There are times onstage when an actor is handed a situation that is completely unexpected. Another actor might drop their lines, a set piece might collapse, or worse. Actors are trained to think on their feet, ad-libbing and improvising in such a way the audience may be none the wiser for the gaffe. Telluride Theatre improvised in a huge way this summer, pulling off shows and its major fundraiser despite a global pandemic. They produced performances in the face of the unexpected, including a live production of “As You Like it,” celebrating the 30th anniversary of Shakespeare in the Park, performed with a full cast of unmasked actors, in front of a live audience, offered at no cost to attendees.
“I think we brought something really magical to our community at a time when it was really needed,” said Telluride Theatre Artistic Director Sasha Sullivan.
Every aspect of the show had to be reworked and evaluated to ensure the safety of the cast, crew and audience. Telluride Theatre’s executive director Colin Sullivan changed the show from “A Winters Tale” to “As You Like it” to allow for a smaller cast. He also blocked the play in a way that would allow all performers to maintain six feet or more of physical distance between one another so masks would not be required during the performance. Cast and crew temperatures were taken and recorded daily. Audience members were required to sit in pods of their choosing in sizes from one to six people. Telluride Theatre crew conducted audience temperature checks and contact tracing at each performance.
“We worked closely with the San Miguel County Health Department to create a series of rehearsal and performance space rules that were eventually approved by both the county and state,” Colin Sullivan said.
Not only did Telluride Theatre offer a live performance for audience members, they also did so for free by raising money to offset production costs.
“We wanted to do something special for the 30th anniversary of Shakespeare in the Park, but as it turned out, just being one of the only theater’s in the nation performing work in the pandemic was special,” said the show’s director. “We’ve always tried to do free theatre as a part of our season and in tough times people need free laughs.”
Shakespeare in the Park wasn’t the only event Telluride Theatre pulled off in the wake of COVID-19 shut downs and ever-evolving regulations; they also held an online play festival, three “Books Alive” performances for the education and entertainment of Telluride’s youth and the annual Midsummer Night’s Gala.
“There were so many reasons why we needed to make our gala happen,” said Sasha Sullivan. “Our spring performance of ‘MacGyver the Musical’ was cut short, our annual burlesque fundraiser was completely canceled, (we had a) commitment to our sponsors and our members … we just had to do something.”
The Midsummer Night’s Gala was held over the course of two nights in July at an outdoor space in collaboration Telluride Sleighs and Wagons. Gala guests reserved pods of up to six people and remained in their groups for the duration of the event. Groups were physically distanced and masks were required by volunteers and attendees. Imaginations ran wild as each group was transported through time and space with psychedelic characters and unusual destinations, filled with live performances, cocktails and fine cuisine along the way.
“We did what I am calling ‘safari theatre’ where guests were escorted in vehicles and taken on this wild journey from the safety of their designated pods,” said Sasha Sullivan. “Everything was brought directly to them and that was our best attempt to keep everyone safe and healthy.”
Telluride Theatre extends immense credit to San Miguel County Public Health Sirector Grace Franklin, along with county and city health officials, for having a successful and safe summer season.
“From day one Grace said to us ‘I know how important the arts are to Telluride and I’m here to help you,’” said Sasha Sullivan. “We were on the phone with her almost every day for two months. She's extremely smart, extremely generous and she really cares about this community. For someone who just moved here and got tasked with an insane pandemic she should be celebrated.”
If you think Telluride Theatre is done with shows this year, think again. A burlesque show is in the works for December 2020, and plans for the 2021 season are also being finalized.
“Our winter season is shaking out and we have a crazy idea for something which I'm not going to announce just yet because I still have to get the permissions to do it but if we can pull it off, it’ll be wild,” said Sasha Sullivan.
Telluride Theatre also plans to resurrect 2020’s burlesque show in March of 2021 at the Telluride Conference Center, a larger space that will allow for maximum physical distancing for pod-like seating with an extended run of shows so no one misses out on the fun.
Other 2021 shows and dates are being arranged and will be announced in the coming months.
“We were tasked with one of the hardest things we've ever had to do as artists and instead of rolling over and saying ‘this is it, we can't do this’ we have been finding creative solutions,” said Sasha Sullivan. “I think it's really important in this day and age to have art and to come together as a community, and having it live is unlike anything else. And if things change with the pandemic and we can't be live, then we'll change again and we'll adjust.”
Colin Sullivan concluded, “It looks like we may be able to push through this uncertain winter to offer a full season of original dynamic, safely distanced theatre in 2021. Of course, it will look different, but Telluride Theatre thrives in different. The show will go on in 2021 and it will be great.”