able to adapt to an environment in which pandemic safety protocols are loosening, even as community spread of the virus in St. Louis remains high.

“We’re not some giant, well-known rock band that can keep rescheduling for two years,” said Strawbridge. “You have the ability to reach out to someone pretty quickly to ask them to step in [when a cast member tests positive], and we tried. But because we're a small company, what we can pay is not what other people can pay.”

Kirkwood Theatre Guild faced a similar problem this month, when a key cast member tested positive for the coronavirus on the eve of the troupe’s final dress rehearsal for the musical “Singin’ in the Rain.”

The troupe scrambled to prepare understudies, but then more people tested positive the next day. Producers canceled the opening weekend, hoping to start performances the following week.

But the positive tests kept coming: 14 in all, according to a theater spokesperson.

“By the time Monday came around, it was just too much. We would not be able to cover everybody’s part,” Tran said.

Kirkwood Theatre Guild canceled the production.

Composer Tobias Picker speaks to Costume Designer James Schuette
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Composer Tobias Picker speaks to costume designer James Schuette during a dress rehearsal of “Awakenings” at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis. The company maintained a strict mask policy throughout rehearsals.

More budget means more flexibility

Before a performance of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” at Opera Theatre of St. Louis on Wednesday evening, patrons sat in the shade under tents, sipping drinks and waiting for showtime.

Compared to last season, when the company performed abbreviated shows on a temporary stage in the parking lot, things looked a lot like they did before the pandemic began.

But the organization’s leaders have scrambled behind the scenes here, too. Cast members in two shows have come down with the virus, as did the principal conductor for a production.

Opera Theatre has the resources to prepare backup singers for most roles and schedule extra rehearsals to respond to last-minute personnel changes. It has also followed strict safety protocols backstage, as required by artists unions.

As the ensemble of “Awakenings” rehearsed in a studio one recent afternoon, each member wore a mask. Down the hall in an administrative office, boxes of at-home coronavirus tests were stacked on a desk. Staff tested singers three times a week and others in the production less frequently. Opera Theatre of St. Louis also requires patrons to show proof of COVID-19 vaccinations to enter the theater; cast and crew must be vaccinated and fully boosted.

“The budget implications have come in some significant overtime in making sure everything is properly prepared and rehearsed,” said General Director Andrew Jorgensen. “Usually, when ‘Carmen’ opens, you pretty much stop rehearsals. This year we kept going, to make sure the understudies were prepared.”

St. Louis Shakespeare Festival has also produced a show this month with no cancellations due to the coronavirus. It tests its personnel regularly during rehearsals. Actors who kiss onstage take additional tests a few hours before each show. The company also has the advantage of performing outdoors, where virus transmission is less likely. No cast members have tested positive, though some crew members have and were replaced.

Smaller arts organizations have less flexibility and often are not bound by union safety requirements. Strawbridge and Trung said the cast members of their productions were not required to use masks during rehearsals.

The team behind New Line Theatre's production of "Urinetown" needed to switch roles around after some cast members came down with the coronavirus.
The team behind New Line Theatre's production of "Urinetown" needed to switch roles around after some cast members came down with the coronavirus.

The cast of New Line Theatre’s “Urinetown” did wear masks throughout most of the rehearsal process. Some of them tested positive for the virus after the show’s opening weekend, and artistic director Scott Miller canceled the second of four planned weekends of shows — costing the troupe a bit more than a quarter of its budgeted ticket revenue.

“We lost three pretty full houses. It’s a lot of money,” Miller said.

But the outbreak was manageable — even as it led to some musical chairs backstage, with some members of the backing ensemble stepping into main roles.

“It was just that we had such a strong ensemble that we could take two people out of it and still have a good ensemble. And those people were so strong that they could pick up the leads and memorize it really quickly,” Miller said.

The troupe is planning for the last three performances of “Urinetown” this weekend.

Most live venues in St. Louis that required masking and proof of vaccination earlier in the pandemic have dropped those rules. But the basics of transmission of the coronavirus are unchanged: It passes more easily from person to person indoors, and good, well-fitted masks cut down on that spread.

Even with the strictest safety protocols backstage, performing arts groups will continue to battle virus outbreaks and potential show cancellations if the coronavirus spreads unchecked.

“While the rest of the world, on airplanes and in many spaces, has decided that the pandemic is over, reminding people that things are not business as usual is incredibly important,” Jorgensen said. “What I’m learning is that while this may look more familiar, normal is no longer a thing.”

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly described the status of Kirkwood Theater Guild's production of "Singin' In The Rain." It has been canceled.

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.