Article by Michelle Blackwell Fort Bragg Advocate News Correspondent
August 27, 2020
MENDOCINO — When the state shut down all theaters in mid-March, Mendocino Theater Company’s season opener “The Cemetery Club” was three shows into its six-week run.
The director, Bob Cohen has been working in local theater since 1977, first as an actor and now directing plays and musicals. He was also scheduled to direct “Little Women” for Gloriana Musical Theater in Fort Bragg.
In a non-pandemic world, it would be closing its run right about now. The sets and props for the Cemetery Club are still sitting in the now dark theater building adjacent to the Art’s Center.
“I hope someone is dusting them,” Cohen said.
For Cohen, who is a senior and at high-risk for COVID-19, the virus has shut down his theater life. Next to family, he said, it’s the most important thing he has; and he’s worried about the community too.
“COVID is a threat to the audience and it has interrupted the social flow. Going to the theater, music festivals and film festivals is what we do here. We meet people, volunteer and entwine ourselves with the fabric of Mendocino,” he said.
In the beginning, the MTC hoped it was temporary and so they postponed the show until July. However, it quickly became obvious that a few months were not going to make any difference. Most of the players do it for love but there are a few employees who receive modest compensation for keeping things running.
Pamela W. Allen is the part-time executive director and also acts in the plays. She and her co-thespians are working hard to maintain community engagement during the crisis.
Allen has been toying with theater over Zoom, but the technical difficulties are significant. So at first, MCT turned to old-fashioned radio. Their first radio show was an adaptation of Susan Glaspell’s 1916 one-act play, “Trifles.” It first aired on KZYX on July 16.
MCT also has two additional plays lined up: On Sept. 17, Susan Maeder’s piece, “A Second Heart,” and Nov. 5, a play by local writer, Maureen Martin. Allen is also working with her cohort to create a weeknight, two-minute play that will come on at 8:0 p.m., Mon-Fri, starting in a few weeks. They are working with local writers to provide material, and at least one night every week will be dedicated to youth writers and actors.
Lorry Lepaule directed “Trifles” for MTC; she teaches drama at the Mendocino K-8, acts and directs. She is still teaching some of her students via Zoom, and her youth group wrote and recorded a play that ran on the student radio station, KAKX. Working with youth theater has kept her busy, and helps alleviate the downtime, she said.
Directing “Trifles” was a lot different than a stage play, Lepaule said. The actors had to really listen to the voices of the other players, and all of it was done remotely using audio recording software over the internet. Every one of them had to get used to the new technology and not having each other’s faces and body language to respond to. (“Trifles” can still be heard on the KZYX Jukebox at KZYX.org.)
The theater company relies on ticket sales and donations for its survival, and fundraising during a pandemic creates its own set of logistic issues. Allen is considering a “Zoomathon,” like an old-fashioned telethon — but on Zoom. If it can be done, it will be set up like a webinar and feature the local arts community.
Cohen said he is looking forward to getting involved in the radio productions, but is hesitant about moving to Zoom. Allen has found a few plays written for Zoom and has found some adaptations that were done well, so she thinks they could get there eventually; it’s all about getting the rights, she said.
Playwrights were hesitant to do online productions before the pandemic but that, too, is changing.
In the interim, Cohen is keeping busy with his young poodle Scooter and exploring the previously ignored selections of drama on streaming services. His niece does the grocery shopping so he and his wife can stay home and shelter-in-place.
“We are lucky to live in a beautiful place that’s isolated and quiet,” Cohen said.
Lepaule is busier than ever but added that she is “grateful that I live in this place surrounded by friends and family.”
While these three are adapting, they are also all looking forward to the day they can walk the boards again.
“One of the things that we as theater artists miss the most, right now, is performing live with an audience,” Allen said. “The audience plays (a) unique role in any production, and we miss this special relationship — this human connection that is so important to any good theater.”