Andy Park had a feeling this day was coming. He and his team planned for it while still rehearsing for Nebraska Repertory Theatre’s final spring show, Stephen Schwartz’s “Pippin.” However, that didn’t make it any easier for Park, the artistic director of The Rep, when he found out their season was over because of the coronavirus.
“It was devastating,” Park said. “It was absolutely terrible. It started to become really clear once the Big Ten [schools] sort of started closing [their] doors. Nebraska kind of held out all the way until the end, and so we were hoping we might somehow be able to squeak by and get the show in. But ultimately, once all the physical distancing protocols were put in place, it became very clear that we had to sort of rip the Band-Aid off. We had to just make the decision.”
Park and his team gathered the cast and crew of “Pippin” the day after the University of Nebraska-Lincoln moved all classes online. In what Park said was an emotional final rehearsal, he let them know the show was canceled.
“There's a song in the show called ‘Morning Glow,’” he said. “And it's a really powerful song as it is, and the cast sang it during that meeting as sort of a goodbye to the project. It was very, very moving. It had to be done for their safety and for the safety of our audience, but it was definitely a very devastating announcement.”
As theaters, bars, restaurants and other venues around the country remain closed, artists face a daunting challenge. In a time of international economic strife, Park said it can be easy for the arts to go forgotten — making efforts to support them ever more important.
Park said that actors in the Actors’ Equity Association receive health insurance based on how many weeks they’re under contract. While many theaters completely terminated actors’ contracts after show cancellations, The Rep honored the contracts of the equity actors they hired for “Pippin” so that they could still receive insurance benefits.
“Whenever the times get tough, artists are often left out,” he said. “It's as if you are somehow reduced, you know, the arts are a luxury or something, and somehow you have to prove your worth again. It's a very strange phenomen[on]. I've seen it before, during economic downturns and that sort of thing, where people are getting bailed out and getting support, but it's really difficult for artists to get that support.”
Park and his team have been hard at work tying up loose ends, trying to recoup production costs and planning for the future. For already purchased tickets, patrons could choose between applying the cost of their ticket to a future Rep show, asking for a refund or donating the ticket cost to The Rep. While she doesn’t know exact percentages, general manager Julie Hagemeier said there is a “nice majority” of patrons who donated their tickets. Hagemeier said patrons can also support The Rep by donating during Give to Lincoln Day on May 28.
In accordance with NU President Ted Carter’s plan to resume in-person teaching in the fall, The Rep is planning next year’s season with the hope that it progresses at least somewhat normally with casts allowed to gather for rehearsals and patrons permitted in the theater. Park and Hagemeier said next year’s shows will be announced next week. However, live theater may look very different in the fall.
Park acknowledged that physical distancing requirements may reduce the number of people in the audience. A potential backup plan is to reduce the audience in the theater where the show is being performed with additional viewers in a different theater watching the show on a livestream. Park also said that “A Thousand Words,” an original Rep production from February, was recorded and may be released for viewers to stream. The Rep will also look to record its shows in the fall in case of a second shutdown.
“We're still going to ... move forward as though we're doing a face-to-face, regular semester,” Hagemeier said. “And so The Rep will be functioning just as we always do. We hope we can have a season like we originally planned, but you never know. Everything's so uncertain right now that we have to have a plan B and maybe even a plan C.”
The Rep and countless other theater companies around the country face a long, uncertain road ahead of them. But Park is confident that once life returns to normal, The Rep will be there to provide the comfort, joy, laughter and escape that theater can bring.
“The arts can take a terrible situation and help reduce it to manageable proportions,” he said. “That's one of the beautiful things about the arts. I have no doubt that right now there are artists all over this country who are putting their thoughts and feelings and fears into art, and it's going to be something that resonates with us and that will resonate with audiences generations from now.”