How We Got The Story: Covering theater in pandemic has changed, but rewards remain

  • Mark Welsh/mwelsh@dailyherald.comBarbara Vitello new headshot for column.

    Mark Welsh/mwelsh@dailyherald.comBarbara Vitello new headshot for column.

 
 
Updated 12/6/2021 10:18 AM

There was a time when the most pressing challenge a theater critic faced was punctuality: arriving at the venue by curtain time and filing the review on deadline.

The COVID-19 pandemic changed that.

 

In response to Illinois Department of Public Health and Centers for Disease Control recommendations, many theaters now require audience members to wear masks and show proof of vaccination (or negative COVID test) along with a photo ID, which means it takes longer to get into the venue.

It helps if patrons have their vaccination confirmation (either card or cellphone photograph) or negative test result ready for the ticket taker. Unfortunately, that's not always the case. Theatergoers fumbling through purses or thumbing through wallets to locate the missing document can result in long lines and delayed start times.

But it's a small price to pay to ensure the safety of employees, ushers, cast, crew and patrons.

Safety concerns prompted Paramount Theatre to introduce its vaccination policy last summer in advance of resuming in-person, indoor performances with its revival of "Kinky Boots," which opened August 27.

The Aurora theater's decision was born of concern over the health and safety of its artists, employees and patrons, said Tim Rater, Paramount president and CEO.

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"We have an obligation to keep everyone safe, and that's what we're trying to do," he said of the policy, which he characterized as a financial necessity.

Unlike Goodman Theatre, whose pandemic-delayed "School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play" opened Aug. 2 with masking and social distancing in place but no vaccination requirement, reduced capacity was not an option for Paramount. Under the state's social distancing recommendation at that time, Paramount would be limited to 419 people in a theater that seats 1,843. According to Rater, Paramount can't produce a show for an audience of 400 and remain financially viable.

Other Chicago area theaters including Marriott, Metropolis, Buffalo Theatre Ensemble, Goodman, Northlight, Chicago Shakespeare and Broadway in Chicago followed Paramount's example. About 80 currently have COVID-19 vaccination and/or testing protocols in place.

The pandemic also affected artistic choices. When Lincolnshire's Marriott and Oakbrook Terrace's Drury Lane resumed indoor performances, they did so with intimate revues requiring small casts and orchestras. Other theaters elected to stage solo, intermission-less shows like BTE's "Stove Toucher," Theater Wit's "Who's Holiday!" and Writers Theatre's upcoming "Dishwasher Dreams."

When it comes to in-person performances, the theater landscape has changed. It now requires additional accommodations from theater makers and audience members alike. The rewards, as ever, are worth it.

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