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Kansas City Artists Wait For COVID-19 Vaccines And Keep Hoping For The Return To Indoor Performances

Tim Scott
MTH Theater at Crown Center
A year ago, MTH Theater at Crown Center was gearing up for the opening night of "Carousel." Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the show was canceled.

It’s been a pandemic year off — for writers, artists, musicians and actors. Canceled shows and readings, and postponed plans. And a smattering of online productions.

A date for a return to indoor performances remains elusive, as presenters wait for COVID-19 herd immunity and signals that audiences are ready to return.

But, as Missouri enters the next phase of the vaccine rollout this week — and Kansas next week — some see a light at the end of a tunnel they never expected to enter.

Arts organizations, such as the Kansas City Ballet, are sending out surveys to see what factors would help patrons decide to return to an indoor performance.

Required vaccinations, the knowledge that vaccines are widely available, or herd immunity? Maybe it’s face masks, socially distanced seating, or details about ventilation systems.

“I'm fascinated by [the idea that] vaccine means performance can maybe come back,” says Jeff Church, producing artistic director of the Coterie Theatre. “But it probably will be still tempered with some form of safety around it.”

It's still easier for presenters to remember the days when the stages went dark than it is to visualize their return to action.

In March 2020, stage manager and production assistant Lacey Willis was working on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel” at Musical Theater Heritage (MTH)at Crown Center. The production was still in tech and just about to go into previews. Meanwhile, every day it seemed, city officials were announcing new edicts limiting crowd sizes and gatherings. Willis says it was like racing against the clock.

“Because like every hour, you know, they started coming out with like, no groups bigger than this and this,” she says. “And it got to the point where like, ‘Well, that's the band, that's only the band.’

The "Carousel" performance was to have featured a 12-person orchestra, live on stage, and would have been the biggest production in the company's history. But as the March 19 opening date got closer, so did the rising concerns over COVID-19.

“So we just had to call it, unfortunately,” Willis says.

courtesy: Unicorn Theatre
In February, Chioma Anyanwu was featured in 'Red Bike," A Unicorn Theatre virtual production.

About that same time last March, Chioma Anyanwu was wrapping up the second week of rehearsals for “Noises Off” at Kansas City Repertory Theatre.

"They had to close two shows opening in their Copaken Stage space on their opening nights,” she remembers. “So their opening was their closing."

With most venues closed for a year now, acting work has been sparse, Anyanwu said, limited to gigs such as online readings, and a virtual show at the Unicorn Theatre.

The theater community, she says, has stepped up to support each other.

“This has been a very eye-opening experience,” she says. “In situations like these, we stand for each other and we try and take care of each other.”

Anyanwu is not eligible in Missouri for the COVID-19 vaccine yet, so she says she’ll keep taking lots of precautions, like double masking and mostly sticking to home.

Willis also has had to pivot. She’s been shooting digital productions for MTH Theater, like the popular "Musical Mondays" show.

“It was definitely like that transition year, but that transition year that you weren't ready for,” Willis says, with a laugh. “It's a good wake-up call of like, ‘What else could I do? What else am I good at?’”

So far, she’s had one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and her second one is scheduled for next week.

Artist and poet Jose Faus returned to Kansas City from a writers’ conference in March 2020 to a lockdown. Everything canceled.

“It threw me in a funk,” he recalls, “but it was that kind of funk where like, you kind of feel paralyzed for a moment, and then you start seeing the possibilities, things that you can do.”

Faus says he started saying “yes” to readings, conferences and workshops online. Before the pandemic, he says he would have said “no,” since he prefers in-person events.

“Oh, man, you can hear a lot of poetry, but you don't hear a lot of poetry — if you know what I mean?," he says with a laugh. "It's like, there's just a sense of hearing that word filter through. Or, if you're a presenter, being aware of the tone of the room. As you're reading, you become very aware of how people are receptive or not receptive to what you're doing."

Faus has received both his vaccinations. But he says it’s still hard to see how things will get back to normal.

“You know, there's too much unknown, too much distrust,” he says. “So I think maybe if we have the live readings and that stuff, maybe we can build some kind of bridges again. That's the good thing about art.”

Musician and educator Charles Williams says he’s had some gigs during the pandemic with a trio at Johnson County Community College, and at the American Jazz Museum.

“I think that once this does clear up there's going to be a greater influx of work for musicians,” he says, “because people will have appreciated the fact that they hadn't been able to see live music in a while.”

But Williams says it’s going to take time. And even though he’s fully vaccinated, he’s 65, so he says he’s staying cautious.

During the pandemic, the Coterie Theatre has offered a variety of virtual classroom offerings, as well a online performances, including "BRAINSTORM: The Inside Life of the Teenage Mind."
courtesy: Coterie Theatre
During the pandemic, the Coterie Theatre has offered a variety of virtual classroom offerings, as well a online performances, including "BRAINSTORM: The Inside Life of the Teenage Mind."

Jeff Church, the Coterie Theatre's producing artistic director, has been thinking about vaccines for a while. He signed up for a clinical trial with Centers for Pharmaceutical Research and he’s fully vaccinated — motivated, he says, to visit his mom, who’s in her 80s.

“Well, you know, they caution you when you're in a study: 'Don't think you're superman and don't go around thinking you can take your mask off,'” Church says. “So I really tried to embrace that and not get cocky or let my guard down.”

When it comes to bringing performances inside, Church says there are still a lot of moving parts — especially for venues working with unions.

New union guidelines haven’t been issued yet and once they are it could take a few weeks to work through them.

“Most everything is pointing to some guidelines that might be issued in the summer,” Church says. “We'll be able to activate and move on those and be ready for the fall.”

He adds, “That's fairly wishful thinking on my part. But, you know, I got to hold onto some hope.”

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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