As California opens up, live art forms that the pandemic took away are returning, including theater—and the folks at downtown Palm Springs’ Palm Canyon Theatre couldn’t be happier.
The theater’s first show back, the musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, will be performed Friday, July 9, through Sunday, July 18—and it is very much a family affair.
Theater co-founder J.W. Layne is set to play Charlie Brown, while also doubling as the set and lighting designer. He’s sharing co-artistic director duties with his sister, Se Layne, who is also the choreographer. Finally, Dr. William “Bill” Layne, their father, is directing. I spoke to the family about the production—and how the pandemic affected the theater.
“It’s taken quite a toll, because not only could we not have people close together, like in a theater; we also couldn’t have people live on a stage,” explained Se Layne. “We’ve been closed for over 15 months now, so we’re excited to get back open again.”
J.W. Layne jokingly referred to the last 15 months as “an interesting vacation.”
“We’ve been champing at the bit just waiting it out,” J.W. Layne said. “I’ve got both my shots, I’m ready to go back to work.”
The Laynes said they put a lot of thought into their first show back.
“We were trying to find something that would make the audience comfortable and the actors comfortable, because even though we’ve all had our shots, there’s still a huge hesitancy to come back,” expressed Se Layne. “We don’t have any grants or any sponsorships, so we depend on the ticket sales. … Since people have been watching so much TV, they’re over sitting and watching something, so we needed something that would intrigue them and captivate them. We chose Charlie Brown, because it seems like right now, people have been in their own lives so much that they’re really inside their heads. Charlie Brown characters are all really stoic in their internal emotions and worries about the world—so it’s kind of like a reflection on people right now.”
Added J.W. Layne: “We wanted something that takes you out of your worry of catching COVID, or losing your job, or whatever you’re worrying about at home.”
While California has “reopened,” Se Layne said the theater is still taking precautions.
“We have a resident costumer, and he made singer packs designed for a show on Zoom, where they can actually have a mask on and have the mic away from their face enough that they can sing and project and enunciate and not be eating their mask,” said Se Layne. “We’re also going to have smaller casts.”
The next big show on the Palm Canyon Theatre schedule, Sordid Lives, will also have a smaller cast.
“We did that specifically because of COVID,” Se Layne said. “We have all been traveling, and we’re finding that people are hesitant at the very beginning, but then they’re like, ‘Why do I have this mask on?’ I know it’s different in Palm Springs, but we’re hoping that once people come out and see that it’s safe, they’ll come out in full force. Then we’re moving up into larger shows like Shrek and Les Misérables.”
Added Dr. Bill Layne: “We’re having the whole cast make sure that they’ve had their shots and all that, so they feel comfortable being on stage with one another.”
I asked the Laynes if they felt extra pressure to put on a great show, since it’ll be one of the first live shows in a local theater since the pandemic started.
“We do want the quality to be really top-notch, because they have been away for a year,” J.W. Layne said. “They might not remember the last time they saw us at the Palm Canyon Theatre, so we want to do a nice, professional job. They’ll say, ‘I forgot how nice of a job this group does; let’s come back and see the next show.’”
Added Se Layne: “You’re only as good as your last show. I totally believe that, and I have seen that so many times with people and actors and production companies. Luckily, our actors and our staff are wanting to come back and wanting to be creative.”
While J.W. Layne may joke about a 15-month “vacation,” the Laynes said they’ve actually been quite busy during the closure.
“We’ve been planning a lot,” said J.W. Layne. “We also improved the lighting and worked on the stage while nobody was in the building, so that was nice. We also did some Zoom productions. I work at College of the Desert, and we did a production there. It was a radio show, and then the Palm Canyon Theatre did the (educational) kids’ production with masks on everything, and that was hugely successful—not financially, but through the turnout and enthusiasm of getting people to enjoy the theater again. That was definitely a positive experience. We worked on some stuff that we wouldn’t normally have been able to spend so much time on.”
The Laynes said they hoped potential audience members are as ready for the return of live theater as they are.
“It’s going to be fun,” Se Layne said. “… We’ve got full music, and the cast is excited. We just hope the audience comes.”
The Palm Canyon Theatre will perform You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown at 7 p.m., Thursday; 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, from Friday, July 9, through Sunday, July 18, at 538 N. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $32 to $36, plus fees. For tickets or more information, call 760-323-5123, or visit palmcanyontheatre.net.