COVID considerations play role in updates
The theater lights have been dark since the first pandemic shutdown in March 2020, but The Merc Playhouse has been anything but dormant.
Although The Merc has not been able to open its doors for the past 10 months, its board and staff have spent the time rethinking and revamping the theater’s ticketing and seating areas, as well as its approach to giving audiences a quality live theater experience in a COVID-friendly format once live performance venues are able to reopen, said Merc Executive Director Missi Smith.
The first thing audiences may notice when they eventually return to The Merc, said Smith, is the new outdoor ticketing window, which is being built into the big windows to the left of the main entrance. Once you purchase your ticket — or check-in for the touchless ticket you bought online earlier — you’ll enter the audience seating and find your chair or block of chairs.
But these won’t be the banks of duct-taped, lopsided seats acquired during The Merc’s major remodel nearly a decade ago; instead, these will be brand new individual seats, complete with cupholders, that can be hooked together to make stadium seating or set up in pairs or quads or pods.
“It will allow us to seat up to 140 people when that’s possible again,” said Smith. “Or we’ll be able to set up just a subset of the chairs, creating an atmosphere like in a dinner theater. We’ll be able to create an intimate environment for certain shows.”
Smith also notes that the moveable seats “opens up future flexibility for us in really cool ways.” When the Methow Valley Elementary School brings the entire school to see the Tom Zbyszewski Children’s Theater in two shifts, for example, Smith said that the students could sit on little carpets on the seating tiers.
“Our audiences wanted these seats,” said Smith, who added that the seats were purchased with funds from the 2020 Give Methow campaign — a crowdfunding event offered by the Community Foundation of North Central Washington — and a match from an anonymous donor.
In terms of COVID precautions for seating, Smith said, “Audiences will be seated in small groups, with an intentional creation of space for everyone. You won’t have to climb over other people’s legs to get anywhere. You’ll be able to see your friends across the theater, but you’ll be distanced from them. And initially, we’ll only be seating at 25% capacity [about 35 people].”
Other COVID modifications include producing shorter shows — no more than 90 minutes — that run straight through with no intermission; replacing the HVAC system and installing a commercial air scrubber rated for a space the size of The Merc; offering programs online, instead of hardcopy; allowing audience members to pre-order refreshments that will await them at their seats; and implementing one-way traffic, with audiences entering through one door and exiting through another. Smith and her board are also considering the tech booth configuration, which for the past few years has been awkwardly located in the top tier of seats.
“We are just rethinking how every aspect of the theater experience will work,” said Smith. And who better to rethink and reimagine than a group of creative minds? “This is right in our creative team’s wheelhouse,” said Smith. “It has really opened the door for us for a lot of fun creative expression. We are doing a lot of thinking outside the box.”
For the past 10 months, with no ticket sales, The Merc has stayed afloat through various COVID relief measures, such as the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) from the Small Business Association and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
Smaller audience sizes will mean a loss of ticket income for The Merc, Smith said, so “we may have shorter show runs and do more of them, or we may offer matinees and evening shows on Saturday and Sunday.” Although no shows have been scheduled or cast yet, due to uncertainty about when live theater will be able to resume under the governor’s “Roadmap to Recovery” reopening plan, Smith predicts that the first show in the COVID era will be a Readers Theater — a genre that has been wildly popular with Methow Valley actors and audiences alike in the past few years.
For quite some time, Smith said, COVID considerations are going to “affect our programming choices.” She acknowledges that “it might not be until summer or later that we’re allowed to have something happen in the theater,” but suggests that the Readers Theater format dovetails well with COVID concerns.
“The rehearsal time is more limited than in a full show, there are no costume changes, many of the scripts utilize small casts, and there’s very little blocking so the time backstage is fairly limited,” she said. “And audiences love these shows.”
When the pandemic shut down all indoor gatherings and live performances last March, The Merc was entering its final week of rehearsal prior to opening the annual Children’s Theater show, “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” It was both disappointing and anticlimactic for the roughly 30 Methow Valley children serving as cast and crew for the show. Smith said that The Merc hasn’t ruled out doing an outdoor show this summer.
“We’ve got ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ waiting in the wings,” she said. “We need to do it before the kids outgrow their costumes.”