A sign on the Stage III Community Theatre door let people know they’d need face masks on to enter as they arrived opening night for the first play there in six months.
A sanitizer pump bottle awaited on a table just inside. Signs offered the sanitizer, instructed people to maintain social distance and pointed the direction to the box office.
A rope cordoned the path between the entry and lobby and black tape marked X’s on the floor along the way to the masked play director at the ticket table across the room.
Longtime Stage III audience regulars Craig and Anne Carlsen chatted with the familiar face as they traded their season tickets for a printer paper version to see “The Fox on the Fairway” that night.
Pandemic-era precautions continued as ushers invited attendees to take their programs from a basket and signs marked more than half the theater seats off-limits for social distancing.
The romantic comedy was supposed to close the theater’s last season in June. But the final two plays in spring were canceled because of the pandemic.
So the play opened Stage III’s season Sept. 4 instead with new precautions designed to prevent spread of COVID-19. Still, it felt for the Carlsens much like their numerous other nights at Stage III.
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“It was just really nice to have live theater, be out with other people and laugh,” Anne said later. “And it was just, it was relaxing. It was uplifting.”
Precautions and passion
A young couple’s kiss through face shields drew laughs from the audience in a scene of romance and comedy set in a country club as the story began.
Several audience members would later say the face shields didn’t affect the show as the plot drew them through a high stakes golf tournament and couples’ complications to the twist ending.
“It just disappeared after a while, you know. You just were into the story and being out with other people and laughing,” Anne said. “And it was it was a release; it was great.”
Precautions changed some of the way the cast performed with more distance between actors than usual when possible, director of the play John Ordiway said.
“And fortunately, this show is set in present day, so we’re essentially kind of blending it in as part of the humor as much as we can,” he said.
The characters, for example, drink champagne with straws and two of them elbow bump on a bet instead of shaking hands.
Stage III follows state health guidelines for COVID-19 precautions, which includes a section on theaters, said general manager and artistic director Kris Kontour, who is also a cast member in the show. The theater holds 128 seats but with social distancing can seat 53. About half those seats sold for opening night during Labor Day weekend, but the second of the three-weekend run sold out, Ordiway said.
Even through precautions that have become part of life, this production didn’t feel different for Kontour by the time they finished rehearsals.
“But it is great to get back together and create art and hang out with friends and just be just be a part of the whole process, you know, getting to do what you love again,” he said.
Actors perform within a narrower area on stage to mark 6 feet from the front rows, though they are occasionally closer to audience members in some seats near the aisles.
“We get a little close from time to time because it is a very intimate theater space, and so that’s why we have the audience wearing masks at all times as well as the actors on stage,” Kontour said.
The actors auditioned and at first rehearsed in face masks, which muffled their voices, actor Jack Hemphill said. But he didn’t find that the face shields and other precautions impeded his performance.
The shields aren’t as effective as fabric masks but allows the audience to see and hear them with some level of protection, Kontour said.
“After a while you don’t even know they’re there, even as the actor,” he said.
Ordiway noticed high energy and creativity from the cast through rehearsals.
“But I’ll tell you having the audiences there and hearing people laugh again and giving people that opportunity to kind of escape for a little bit and kind of return to normal has been really rewarding,” he said.
Hemphill and other cast members felt no hesitation to return to the theater.
“I’m a real thirsty actor,” he said. “That was frankly the least of my concerns. I really was just happy to get back into it in general no matter what changes or circumstances went through, as long as it was still possible.”
‘Just like going to the theater’
Season ticket attendees John Jr. and Janet Hilde agreed the show gave them the kind of experience that’s drawn them to Stage III and Casper College plays for decades.
“I think at this time with all the stuff that’s been going on with the virus and everything, it was really something nice to have a comedy where you could laugh and have a good time and just kind of chill and enjoy it,” Janet said.
The biggest difference was not seeing the actors in the lobby after the show, but they understood the precaution.
“I wish we could have shaken their hands and told them, ‘What a tremendous job,’” John said.
Renee Hardy was pleasantly surprised at how little had changed from previous plays when she and her mother-in-law attended opening night. The empty seats for her was the most noticeable difference.
“But the fact that they had just had really gone out of their way to separate the groups is what made me feel comfortable being in there,” she said.
It was a night out at the theater like any other for audience members as Stage III opened for the first time since March. Attendees like the Carlsens came out for the chance to take in the performance and lose themselves in a story, and nothing changed that experience.
In fact, the two talked about scenes in the play for days after, Craig said.
“It just seemed peculiar having so few people in there, but I got over that fast because everybody was laughing and clapping and making noise,” Craig said. “So it was just like going to the theater.”
Follow arts & culture reporter Elysia Conner on twitter @erconner