Brett Hitchcock, director of audience development at the Circa ’21 Dinner Playhouse in Rock Island, discusses the venue's operations during this period of social distancing. We spoke on Thursday, May 7.
Status of Saturday Night Fever (originally scheduled to open March 18)
The show was basically ready to go, and we had our first dress rehearsal that Sunday [March 15]. But we shut it down before the stay-at-home order came from the governor. We were a little bit pro-active in that because we knew it was coming, and so we just decided to shut it all down. Luckily, we got through closing night of Kinky Boots that Saturday and got those actors back home.
But when we decided to shut it down, of course, at that point, we didn't know how long we would be shut down for. So Denny [Circa ’21 producer Dennis Hitchcock] gave the Saturday Night Fever cast the option of going home or staying in the actor's house. There were several performers from New York who opted to stay here, for obvious reasons, so there are five or six actors that are still in the cast house, a couple people went home, and the rest were local.
We decided to stick with Saturday Night Fever because the set was already in, and everything was done for the show, so it would've been hard to just scuttle that one. But now, obviously, it's been over a month, and we really don't know when we'll open. I mean, we're kind of on our third plan now, but we feel like we need to have plans four, five, and six ready to go, you know? I mean, they're talking now about maybe being able to do something soon with 50 people [in attendance]. But we don't know, so that doesn't really do us any good at all.
So what we've done is we took all the reservations out for the rest of the season, because we knew that there were gonna be changes. Grace for President had to be pushed back to next year, Seussical Jr. has been postponed to the holidays, and Guys & Dolls has been pushed back to the 2020-21 season in the same slot. We're planning to continue doing Saturday Night Fever and the other two shows [Beauty & the Beast and The Savannah Sipping Society], but as we're having to keep making changes, now we're starting to run into issues where some of the actors have conflicts with the dates. So we're really at the mercy of the governor and what he's going to do, and what this “open number” is going to be. I mean, are we even going to be able to open on June 1 – even when some of these other restaurants and barber shops and bars are able to open – simply because of Circa's [320-seat] capacity?
Current Plans for Re-opening
We know the seating is going to be less than our capacity. So we're working on revisions of the seating chart – like going with people at every other table so we can keep some social distancing. If we can only have 50 people, then it's not really an issue because of the size of the theatre, but if we're able to have more, then we'll be making sure we still have proper distance between all the tables. And at least for the foreseeable future, we'll go to plated meals as opposed to the buffet because we want to reduce the risk to our guests as much as possible. It'll be fewer options than the five-course buffet, but dinner will be plated and brought out to everyone. But we still don't know what we're going to have to do. Is everyone going to have to wear masks? We're just waiting on the governor for a lot of these things.
We think we probably can re-open the Speakeasy, because we can do audiences of 50. But we haven't had a lot of conversations about that, because we've been so focused on Circa itself and looking for money that's available. We were fortunate enough to get a PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loan in the first wave, which was very helpful, and there were a couple other grants that came through, like one from the Gas & Electric Credit Union in Rock Island. And we're working on a couple others with the state, as well. Those things are very helpful, and they're stuff we need right now.
At this point, with Saturday Night Fever, I think they're gonna schedule about a week's worth of rehearsals and then they'd be ready to go. However, we need a couple weeks in the ticket office before we can open, because we have to call people who had reservations already and get them re-reserved before we open up tickets to the general public. So even when we get the okay from the governor, we would still need a couple weeks.
Virtual Cabaret Performances
We've been listening to webinars, and there are weekly conferences with other dinner-theatre owners across the country, and one of the things that we keep hearing is that we've got to stay in contact with the customers. And with nothing happening at the theatre, the best way to do that is to bring the show to them. So with our Facebook cabarets, we've been really fortunate that [performer] Tristan Tapscott has stepped up to help us with that, and [lobby host] Khalil Hacker has been wonderful as far as putting all the video footage together. And the Bootleggers and the actors – both actors who worked for us previously and ones that are in town for Saturday Night Fever – have been great about submitting numbers. We're just trying to bring some entertainment to the masses since they can't see us at the theatre.
We just did the fourth one the other day, and we're just gonna keep plugging away at 'em. Tristan and Khalil have really been instrumental in these – Tristan will be brainstorming stuff with Khalil and then they'll send us a text or an e-mail and say, “Hey, we're thinking about this idea for a cabaret … what do you think?” It's just been wonderful, and people can see these any time on our Facebook page. They've mostly been on Sunday nights at seven, but if you're not able to watch them then, you can just scroll down in the newsfeed and find them there and watch them any time you want.
How to Support Circa ’21 … and Each Other
For us, just having people watch our social-media channels is important, because as soon as we have the schedule up and going, we'll be sure everybody knows that. And buying a gift certificate would be much appreciated, with that being the only source of income right now. People can find them on our Web site, and they're good for Mother's Day, good for Father's Day, good for any birthday or anniversary or anything people have coming up … .
Our hearts break for our fellow theatre community, because a lot of theatres have had to cancel their whole seasons. All these companies from Mississippi Bend Players to Music Guild are canceling, and it just breaks our hearts. Luckily, we're in a position, due to the PPP loan and just having a couple of good years, that we've got some resources we can fall back on during this time, and we've been steadfast in that we are coming back. But our hearts bleed not only for the theatre community, but for the arts community in general, because everybody is struggling. You can't go to studios to look at art, and you can't do theatre, and going to RME and RIBCO and other music venues to see bands isn't happening now. It's just a really rough time.
But it's really neat to see some of the creative ideas that people are coming up with. The one that comes to mind is the RME's curbside concerts, where you're basically paying an artist to sit in your driveway and play some music. I mean, I think that's a great idea. And I think a lot of these ideas can be implemented once we're through this. The curbside-artist program is one of those things that probably has legs and can continue even after we have a vaccine and everything is back to normal. And our online cabarets – we've been talking about that, too, as something that can potentially continue even after we're open. Not much good has come during this time, but these creative ideas that the art community is coming up with are really neat to see.