Thespians everywhere have been aching for the day they can re-enter the world of theater, which was shut down suddenly—along with almost everything else—in March.
The brand-new North Star Theatre Company has an outside-of-the-box plan—and if all goes according to that plan, the company will debut with a live production of West Side Story in October.
Christine Michele—among other things, the lead singer of the cover band Christine and the Lost Keys—and James Owens are the co-founders of the North Star Theatre, and both have an extensive background in local theater.
“Ever since March, James and I have been talking about starting our own theater company,” Michele said during a recent phone interview. “We both have been wanting to do something like this forever.”
Added Owens: “I can’t remember when my first thought was, but I definitely have been thinking about doing something like this for a long time. The moment just came together when a mutual friend of ours mentioned to each of us that the other was interested in starting a theater.”
Added Michele: “We had known each other, and had even been in a few shows together. I reached out to him, and we got to talking about this right before COVID.”
Plans came together rather quickly for the duo.
“We didn’t really get the ball rolling until after the pandemic started,” Owens said. “We were stuck in that limbo period when theaters thought they would be starting back up in a few weeks. Everyone thought that theaters would only be closed for a month, so we thought that it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to do this at that time. Now that time has passed, we can clearly see that traditional theater probably won’t be back until 2021. It was during that time we realized we were going to need to come up with something a little bit more creative.”
How can theater as we’ve come to know it happen in the age of social distancing? Owens and Michele’s answer: a drive-in, in-the-round stage, at an outdoor venue near Camino Parocela and San Luis Rey Drive in Palm Springs.
“COVID aside, we thought that there was an opening in this market for a different kind of theater, one with a different approach and a different mission,” Owens said. “We started bouncing ideas off of one another. Theater is really important to us—and to a lot of people we know.
“To wait for things to get back to normal just wasn’t an option for us. When you’re backed up against the wall, and you need an outlet, you start to come up with a different way to do things. We brainstormed a bunch of ideas based on what our obstacles were, and we’ve taken ideas from different businesses and restaurants that have had to alter their operations, and have applied that to theater.”
Added Michele: “We conducted a survey online, asking if people would feel safe going back to a theater inside, or attending a theater outside, so that’s how we got this idea for a drive-in theater.”
Michele said they would like to make the North Star Theatre a place for various forms of art.
“We’ve talked about having bands come and perform, because I know a lot of musicians are hurting right now,” she said. “We’re open to the idea of other things besides musicals and plays.”
While it’s impossible to foresee what the future may hold, Owens is optimistic about his team’s show schedule.
“We’re starting with just one show, but we already have another one in the works in terms of planning,” he said. “We’re aiming for about four shows for this 2020-2021 season, which will last until spring.”
Of course, auditions and rehearsals will need to be done differently in this time of COVID-19.
“Our auditions will be through video submissions,” Owens said. “Our callbacks for both dance and singing will be virtual, so the actors will get sides, and the dancers will get a combo. They’ll film themselves doing that, and we’ll decide from there. If we need to see anyone in person, we are set up for that. We have a space in Palm Desert that has a safe space for everyone. … The majority of rehearsals will be six weeks online, and the last two or three weeks will be in person.”
Michele and Owens plan on creating community by collaborating with local schools.
“One of our board members is a teacher at Indio High School. I’m a teacher as well, and we have some friends that are theater teachers at other schools,” Owens said. “We’re definitely involving local schools.”
They said North Star has long-term plans to start a kids’ program.
“Stephanie (Jauregui, the board secretary) and I both taught at a kids’ camp for the last few summers,” Owens said. “We have a pretty good handle on that kind of curriculum. It would be fairly small at first, and the end product would be a kids’ show produced. Along the way, the kids would learn tech, costuming, the acting, etc. We would provide all of those different subjects throughout our camp.”
Michele added: “Another great thing about that is my vocal coach is actually a Broadway professional, and she’s agreed to come and help teach. She’s also trying to get some of her Broadway friends to come teach a masterclass.”
For more information on the North Star Theatre, visit www.northstartheatre.org.