Before everything went to hell, the Coachella Valley theater community was enjoying, by far, its most successful season ever.
CVRep was reveling in its first full season in its gorgeous new home, the CVRep Playhouse in Cathedral City. Dezart Performs and the Desert Rose Playhouse were in the midst of sold-out seasons. Coyote StageWorks was getting settled into its new digs at the Palm Springs Cultural Center, while Palm Canyon Theatre and Desert Theatreworks were packing people into shows in downtown Palm Springs and Indio, respectively.
“We started off our ninth season like a rocket,” said Shawn Abramowitz, the executive director and board president of the Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, which shares space at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club with Dezart Performs. “We had not just record attendance, but record donations—and we were really growing, which allowed us to invest more.”
The weekend of March 13-15 was going to the biggest weekend during this most successful season ever: Four of the six aforementioned companies were opening shows, while LGBT-focused Desert Rose was entering its second weekend of Beautiful Thing, which had received rave reviews, and Palm Canyon Theatre was embarking on the final weekend of a successful production of The Pajama Game.
But as that weekend approached, the reality of COVID-19 began to set in. The BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament was postponed, while Coachella and Stagecoach were delayed until October (before being cancelled altogether for 2020). Disneyland closed—as did all of the shows on Broadway.
Desert Rose Playhouse, Dezart Performs and Desert Ensemble Theatre Company (which, appropriately, was preparing to open a show called How to Survive an Apocalypse) chose to cancel the weekend’s shows, while Desert Theatreworks and Palm Canyon Theatre shut down after Friday’s performances. Only CVRep would make it through the weekend—and on Sunday, March 15, the company’s production of The City of Conversation would become the final full theatrical production the valley has hosted since.
The cancellations devastated the local theater community, both emotionally and financially.
“I will tell you, the amount of frustration and disappointment in coming right up to opening night and having to cancel—I do not want to go through that again,” said Chuck Yates, the founding artistic director of Coyote Stageworks. “We shut down The Velocity of Autumn the day before we were supposed to open. It’s too hard.”
Now, more than four months later, all of the valley’s theater companies remain in limbo. None of them know what the 2020-2021 season will bring—even though some companies have optimistically announced seasons starting as early as September.
In other words, the theater world is a mess—but the mess has had a silver lining, of sorts: It’s brought the local theater community together.
Some—but, notably, not all—of the desert’s theater companies have banded together to launch the Alliance of Desert Theatres, “a cooperative of producing theater companies in the Coachella Valley that network and take action in order to nurture a vibrant performing arts community,” according to the website. The effort started with a Zoom call back in May, and continues with weekly Zoom calls and subcommittees that look at various initiatives.
“I felt that (the alliance) was going to be a great resource and offer a sense of community and camaraderie to get through this horrible time,” said Michael Shaw, the artistic director of Dezart Performs. “We’re sharing our woes; we’re sharing our strategies. This was an opportunity to really get a sense of what we need to do to survive as a theater community.”
David Cohan, the vice president of the board of directors at CVRep, serves as the Alliance of Desert Theaters’ spokesman. He explained that the alliance grew out of internal conversations taking place at CVRep.
“With everything that is (happening), we felt that this is the time and place where we need to come together,” Cohan said. “Joe Giarrusso, the president of the (CVRep) board, and I started discussing this. I suggested that if nobody was doing it, maybe we should be the ones to organize it. So we put out emails to all the other theater groups and set up an initial meeting. That was the starter.”
Cohan said the alliance’s weekly meetings give participants the opportunity to share information and ideas, and the group is working on possibly pooling some resources. As an example, Cohan said, the alliance has discussed the feasibility of filming productions and streaming them.
“That’s not as simple as it sounds,” he said. “For instance, for CVRep, we are a union theater company, and there are two different unions—one that covers live theater, and one that covers, basically, broadcast theater. … If you’re recording a live performance, but then wanting to stream it, you’re talking about two different unions and two different sets of rules.
“Then you get into technology—how could you do it? How do you do it in terms of equipment? A lot of theaters don’t have recording equipment—and how expensive is it? Besides cameras, what do you need? … There are some people who are much more technically oriented and have been doing research on recording. Could we buy some recording equipment and share it among the theaters? That’s one of the things we’re discussing.”
While it’s been helpful to exchange ideas and share information, Cohan said the sense of community the alliance has fostered has been its biggest benefit.
“The camaraderie has been nothing short of amazing and heartwarming and astounding,” he said. “We’re all working really well together—and it makes for a stronger arts community. We all have a much better appreciation for one another.”
Desert Ensemble’s Abramowitz agreed.
“It’s really a huge support system for theater companies,” Abramowitz said. “Even the groups that aren’t necessarily a part of the alliance, it doesn’t mean that the alliance wouldn’t have resources available for those other theater companies. There’s been a need for a very long time for groups to come together to figure out how we can combine resources in a way that is non-competitive and that allows us to grow. We’re all doing great work, and we all support each other, and we all love each other—even though we’re also all very competitive.”
Abramowitz said the Alliance of Desert Theatres fulfills a different purpose than the long-established Desert Theatre League—best known for its annual Desert Star Awards, honoring the best in local theater each year. (Incidentally, Desert Star nominations are slated to be announced on Aug. 1.)
“The Desert Theatre League’s mission is to highlight the work that is being done in the valley,” Abramowitz said. “What’s not a part of their mission is helping us expand, in terms of resources and availability.
“I think the common thread among all of us is … how can we best help each other out when we do not know what our reality is going to be like? The alliance itself is supposed to be equal in terms of participation. That there’s no specific leader; there’s no specific hierarchy. We’ve formed subcommittees to help each other out, whether it’s regarding fundraising, or what possible grants are out there for us, and who could possibly use them. What are the (standard operating procedures) for reopening? What do we think it’s going to look like? Where can we get the best deal on hand sanitizer?”
Shaw said one of the alliance’s goals is to help educate the public about local theater.
“The fact that we are speaking weekly, it’s good that all of our patrons and all of our donors know that we’re doing that, because what we’re also doing is educating the public,” Shaw said. “‘Did you know that there is a LGBTQ theater in the valley? Did you know that there’s a very successful theater in Indio at the Indio Performing Arts Center? Did you know that?’ There are a lot of people who don’t know that. It’ll help open the eyes and educate the public about what the offerings are in the community once we get back up and running. It would have been great to have something like this before, pre-COVID, but we’re all so busy.”
That busy-ness is one of the reasons some of the valley’s theater companies have declined to participate in the alliance—at least for now. Take Coyote StageWorks, for example; the company was listed as a member in the news release first announcing the formation of the Alliance of Desert Theatres, but Yates said he later decided that he needed to take a step back.
“I applaud them. We were in the first three Zoom conversations about setting it up and what it could be,” Yates said. “David Youse is my board president. We talked a lot about it. … It was taking away our focus from keeping our own business alive. It also seemed to be heading in a different direction from what we initially thought the alliance was going to be. We just decided that at this particular moment, it was imperative that we focus on Coyote.
“Some of the talk was in getting buying power on hand sanitizer and that kind of stuff for the theaters. Well, we already have that covered with being at the Cultural Center.”
Yates said he may at some point decide to rejoin the alliance.
“Things may change. I may go back to them and say, ‘All right, now we’re ready,’” Yates said. “But at the time it was all happening, there was too much unknown. We had people saying that they were definitely starting up in November, and I was like, ‘I can’t support that.’ An alliance means that you’re aligned.”
Meanwhile, the theater companies are all trying to figure out how to handle their 2020-2021 seasons—if the pandemic even allows a 2020-2021 season.
Palm Canyon Theatre and Desert Theatreworks, as of this writing, are selling tickets for fully announced seasons, starting in September. Desert Rose is in the midst of a move from Rancho Mirage into a new home—the former Zelda’s nightclub space, on South Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs.
Most of the other theater companies have their eyes set on 2021.
“Gosh, we are definitely not opening up this year,” Desert Ensemble’s Abramowitz said. “There’s just no way, especially without state or federal guidelines on how a theater company or a performance-art center should operate. We don’t want to give hopes to any of our patrons and then cancel. Right now, we are thinking of the beginning of next year. We’re changing our gala event—which would normally be an event with food, and drink, and song, and a ton of people—to something a little bit more quaint.
“We are (hoping to do a season starting in the first part of 2021), but it will be very short. Instead of doing the gala event and then three full-stage productions, we would be doing a gala event and two stage productions. One of them would be (company founder) Tony Padilla’s show that we want to do for our 10th anniversary, that we did a reading on back in December of last year. Then, we also hope to redo How to Survive an Apocalypse. We have the set; we have everything.”
Dezart Performs’ Shaw is also setting his sights on a scaled-down season in 2021, starting with the show he was never able to open back in March—presented, perhaps, in an unconventional manner.
“Our goal is to produce three shows this season, and start with Every Brilliant Thing, where we left off; how we’re going to present it comes down to money,” Shaw said. “We are looking into various streaming platforms. We’re looking at filming it live and then streaming it as a recording.
“Our second show—for the first time, we’re actually producing a musical. It’s only two actors. … Then we’re doing a brand-new drama by Paul Coates called The End of It.”
Chuck Yates, at Coyote StageWorks, said the set for The Velocity of Autumn remains onstage at the Cultural Center.
“Our plan is, when it is safe for people to come back to a theater, we will do that show,” he said. “We have a couple of other titles in a holding pattern if we get to do more than one show—but at the moment, nobody seems to know when we’re able to do what we do.”
In the meantime, Yates said he’s working with the Cultural Center—which recently started hosting drive-in movies—to possibly hold smaller events outdoors.
“I won’t say they’re full productions, but they’d be some concerts and some other sorts of fun outdoor events for Coyote StageWorks,” he said. “All of that’s in the works right now, just so we can keep doing some things. … We’ve also talked about doing our play-reading series outdoors when it gets cooler.”
Over at CVRep, which has been hosting a steady series of virtual events, the plan is to reopen with The City of Conversation, hopefully in January 2021—but even if that can happen, Cohan said it will be a big challenge to actually pull it off, barring a miracle cure for COVID-19.
“We’re making all sorts of plans,” Cohan said. “We have multiple calls a week where we’re coming up with plans A, B, C, D and E; it just keeps going. One of our plans is, if it is safe enough, and if we think we’ll have the patrons to be able to do it, we will invite people to come back to the theater with enormous modifications to how we do in-person shows—with a very limited seating capacity and socially distanced seating. We’re also talking about making it safe for the actors by having their dressing rooms and rehearsal rooms separated with Plexiglass and all kinds of other things. We’re trying to figure all that out—and then having particular protocols for how people will actually come to the theater, everything from going to fully paperless ticketing to having people arrive at the theater at staggered times so people aren’t waiting together in our lobby.
“We’re thinking about everything. There are very extensive cleaning protocols to the actual seats and every surface, and restrooms, both during the shows, when restrooms will get cleaned multiple times before the show and intermissions, and after the show, as well as all the seats being sprayed down and disinfected between shows. … And then what happens as we approach a show, if an actor comes down with the sniffles, which is not an unusual thing? Can we still run the show? We used to be able to. An actor used to be able to muscle through. But now if an actor has the sniffles, can we still do that?”
Below: Josh Odsess-Rubin and Martha Hackett in CVRep’s The City of Conversation—the final show to be performed in the valley before the March shutdown.