Last spring, five local actors were just two weeks in to rehearsals for “Exit Laughing,” a comedy about a weekly bridge night interrupted by the inconvenient death of one of its players — her ashes later borrowed from the funeral home for one final card game.
Then, everything came to an abrupt halt with COVID-19.
On March 17, Dubuque’s Bell Tower Theater became one in vast network of live performance venues across the country forced to shut its doors to help slow the spread of the virus.
The closure further prompted the postponement of the theater’s August musical and the cancellation of its two youth musicals and seven of its youth theater classes.
But it was the postponement of “Exit Laughing,” originally slated to be performed in April, that continued to serve as a daily reminder to theater staff about the state of affairs in the months that followed amid the pandemic.
“The set had been completed, so every day for four months, we’d walk in to a set that no one was using and be reminded about the cast scattering and this particular show not taking place,” said Operations and Marketing Manager Miki Robinson. “That has been hard.”
However, the curtain is ready to rise on the empty stage that has been awaiting the return of its company of actors since the theater’s closing.
Following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as recommendations from other live theaters that have reopened, the Bell Tower resumed rehearsals for “Exit Laughing” on July 6. The show will open at the theater on Aug. 13 and run Thursdays through Sundays until Aug. 30.
The intimate theater, which usually seats a modest 174, will be reduced to 36% capacity, or 63 seats. Masks will be required of all patrons and will be available to purchase for those who don’t bring one.
Additionally, house managers will hold open doors for attendees and usher them to their seats by way of a list, in lieu of taking tickets.
Hand-sanitizing stations, a digital playbill, social-distanced seating and packaged concession offerings ordered from and delivered to seats will be implemented.
The show, which runs approximately one hour and 45 minutes, also will forgo an intermission, and the theater will be cleaned and sanitized following each performance, complete with ultraviolet wands. Patrons will be asked to exit the theater by row, after being dismissed by staff.
The arduous process has been worth it to Artistic Director Sue Riedel.
In her decades of being well-equipped to manage all of the blunders that often can befall live theater, nothing could have prepared her for a global pandemic, she said.
“I’ve had people get sick,” Riedel said. “I’ve had their appendix burst and have needed to send another actor out on stage with a script to fill in. But I’ve never had to cancel a show within a season. This has been unlike anything I’ve ever seen.”
Because much of “Exit Laughing” nearly was ready for an audience, Riedel said that it was a natural show to lead with in deciding to reopen the theater’s doors.
The cast has been attending rehearsals in masks; however, they’ll perform without them.
“It has been a good exercise in projection,” Riedel said, with a laugh.
While the Bell Tower was a beneficiary of the Paycheck Protection Program, the theater did have to take on debt in order to remain afloat. A $4,500 grant from the Iowa Arts Council is enabling them to compensate actors and stage crew members for the play.
MidWestOne Bank, which was set to sponsor the Bell Tower’s originally scheduled August musical, also transferred its sponsorship dollars to “Exit Laughing.”
“It takes a lot to run a theater,” Riedel said. “This has been a challenging time. A theater is a lonely place when there is nobody in it. People have been telling us that they’re ready to come back and they feel comfortable knowing the precautions that we’re taking. That’s important. We want people to feel safe. And that’s really what let us know that it would be OK for us to reopen.”
The Bell Tower will be one of the first in the area to return to producing live theater since the pandemic took hold. Others remain shuttered until further notice, taking to virtual offerings instead, which the Bell Tower also did during its closure.
But there is no replacing the energy and magic of live theater, Riedel said.
“I’m a live theater person,” she said. “I like directing shows, and I like seeing shows live. I don’t enjoy them as much when they’re on a computer. It has been important for us to go that route to sustain ourselves and to keep in touch with our audience. But for audiences and for actors, you can’t replace the experience of live theater.”