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Waco Civic Theatre reconfigures stage for COVID-19 spacing

Waco Civic Theatre reconfigures stage for COVID-19 spacing

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Waco Civic Theatre stage

Waco Civic Theatre director Eric Shephard, mask in hand, stands by a new stage and surrounding seating newly configured for COVID-19 spacing protocols.

The COVID-19 pandemic that’s flattening the economy is also flattening the seating — well, the seating floor — at Waco Civic Theatre.

After COVID shutdowns and quarantines have led to the cancellations and postponements of the community theater’s last four planned productions, the theater is preparing for a new future of distanced seating by reconfiguring its internal space and adding an outdoor stage.

During the absence of shows that WCT director Eric Shephard terms “intermission,” workers have constructed a platform in the center of the theater’s auditorium space that effectively extends the stage throughout the theater.

Seats once on the theater’s concrete floor and arranged in a horseshoe around that floor now will be arranged on four sides of a central acting space. Risers in each section will lift seats on back rows for better viewing.

The new 25-by-25-foot arena stage will allow more flexibility in spacing audience members to meet protocols meant to slow any spread of the coronavirus causing COVID-19.

Shephard said the architecture of the space dictated either its former thrust stage or arena staging where viewers surround the dramatic action on three or four sides. With seating on four sides, the theater can provide more socially distanced seating under 50% capacity guidelines than its past setup.

And while a wooden platform now serves as the floor for theater seats, it can be removed in the future if needed, should COVID-19 concerns shift, he added.

The director noted that the configuration of 183 seats used for a past production of the musical “Thoroughly Modern Millie” would only provide 64 usable seats when considering social distancing and a 50% capacity. The new arrangement adds space for 35 more seats, though the COVID-19 protocols would mean only half of those extra seats could be used.

The new flooring cost approximately $3,200 to build, less than the set construction costs for some of the theater’s larger productions, and the move to arena staging would mean a corresponding cutback in sets that could save some $10,000 over the course of a season.

Season shifts

The theater’s next season also faces major changes: No musicals until the spring at the soonest and a shift to small-cast productions. Under consideration: Horton Foote’s “The Trip to Bountiful;” John Patrick Shanley’s Irish-flavored “Outside Mullingar;” two Little League coaches in “Rounding Third” by Richard Dresser; and for the holidays, maybe Lauren Gunderson’s “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,” which focuses on Mary Bennet.

“For the time being, we’re doing straight plays and not musicals,” Shephard said. “We’ve had to redo the whole season.”

The stage isn’t the only change underway. A Cooper Foundation grant will cover installation of new air filtering equipment in the building’s heating and air conditioning system. A Creative Waco grant will secure video and electronic equipment for taping and possibly streaming WCT productions. Contactless ticketing for future productions will eliminate paper tickets and productions’ playbills, with information about the plays and their casts, will be offered electronically.

The theater has a “Storybook Variety Hour” planned for its new outdoor stage for later this month with a return to the indoor space no sooner than late September, if that.

“The idea is to keep us alive,” Shephard said.

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