SOUTH SALT LAKE — The worst of the coronavirus pandemic is behind us, or so the experts say. The sudden lockdown that began on March 12 in Utah is in the early stages of ending, with many non-essential businesses opening while taking precautions to protect employees and customers.

Though it will be a long time before life is fully back to normal, one encouraging sign is the Parker Theatre’s announcement that they will be opening a new production, The Corona Conundrum. This 40-minute production is tailored to the current pandemic situation. I interviewed James Parker, the executive director at the Parker Theatre to discuss the play and how the coronavirus is changing the artistic process for the company. What he said shows me that the staff at the Parker Theatre is not only artistically innovative, but conscious of the needs of their patrons and fully capable of creating a fun—and safe—show.

Creating The Corona Conundrum

Post for The Corona Conundrum, which plays May 15-23, 2020.

Although no one foresaw a pandemic shutting down theatre companies in Utah, the Parker Theatre was better suited than most to resume production. “We already adapt plays, and since we are fortunate enough to have our own building and control over our schedule, we knew we could do something,” Parker told me.

Nevertheless, production couldn’t resume under typical conditions. Both the state and county health departments have safety guidelines that any theatre company would have to meet in order to open. Some of these make the traditional rehearsal process impossible: minimizing face-to-face interactions, maintaining 6 feet of distance between people, and more.

Parker understood that rehearsing and performing during a pandemic would require adjustments, and the process of customizing a show to current conditions began in earnest. Parker said, “Necessity is the mother of invention. We looked at how difficult it is to produce as normal. One of the largest factors is what would patrons feel comfortable doing? We decided that the length of a show determines comfort level.” The result is a 40-minute play: enough to be a refreshing time outside of the house, but not so long that attending becomes a high-risk activity.

The entire creative process was altered. “This entire show is spawned by the pandemic. We crowd sourced the scripts from the actors, artistic staff and are showcasing particular talents of actors,” Parker explained. The result is a sketch comedy show, with short bits that actors can perform with little rehearsal and no close contact.

Safety First

Throughout the rehearsal process and the performances, safety is paramount. “The show is built and designed for safety,” Parker said.

Seating map for the Parker Theatre’s production of The Corona Conundrum. Assuming groups of four attend the show, then 60 of the theater’s 148 seats are available (40.5%).

Social distancing will be the rule on stage and off. Audience members must wear masks, and household groups that attend the show will be separated from one another by at least 6 feet. The result is that only approximately 60 audience members (about 40% capacity of the theater) can see each performance of The Corona Conundrum.

Also, foot traffic will be carefully regulated so that audience members from different households do not congregate together. The theater’s iconic soda fountain will be closed.  To help audience members prepare for their visit, the Parker Theatre has prepared a web site for safety procedures and a video to orient audiences. Audience members who have any symptoms are asked to stay home; anyone showing symptoms at the production will be asked to leave.

All these procedures meet or exceed the guidelines that the state and county health departments have established for businesses. “We want people to understand that this is just as safe as going to the store,” Parker explained. “Coming to the theater is as safe if not safer than other activities that people are engaging in as restrictions have begun to be lifted.”

But there are other changes that patrons may not notice. “Actors will have their temperature and general wellness monitored throughout the run of shows,” Parker stated. “Rehearsals are at a minimum, and none of the scenes require actors to be close to each other.” When asked if actors will be wearing masks during rehearsal, Parker replied, “Most likely. We haven’t rehearsed in person yet. Most of this close group of people will guide the discussion.”

Parker continued, “If anyone is uncomfortable, we will adapt to make everyone feel safe.” No one is being asked to sacrifice their health for the production or the company. “We are being careful and taking all the safety precautions. All our actors and one crew person are not under any pressure to do anything unsafe or uncomfortable. Any one may exit the production if they feel unsafe. As a producer I will be checking in on everyone and routinely asking them how they feel about the conditions and making sure that peer pressure is not a factor.”

A Long Road

Clearly posted signs in the lobby of the Parker Theatre will help groups stay six feet apart as they wait to take their seats.

Currently, the run of The Corona Conundrum is scheduled to play for two weekends. No one expects conditions to be back to normal at that point in Utah. Thus, The Corona Conundrum is just the beginning of the Parker Theatre’s plan to bounce back from the pandemic.

Like all of the theatre community, we will have to make difficult decisions regarding summer, cancelling additional shows and most likely exchange some titles on our next season to adjust to the economic impact. Even if we get back to what the state calls the ‘new normal’ by late summer or fall, the impacts will be longer lasting,” Parker explained. “Most of our part-time staff has been laid off. It will take fewer people to do more work. Production budgets for upcoming shows will have to be carefully evaluated.”

“We are considering producing more one-act shows so that we can have a backup of shows that can take us through the summer. We don’t normally perform in June and July and half of August. So, we have flexibility to keep performing in this way until we can get to the GREEN ZONE.”

While the future is uncertain, The Corona Conundrum shows that versatility is the key to producing plays while keeping audiences safe during the coronavirus pandemic. If the show is successful, then it may serve as a template for the first wave of theatrical productions in a coronavirus world. Parker stated, “The Parker Theatre is concerned not just for our organization but the theatre community as a whole. We are stepping forward as a vanguard for the theatre community, to help other companies have hope. If we can show that people are willing to attend, then it brings hope to the rest of the theatre community.”

The Corona Conundrum will play Fridays at 7 PM and 8:30 PM and Saturdays at 1 PM, 2:30 PM, 4 PM, and 5:30 PM from May 15 to 23 at the Parker Theatre (3605 South State Street, South Salt Lake). Tickets are $12 per person, not including the suggested $5 donation. For more information, visit parkertheatre.org.

Readers who want to support the Parker Theatre can attend The Corona Conundrum or donate to the company. We encourage patrons of any other Utah theatre company to donate the value of their pre-paid tickets for cancelled performances to the producing company and help keep these groups alive during this crisis. Cash donations to any theatre company in the state would also be greatly appreciated.

For other information about how the coronavirus has impacted the Utah theatre community, visit https://utahtheatrebloggers.com/tag/coronavirus.