There has been almost no programming from the Coachella Valley’s theater companies since the pandemic arrived and ruined everything in March—with one notable exception: CVRep, and its Theatre Thursday virtual shows.
And if the California Department of Public Health gives the OK, CVRep—in conjunction with Cathedral City—could become the first local theater company to bring live productions back to the Coachella Valley, starting in December.
Ron Celona, CVRep’s founding artistic director, explained during a recent phone interview that because the theater company is now the proud owner of its own building—the CVRep Playhouse, in Cathedral City—he couldn’t just wait out the pandemic without doing anything.
“This is a year where I can’t even break even,” he said. “I have to make money just to support the building. So that’s what took us to the current plan.”
That plan started with the launch of Theatre Thursday in April. Every non-holiday Thursday at 6 p.m., CVRep produces a show, via Zoom, free of charge, with the participating artists donating their time and talent. The shows range from staged readings of plays to musical performances to monologues and more.
“Theatre Thursday does two wonderful things: It keeps CVRep in the forefront of our patrons’ and followers’ (minds), to know that something is available from CVRep on a weekly basis,” Celona said. “The other thing is, it keeps the artists active. They can work by doing a monologue or a dance or a piece. … Many artists launched their Zoom experience with us and then went on to support other theater companies.”
Celona said attendance at the shows has varied wildly, from a high of 200 people, to a low of 60 or less.
“There is no guarantee. That’s the difference between a ticket for a show: You know how many people are coming that night,” Celona said. “But there is no guarantee in the virtual world; all of these shows are free of charge. However, we do ask for a donation during the program, and each person receives a thank-you after; the email has a donate button on the thank-you. So we do receive donations each week.”
While donations from supporters and attendees of the virtual Theatre Thursday shows have helped CVRep’s financial situation, the organization was still losing money each month—until sponsors stepped in, Celona said.
“We started in August doing monthly sponsorships, and I’m thrilled to tell you, I expected two or three sponsors a month. Well, I’m wrong. We’re getting five to 10 sponsors a month,” Celona said. “The sponsorship is $500 a month, and they’re thanked at each week’s event. They also rotate on our marquee we have on Highway 111.”
As for CVRep’s hoped-for return to live shows: Celona initially looked at doing CVRep’s full planned season at the Cathedral City Community Amphitheater, which is adjacent to the CVRep Playhouse. However, COVID-19 made that cost-prohibitive.
“With the Equity rules, whether a show be indoor or outdoor, the protocol requires that every actor, and everybody that also comes in contact with that actor, be tested once a week. So that’s the crew; that’s the makeup artist, and so on,” Celona said. “We do six-week contracts for plays. And Equity requires a 24-hour turnaround, which means you can’t go to the county; you have to go to a private lab—and then you need written results.
“As for other expenses involved in doing a production: I need a dressing room. So that means I would need to have a trailer, like an RV—a portable dressing room. I would need a storage unit for the set and the props and everything to come off and on for each performance. And at the amphitheater—this is true even for the one-night events we’re going to be doing—we need to bring in port-a-potties, and they need to be sanitized and cleaned throughout the night.”
Instead of the full productions, CVRep and Cathedral City decided to partner on a series of those aforementioned one-night events. Celona hopes a holiday show will kick things off on Dec. 12. Events would follow on the first three Saturdays of January, February and March (with the exception of that third weekend in March, which we’ll explain in a moment.) Tickets will be $25 per person—much less than a typical CVRep show ticket.
If the outdoor shows do take place, Celona said, social distancing and many other precautions will be in place.
“The proposal that we created for the city of Cathedral City included our 23-page safety manual,” Celona said. “(Attendees) will be taken to pods, if you will—circular or square pods that hold a table for two or four. Each pod is about 10 feet apart for social distance. Everyone will be required to wear masks to come into the venue, and they must wear their masks the entire time, unless they’re eating. When the doors open, they’re going to have an hour and a half before the show. People could either bring their own meal, or they could buy, so to speak, a box lunch, but it will be a dinner. Once that food goes away, then they need to put their masks back on to watch the show.”
Celona said his plans include a once-a-month jazz show, a Latinx series and a Broadway style revue. Then there’s that third weekend in March.
“We’ll be culminating in March with something very exciting: It will be our first Shakespeare festival,” Celona said. “Instead of one night, it’ll be a Friday, Saturday and Sunday on the third week of March. It will include two Shakespeare plays performed in rotation. … Our goal is that it kicks off an annual Shakespeare festival that CVRep produces.”
As you may have noticed, these plans include a lot of “ifs.” The reason: As of now, live performances like this are not allowed by the state. Therefore, CVRep and the city of Cathedral City have written a letter to the state Department of Public Health, asking for a waiver.
“One of the strongest points is the venue holds 2,900 people,” Celona said. “The maximum number of people that we will allow to see a show is 225 people—much less than 10 percent of capacity.”
Beyond the hoped-for amphitheater performances, Celona also has hopes that maybe, just maybe, the company can return to the CVRep Playhouse for one full production to close out the 2020-2021 season.
“The only thing we left in the budget is what was supposed to be the final production of this past season, Native Gardens,” Celona said. “I have it in the budget to produce it in April, inside the playhouse. If that turns out not to be legally allowed, then we just cancel the production.”
For more information, visit cvrep.org.