Staging an outdoor production vs. COVID and Mother Nature

March 27, 2021
By Marcy Shortuse

BY ELAINE SKYPALA – Once upon a time in February 2020 the world was fairly normal. Ann Fletcher, President of Royal Palm Players, looked at the well planned, excellent assortment of plays and shows for the following season and was really pleased with the entertainment lineup for Boca Grande.

Sadly, just a few months later, she was resigned to the fact that with COVID surging, none of it would happen. Much needed laughs, fun and diversion were probably impossible. There had to be a way, so she took part in a Zoom Webinar with Community Theatre groups from across the United States. They were all looking for ways to move live performances to outside venues.

The RPP board was quickly on board with places like Banyan Street and/or tents on private properties all being considered. Then they learned that the Community Center was going to open again in a limited way, and the Sun Shade Stage would be a possibility.

Working with the always cooperative Joe Weir, the execution plan had to be submitted to Lee County for approval. The Plan had to consist of the how-to and the documentation for everything like using masks and sanitizer, spacing actors, placing golf carts (including entering and exiting), touching playbills, moving actors around other actors and protecting the audience. Once it was approved, the set was the next hurdle.

Laura Brock is an Emmy award-winning set director who has worked in television and films for years. The talented designer who has produced incredible sets for RPP in past years was told about the Christmas show that Alice Court had written. Brock was skilled at producing perfect sets for challenging spaces. “Twas the Night Before Christmas” had singing, dancing, musicians, lots of actors entering and exiting and, by the way, it was outside.

As late October turned into November she designed her enlarged version of a Christmas Set, and all of the fabrics, wreaths and bows were ordered. Everything had to be outdoor durable. The same type outdoor materials were ordered that are used by Sea World and Disney World for their outdoor venues.

Brock came to Boca Grande to supervise the entire magic of the all volunteer staff installing the beautiful pole and drape set (designed so no actors had to touch anything when entering and exiting.) The set filled the entire stage of the Community Center.

Meryl Schaffer, who has directed many RPP plays, came on board and made her car her office. She and Court started to line up the actors and dancers who all agreed to follow rigorous safety protocols. They included face shields, masks, social distancing, sanitizing, isolating before rehearsals and COVID testing if necessary.

Rehearsals would all be done at home, separately or virtually except for an intense six days right before the three-day show. Posters started to go up in the town because the show was less than a month away. Schaffer was rigid with pandemic precautions and became an expert on CDC regulations on face shields and protecting the audience. Many early COVID cases across the country were being attributed to choirs and projecting. One of the CDC recommendations was that the wind should never be at the performer’s back. The Community Center Sun Shade area met the criteria. The only thing that was contagious was her reminder to cast members who got too close to each other. “Not on my watch” became a constant. Cast members changed clothes or gathered props in several rooms and only four people were allowed in a room with doors wide open for ventilation.

Setting up a show for an outside audience was a challenge in many ways. Instead of seats the audience purchased tickets for distanced areas for either golf carts or chairs on the lawn. The grass was marked off into socially distanced blocks.

Kathy Kelleher juggles tickets, seats and people better than anyone in the country. She came up with the charming idea of putting everyone’s name on a sign to designate the space. Writing and distributing the signs every show to every space was tedious but added a personal touch that enhanced the show. Ann Fletcher, Betsy Joiner, Kelleher and Sarah McDonald, the elves that were stationed at the four entry/exit points, felt that everyone appreciated the extra effort.

The outdoor sound and light system was the next task for Schaffer. Melissa Mutkowski (lights and sound) and her husband Richard Mutkowski joined the team and started to tackle the problem. In a theatre the sound bounces off of the walls. Outside the sound just keeps on traveling. If the sound system outdoors is at a good level for the people sitting in the front row, the people in the back can’t hear. If it is loud enough for the people in the back, the people on the front row are blown away. Plus, miking someone singing behind a face shield is not what singers or sound experts desire.

When it comes to lighting, face shields are terrible. The glare is disconcerting to viewers and the performers’ faces can’t be seen. It is like looking at a balloon on a body. Brock and the Mutkowskis decided that traditional stage footlights would be a good solution and give a taste of old Vaudeville.

It was an eight-hour day when the set was loaded in. The small group of RPP volunteers hung the sturdy set. It looked great. Other than the day of the tech rehearsal when 15 minutes of pouring rain required everything moving in and moving out again, everything was going well until the day of the opening 5 p.m. show.

Fletcher was in the RPP office at about 10 a.m. during terrible gusty winds when someone warned her to go see the set. She rounded the corner and there it sat: 100 percent of the set was laying on the concrete, bows and drapes were sitting on the ground laying in puddles of water. Nothing was standing and everyone’s shocked faces showed it.

It looked dismal, but there is always a way. They called Pete Sanger. The Boca Grande builder arrived in 20 minutes, saw what he was dealing with and pulled a crew into action. In a hour they had latched set pieces onto ladders, columns and Sunshade ceilings. It was resurrected and built to stay until people, not Mother Nature, took it down.

The show started on time that windy night to a great group of ticket holders, bundled up with blankets and fortified with medicinal drinks when needed. Hopefully they never noticed that some props were gone because they kept blowing over or that Robbie Stanley, stage manager or her assistant Ned Lehrian were standing behind curtains and leaning on them with their whole bodies to keep them from blowing over the band or performers.

People didn’t realize that the tap dancers had to stand on their large sing-along heavy posters that were used for the “Rudolph” song because even on the ground they were blowing away.

No one missed the large spotlight that kept blowing over and was meant to spotlight certain performers and Lt. Jeff Corkhill, the guest Santa up on the rooftop. No one cared that Santa came onto the stage from the side because it was too windy to be up on the Community Center roof, and no one would have seen him in the dark anyway.

Everyone involved laughs and agrees with Director Schaffer when she says, “I’d do it again in a heartbeat. It is the theatre experience and you felt how much it meant to the community.”

She and Fletcher are proud when they say that “It creates a family in a short period of time.”

Everyone is invited and always welcome to become a member of Royal Palm Players in any capacity. You don’t have to be a performer. People get together to hunt down or create costumes or props, put up sets and help seat people. All of the cast shows up to strike the set when the show is over. Things are organized so they can be easily found the next time so a bit of theatre magic can give us another escape. A theater family is waiting for you to join them.

If you missed “Twas the Night” or just want to see it again go to royalpalmplayers.com or Royal Palm Players on YouTube.