Beginning Sept. 20, Harlequin will present radio-style productions of most of the shows it had to cancel during its 2020 season — plus a new thriller for the week of Halloween. And the center has added four physically distanced shows to its calendar, beginning Oct. 17 with a night of standup comedy. The center’s plans to welcome audiences back when the governor’s office approves a reopening plan for theaters about a month before a scheduled show. Otherwise, shows will continue to be rescheduled, as they have been since mid March. But Harlequin’s mini season of one play per week through Oct. 31 is a sure thing — and it’s free, with donations appreciated.
Long though this closure has been, both Jill Barnes, executive director at the Washington Center, and Harlequin artistic director Aaron Lamb are confident that live performances will return. “The arts are how we will heal from the pandemic,” Barnes said in a season launch event for Friends of the Washington Center.
Theaters were closed for months during the flu pandemic of 1918, and even William Shakespeare’s fabled Globe closed for more than a year during an outbreak of bubonic plague, Lamb said last week during an online meeting for Harlequin stakeholders. “Theater has survived many closures, wars, falls of nations, civilization changes,” he said. “Theater has survived this for thousands of years.”
At the moment, though, Harlequin isn’t even planning on a possible reopening date. The company had previously announced to plans to offer “A Christmas Carol” for the holidays with physically distanced seating and a live streaming option. Now, those plans are on hold. Reopening will be complicated, Lamb said. Besides getting the governor’s permission to reopen safely, Harlequin will also need approval from the Actors’ Equity Association. He’s also concerned about when audiences will be ready to return.
At the center, tickets for the shows on the fall schedule are selling, Barnes said, but of course, all plans in a pandemic are subject to change. “This is kind of the new normal,” she said. “It’s our hope that we can do physically distanced shows before the end of the year, and if not, we’ll be rescheduling them.” In fact, the center has already rescheduled what was to be the first physically distanced show — an evening of Harold Lloyd silent films with accompaniment by organist Dennis James. It was first announced for Oct. 4 and now is on the calendar for Feb. 26.
Still on the center’s physically distanced fall schedule are two Best of Comedy Underground shows (Oct. 17 and Nov. 7), formerly called Comedy in the Box; a Seattle International Comedy Competition show (Nov. 19); a Black Box Jazz concert with Tacoma saxman Kareem Kandi (Nov. 6) that was postponed from May 15. The center is working on rescheduling the Pink Martini concert that’s on the calendar for Nov. 16; it can’t be done with physical distancing since it’s almost sold out. “We don’t have a confirmed date yet, but it looks like it will be rescheduled to May,” Barnes said.
When the center reopens, there will be substantial changes to the way going to the theater will look. There’ll be masks, of course, and lots of cleaning protocols. While physical distancing is necessary, all shows will be held in the main theater, which will be able to seat 257 people if most of them sit in groups of four, with some sitting in groups of two or three. Each group will be separated from their neighbors by three empty seats and one or two empty rows. In other words, if one wants to see a show, they’ll need to buy multiple tickets.
“The seating strategy and decision to sell four-packs of tickets was not one that we took lightly,” Barnes said. “The alternative is not doing the events at all, and that is a lose-lose for everybody.”
Lamb is hoping the Harlequin radio-style shows will be a win-win. Actors can perform without leaving their homes, which the Actors Equity Association has approved, and the chance to hear all of the nonmusical shows that didn’t happen last season. First up is “The Highest Tide” (Sept. 20-26), based on Olympia novelist Jim Lynch’s best-selling coming-of-age tale. The show closed early due to coronavirus concerns.
Also part of the mini season, which Lamb sees as an opportunity to test audiences’ interest in experiencing Harlequin Productions outside of the State Theatre: “For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday” (Sept. 27-Oct. 3), in which the refusal to grow up meets the reality of growing old; “A Bright Room Called Day” (Oct. 4-10), about artists and activists struggling to survive as fascism rises in 1930s Berlin; “This Flat Earth” (Oct. 11-17), about two 12-year-olds trying to make sense of life after a shooting at their school; “Snow in Midsummer” (Oct. 18-24), a modern retelling of a Chinese drama about an angry ghost; and what the company is calling a Halloween surprise (Oct. 25-31), a seasonally appropriate thriller yet to be announced.
Harlequin Productions radio theater
7:30 p.m. Sept. 20-Oct. 31, with a new show opening each Sunday and then running Tuesday through Saturday
Free to attend online, donations accepted
Washington Center Fall shows
512 Washington St. SE, Olympia
Best of Comedy Underground Oct. 17 and Nov. 7;
Black Box Jazz with Kareem Kandi Nov. 6;
Seattle International Comedy Competition Nov. 19