Theater in 2020: Flushing the toilets and keeping dark stages on ‘life support’ until shows return

8November 2020

“These buildings feel like they’re living things. They breathe deeply when people are in them.” – Jim Sheeley, president of the Historic Theatre Group, which oversees downtown Minneapolis’ Orpheum, State and Pantages theaters.

“Now, we feel like they’re on life support.” – Jeff Osberg, chief engineer for the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul.

Behind the marquees that have been dark since the pandemic shut down live entertainment in mid-March, theater buildings are dark. Empty rows of seats, dusty stages, silent sound systems, vacant lobbies that are usually crushed with crowds almost every night of the week.

In ornate historic theaters, sleek tourist-destination venues, cozy neighborhood buildings, it’s dark. Actors and furloughed or laid-off staff struggle with the abrupt end to their work. Audiences miss the shared experience of live entertainment.

“What we know how to do really well – and what this building is made for – is to have a lot of people in the building every day,” says Brooke Hajinian, general manager of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.

But the buildings are being monitored, tended, spiffed up and protected as the COVID-19 shutdown goes on. No one knows when the theaters will breathe again. Last week, the Guthrie announced it was canceling a three-show season it hoped to start in March. There are no dates set for a return.

Holiday productions are canceled or virtual, with only a few small theaters open with limited audience and COVID precautions.

Diligent and inventive

But the theaters’ caretakers are being diligent and inventive. At the Ordway, they added vegetable oil to the water pipes as a short-term solution. Osberg explains that after a deep-cleaning, there was still an odor in the restrooms. The water in the toilets created a scummy ring in the bowl. The oil floated to the top of the water and helped seal off the problem.

Osberg and one other engineer have been at the Ordway for the duration of the shutdown. They’ve closed off drinking fountains. They run the water regularly in the building’s 121 toilets, 33 urinals and approximately 120 sinks. They bought 47 gallons of paint when productions were canceled – and they’ve used 30 gallons.

There are fresh coats of paint at the theaters run by First Avenue Productions, including St. Paul’s Palace and Fitzgerald theaters, says general manager Nate Kranz. “We were looking for projects that were labor intensive, material inexpensive,” Kranz says. First Avenue’s 7th Street Entry got a new stage. (In a “spring cleaning” of closets and basement areas, a bonus 150 vintage First Avenue T-shirts were found and sold out right away, he adds.)

The Palace was remodeled just a few years ago, so the heating and cooling systems are “pretty state of the art,” Kranz says. The Fitz needs more attention. With 98 percent of the staff laid off, the work is done by about a dozen employees, who do regular checks on everything from plumbing and refrigerators to sensitive sound systems and lights.

The Palace has been open for one special event, Kranz says. It was rented for a marriage proposal.

‘Keeping the building awake’

The Guthrie Theater’s Wurtele Thrust Stage seats 1,100 visitors on three sides. (Photo by Gallop Studios)

The Guthrie’s four workers in its facilities department have been in every day since the shutdown “keeping the building kind of awake and alive,” says general manager Hajinian. The Guthrie is usually closed just five days a year. Facilities staff run all of the water weekly – handwashing sinks, drinking fountains, shampoo sinks, showers and all 111 toilets in the 285,000-square-foot building. They run the escalators for 30 minutes once a week and pour water down the floor drains. Security makes regular checks.

Once a week the Guthrie workers walk through the entire building checking every office and closet, and they joke, “Did you water the piano?” Hajinian says. Pricey instruments need delicate humidity balances.

The Guthrie refinished the wood floors on the theater’s ninth level. Walls were painted, carpets have been deep-cleaned, Hajinian says. “We’d rather be open, but in the meantime, everything is getting a thorough scrubbing.”

When the Guthrie closed in mid-March, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” was on stage. The set featured a sea of floating balloons. The last balloon stopped floating on July 7, Hajinian says.

No ‘off’ button

There’s no audience right now, but the Ordway’s building needs to be maintained. (Photo courtesy of the Ordway)

The Ordway’s Osberg figures there were only one or two days a year when the building wasn’t active.

“Nobody ever really considered what if we had to shut down,” says Osberg, who has worked at the St. Paul performing arts center for 26 years. “We didn’t even put in an ‘off’ button.”

The Ordway’s heating and cooling system has to protect sensitive musical instruments and rare documents on display in the lobby, adjust for special effects like fog and rain on stage and the comfort of staff and audiences – which often include women in sleeveless dresses and men in three-piece suits, Osberg says. Turn on the air-handling system in the lobby and the public restrooms kick in, too.

Though there are few people in the Ordway right now, the equipment continues to run to protect the building, which is ornate with brass and mahogany, Osberg says. “It’s expensive when there’s no activity.”

And it’s odd to be in a huge theater space without the usual hustle and bustle, says Osberg, who figures there are only about five people in the Ordway most days. “It’s so lonely down here. It’s literally lonely down here.”

A community resource

Mixed Blood Theatre, which is located in an old firehouse in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis, stopped stage productions when coronavirus hit, but the building “never really shut down,” says founder and artistic director Jack Reuler.

“We’ve been trying to make the building a place of assembly,” Reuler says. “Community resource has long been our goal.” Mixed Blood has housed COVID testing, a food shelter, census and get-out-the-vote efforts, flu shots, a face mask giveaway and stored building supplies to help rebuild areas hit by unrest and destruction after George Floyd’s death last spring.

Historic considerations

The Orpheum Theatre in 2018 during the run of “Hamilton.” The theater will turn 100 in 2021. (Photo by Darin Kamnetz)

Hennepin Theatre Trust’s Orpheum and State theaters will turn 100 years old in 2021, Sheeley says. Ornate plaster that adorns the auditoriums needs a special balance of humidity. And historic windows on the Ninth Street side of the Orpheum were refurbished.

Theaters are taking advantage of the downtime to do projects that can’t be done when they’re in use. The dressing rooms got a fresh coat of paint at the Hennepin Theatre Trust venues and the women’s bathroom in the Orpheum got updated, Sheeley says.

But the best thing, Sheeley adds, is that the construction project that has congested and shut down portions of Hennepin Avenue for more than two years years outside the theaters will be done when the theaters reopen post-pandemic.

“We’re anxious to get back,” Sheeley says. “The surrounding businesses need us, too.”

First Avenue hosted a small, in-person Halloween Party last weekend. Kranz says. It might lead to more events, he says, and was a chance to try out crowd flow and social distancing plans.

For all the theaters, shutdowns were quickly followed by plans to reopen. “We started that discussion the day we closed it down,” Osberg says.

Stage is still set

Costumes, makeup and a half-finished jigsaw puzzle wait in the dressing room at the Jungle Theater. (Photo by Karin Olson/ courtesy Jungle Theater.)

The 150-seat Jungle Theater in Minneapolis’ Lyn-Lake neighborhood had just finished previews for the show “Redwood” and was set to open, when it all shut down. The set is still on stage at the Jungle, says managing director Robin Gillette. There are boxes of programs, makeup and costumes and a half-finished jigsaw puzzle in the dressing room.

In addition to dropping heating temperatures and turning off the lights and computers inside, the theater also adjusted the time its marquee is lighted. Lyn-Lake isn’t attracting much in the way of Uptown nightlife crowds these days, Gillette says, so the marquee lights now go out at 11 p.m. instead of 2 a.m.

The Jungle has been doing art installations and projections on the outside of the building, and the fall season is all virtual, Gillette says, but the “Redwood” set will be ready to go when the actors union gives theaters the all-clear.

“The actual physical building is an example that theater is still there – and it will be back,” Gillette says.


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