The opening curtain

After a year of coronavirus restrictions, Chico Theater Co. is poised to to welcome back indoor audiences

Executive Director Marc Edson sits in the auditorium of his Chico Theater Co., which hasn’t held an audience in roughly one year. (Photo by Jason Cassidy)
Bring back the arts

This feature is a part of the Chico News & Review’s Bring Back the Arts campaign, a weekly interview series featuring the leaders of Butte County arts and music venues discussing their efforts to recover from the coronavirus pandemic. Each week, the Q&A’s are published in the CN&R and broadcast during the Chico News & Review radio show, Thursdays, 5-5:30 p.m., on KZFR, 90.1FM.

When Chico Theater Company shutdown last summer after the state put COVID-19 restrictions in place to keep people from gathering in groups, Executive Director Marc Edson found himself, like so many others, unemployed during a pandemic. Without an audience or a company of players to tend to, the nearly lifelong Chicoan (he moved here at the age of 7) did what a local does with empty summer days in front of them—he floated down the river. All told, he went tubing 19 times.

By fall, however, he was sufficiently rested and ready to get back to work. Edson said that the absence of theater was painful for the company, so they decided to take advantage of the stipulation of outdoor shows being allowed. A stage was built, and a drive-in style theater was arranged in the parking lot behind the building. It only lasted for two shows, but the new setup gave Edson a potential backup.

He’s hopeful that he won’t need it. Last month, CTC announced a five-show season that will open with The Ladies Foursome on May 21, which will likely make it the first local performance company to open its doors since the pandemic closures. Butte County is in orange tier of the state’s recovery program, which has been amended to allow theaters to host socially distant audiences up to 50 percent of capacity.

The CN&R sat down with Edson in the CTC lobby to talk about how the long-running local theater—that specializes in musicals and has been programming family-friendly entertainment for nearly 18 years—has survived and what might be on the horizon as he looks forward to the Jun 15 date that Gov. Gavin Newsom has set for all businesses in the state—including theaters—to fully reopen.

You just announced a new season. Is this your normal full slate of plays?

Normally we have eight shows; this year we’re doing five. I just finally said, “I’m done. I’m going to find shows that, if I can’t do them inside, I’ll do them outside in the back parking lot.” Then, right about that time, things loosened up. So, [the plays] are adaptable either way. But we are planning on May 21 with opening inside. We’re going to do the social distancing. We blocked every other row, two seats between every party. We’ll have people wear masks until they get to their seats. I think that will cover us.

The cast of The Ladies Foursome rehearsing at Chico Theater Co. From left: Kathy Robinson, Lisa Saldano, Christine Buckstead and Sandy Huseth. (Photo by Marc Edson)

How do you think people will react to in-person experiences after so long?

We saw a taste of that in [the] fall when we did those two shows, you know, people sitting in their lawn chairs watching it, they were almost in tears for just being able to be back and to watch shows again.

We’ve started selling season tickets, and everyone who calls is like, “Oh my god, I’m so happy that you’re back. I’ve missed you so much.” It’s been busy, but a very heart-touching time.

How has the theater been able survive the pandemic?

Luckily, most of the season-ticket holders donated back their tickets—to the tune of probably about $50,000—and that was a big help. And then a lot of people gave financial donations during this time. We did get two of the payroll protection loans that totaled about $50,000. We’ve applied for other grants—the Aaron Rodgers one again, California Arts Council for $15,000, and I just this morning finished the SVOG, Shuttered Venue Operators Grant. It’s for all kinds of venues; they’ll reimburse up to 45 percent of lost income in 2020. So, I just finished and we would qualify for $150,000 if we get it.

Are you excited?

May 21 can’t get here soon enough. I want to just look out at all those faces, socially distanced as it may be. We’ll still be able to get, I imagine, probably 70 people in [as compared to 200 capacity].

The Snake (Jeff Dickinson) offers the forbidden fruit to Eve (Holly Quick) in The Diaries of Adam and Eve, an October 2020 production staged outside in the lot behind Chico Theater Company. (Photo by Randy Ross)

I know your theater was touched by COVID-19. John Fuller, one of your players, died from the disease in January. What was your relationship with him?

John had done, I think, four shows with us. Lovely man, just loved theater. I didn’t even know he’d gotten sick, and all of a sudden I heard from one of his daughters that he’d passed away. I spoke at his service, and we had four or five actors there. It really made it very real.

How well do you think the art scene will recover after the pandemic?

It’s taken quite a hit, you know, with the Blue Room losing their space. … I think it’s going to come back. From the response I’ve seen with ticket sales just in this last week and a half, I’m very excited people are willing to come back. Plus, we [have] sold about 250 season tickets, and 35 percent of those had never bought season tickets before!

The Ladies Foursome, Thursday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m. & Sunday, 2 p.m., May 21-June 6. The show will be staged indoors with current COVID-19 guidelines in place. If mandates require, performances will moved to the outdoor “Starlight Stage.”

Chico Theater Co., 166 Eaton Road, Ste. F, 894-3282, chicotheatercompany.com

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