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FEATURE: Back to the Theatre: Fortune’s Fool and St. Croix Retaking Stages

Heidi Garrido is one of 22 artists featured in Fortune’s Fool Theatre’s production of To Breed, or Not to Breed, opening tonight at the Crane Theater in Northeast Minneapolis. Photo by Jace Garrido-Edington for HM Photography.

It’s a morning that has Americans waiting on the edge of their seats – the day after the 2020 U.S. Election Day. While who will lead the country over the next few years is still up in the air, several local theatre organizations are moving ahead with plans to return to live, in-person, indoor performance.

The path back to what used to be the status quo has not been an easy one. Live performances in Germany, which led the world in research on music-related aerosol and droplet spread, have been suspended again as the country returned to lockdown conditions on November 1. In neighboring France and Austria, performances came back more cautiously, but were also shutdown as quarantine returns. Even Italy, the birthplace of opera, decided to close the opera houses for a month after seeing COVID-19 numbers spiking.

One thing that has changed in the last eight months is the depth and breadth of research on how the Coronavirus that causes COVID-19 spreads. While early government and public health warnings focused on avoiding and disinfecting contact surfaces, current recommendations focus more on ventilating spaces, physical proximity, and mask usage. This updated guidance helped facilitate events such as Minnesota Opera’s Opera in the Outfield event in a baseball stadium, and the first wave of live, in-person, indoor performances.

One of the first theatre performances to invite audiences back in person to a Twin Cities stage is Fortune’s Fool Theatre’s To Breed or Not to Breed. Described as “an anthology of personal stories about choices made”, the show dives into that most intimate and personal decision: to have or not have children. An ensemble cast of 22 artists rotates through different performances, with the exact lineup changing each week.

Rehearsing an ensemble of this size while maintaining appropriate hygiene and distancing presents its own logistical challenges. So does bringing it to the stage. Director Ben Layne rehearsed the cast via Zoom, and the actors use microphone shields when they take the stage. Masks are, of course, mandatory for all in the theatre – and only 20 audience members will be allowed in for each performance. (The Crane Theater normally seats four times as many.) Thermometer guns are omnipresent, with mandatory temperature checks for each person entering the building.

If you’re used to lingering at the theatre, To Breed or Not to Breed is not going to ask you to stay long – the show runs just 45 minutes, and no concessions will be sold.

To Breed or Not to Breed runs November 4-22 at the Crane Theater in Northeast Minneapolis. Four tickets for each performance are reserved for door sales.

Things are moving in a more seasonal direction in the St. Croix river valley. In Hudson, Wisconsin, St. Croix Off Broadway Dinner Theatre is preparing to retake the stage with a new production of Back Home Again: A John Denver Christmas. This show was produced by SCOBDT in 2010 with a full band packing the stage. That being the exact opposite of social distancing, the new production directed by James A. Zimmerman cuts the live band – prerecorded tracks are being used for the instrumental accompaniment – to allow for more space between the different performers and the audience.

One measure used by both Back Home Again and To Breed or Not to Breed is nixing the traditional curtain call bows. Another is minimizing contact and both staff and performer proximity. For Back Home Again, this means that there will be no MC addressing the audience before performances and during intermission.

Sometimes an older or repurposed space requires particular measures to avoid potential bottlenecks. Bathroom intermission lines are often a problem at theatres during normal circumstances. In planning To Breed or Not to Breed, Fortune’s Fool co-artistic directors Ariel Pinkerton and Dan Pinkerton decided to nix the problem of intermission bathroom runs and the consequential need to air and sanitize the space. As a result, they split up what could have been a 2-hour show into rotating weekly installments that each run 45 minutes.

Because dinner theatre necessitates a certain amount of interaction between servers and patrons, the staff are taking a few extra steps for Back Home Again. Entries and exits also follow prescribed pathways to reduce crossings. Servers have to sanitize their hands in-between tables. All tableware and condiment containers get a bleach treatment in-between showings. A few longstanding traditions, like the “meet and greet” with the cast after the show, have had to go by the wayside.

Back Home Again: A John Denver Christmas runs November 20–January 3 at the St. Croix Off Broadway Dinner Theatre in Hudson, WI .

Amy Donahue