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With COVID Risk Still High, Chicago Theaters Again Must Decide: Cancel Or Take The Stage?

Some theaters have had to close or postpone shows because of the recent COVID-19 wave. Now, many are trying to figure out when they can reopen.

The Goodman Theatre on May 5, 2021.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — The leaders of Redtwist Theatre were faced with a decision: let their play, Collected Stories, go on as scheduled or move the performance to the spring. 

Redtwist’s staff implemented COVID-19 precautions over the past year and checked Chicago’s COVID-19 numbers daily during rehearsals, Producing Artistic Director Charlie Marie McGrath said. 

But with the numbers climbing in December, the cast and crew voted unanimously to move their show to an undetermined date in the spring. That moment felt “victorious and hopeless at the same time,” McGrath said.

“Something that we talked about a lot was we would not know what the right decision was,” McGrath said. “Even though we felt like we’d gone through this with the initial pandemic, we wouldn’t know. [The current surge] didn’t give us enough information.”

Multiple theaters, including Lookingglass and Redtwist, have postponed their early 2022 plays due to the Omicron variant. The Goodman Theatre, which shut down its holiday schedule of “A Christmas Carol,” is resuming in-person performances.

Restaurants and other live venues also voluntarily shut down or limited services as Chicago endured its city’s worst-ever COVID-19 surge.

For theaters, the pandemic’s created a constant struggle over when to shut down to protect audiences and staff — and how to avoid upending operations while opening and closing.

“We can only afford to reopen once, so during the height of the pandemic, we were trying to bide our time and not reopen so quickly that it was unsafe or that we would have shut down again,” McGrath said. “But at the same time, we were trying to stay connected to our patrons and also to artists.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
The Chicago Theatre on State Street in the Loop.

Lookingglass Theatre planned to open its new musical, “Lucy and Charlie’s Honeymoon,” in February after its run of “Her Honor: Jane Byrne” ended abruptly in late December.

Artistic Director Heidi Stillman said Omicron “shook” Lookingglass’s planning. The theater predicted “Lucy and Charlie’s Honeymoon” would have to stop once or twice in rehearsals and at least once during the run of the show if the staff stuck to their original production schedule of opening in February. The company decided to postpone its premiere until the fall.

“I worry now, because we built back up the machine to the huge amount of people it takes to make a show,” Stillman said. “And now we’re having to like shut down our shows or move our shows.”

Other theaters have decided to forge ahead with their productions.

Goodman Theatre is staging August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean” through Feb. 27. The company started live shows again in July before switching its “A Christmas Carol” shows to a virtual-only format last month due to Omicron.

Managing Director John Collins said “safety is first and foremost” as Goodman’s staff tries to get back on track.

“I remember why this was so important in my life before; and not to be dramatic, but thank God we’re back,” Collins said. “I do have to say that the courage it took for these artists to come back and work right after after an extended shutdown period like that, the courage it took and the trust that they had enough to keep them safe … was inspiring.”

But even as some theaters reopen, audience members aren’t returning. 

The “audience still doesn’t feel like 100 percent certain about coming back yet,” Stillman said. “There may be like a level of getting people used to going out and doing things again, not just in a safety way, just in a habit way.” 

During the prolonged shutdown, theaters experimented with alternative formats, with Goodman hosting live simulcasts from the theater and Lookingglass showing short films.

But company leaders said they’re anxious to get back to the stage, for which there’s no replacement.

“Stage performance is quite literally what we’re meant and built to do and what we excel at. And some of the artists are amazing in film and on television and on stage, but it is a different set of skills,” McGrath said. “And it’s amazing when people get to use both the theater comes alive when there’s an audience.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
The Goodman Theatre on May 5, 2021.

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