J.R. Bradford had just finished a theater performance and was gearing up to begin rehearsals on another when the COVID-19 pandemic forced shutdowns in March 2020. Like other nonessential businesses, theaters were forced to close, and many of their seasons came to an abrupt halt.
“The pandemic literally took our dreams away from us,” the Dallas-based actor said.
Eighteen months later, Bradford is preparing for an in-person season and his first time performing with Stage West Theatre, a newly renovated Fort Worth performance center at 821 W. Vickery Blvd.
At the start of the pandemic, Stage West Theatre had just opened its production of “The Children” by Lucy Kirkwood. It got through the first weekend of showings before being forced to film the show and air it online, becoming one of the first theaters in the nation to shift to an online format, according to executive producer Dana Schultes.
Although less than ideal, Schultes and other directors sacrificed the in-person theater experience, thinking that the online format wouldn’t be necessary for more than three or four weeks.
As time went on, theater leadership realized the pandemic was here for the long haul and decided to switch to socially distanced performances. In fall 2020, the theater shifted to live plays streamed through Zoom, an outdoor performance and a drive-in play.
Unlike many other theaters, all of Stage West’s “pandemic performances” were still live rather than prerecorded. There’s just something about theater being live, Schultes said, and that wasn’t something she was willing to lose.
“It forced us to really get back into our roots of being as creative as possible,” Schultes said.
The opportunity to kick-start construction
The pandemic also provided Stage West the unique opportunity to streamline its renovation project, which had been a dream for several years. Schultes described the situation as a “huge, delicious glass of lemonade made from a massive pile of lemons.”
If you go
Box office: 817-784-9378
First showing: Oct. 7
Cost of performances:
Previews (first two performances of each show) – $20
Thursday and Friday – $40
Saturday and Sunday – $45
Location: 821 W. Vickery Blvd., Fort Worth, TX 76104
In 2016, Stage West had an initial budget of about $3 million but eventually ended up with a comprehensive $4.5 million four-year budget that encompassed both the renovations needed and the annual funding required during that time frame.
Construction began in late 2019 and was originally scheduled to continue until 2025. But once Stage West was forced to shut down because of the pandemic, that provided an opportunity to lean into renovations and move forward with the entire project, which is now planned to wrap up this month.
Now, Stage West has four different spaces: two traditional performance stages, a rehearsal hall and a small stage that small companies can rent out. The theater’s cafe also was renovated and now has a mezzanine and new bar area.
Another new feature is State West’s soon-to-be-completed backyard area, about half of which will be used for access to the scene shop while the other half will include a patio garden with a small stage.
Schultes hopes that once the theater reopens, it will be able to balance the revenue losses and return to its pre-pandemic stability in a year or two.
During a normal, pre-pandemic year, Stage West would see about 25,000 visitors, which averages a capacity of about 85%, Schultes said. During the pandemic, maximum capacity ranged between 40% and 50% for virtual programming.
Stage West already met its season ticket goal for the entire year, but Schultes added that theater officials created a budget they could meet if they had only 57% attendance.
Major renovations are completed, but there’s still some little “punch light items” such as paint touch-ups and light adjustments that will take some time to finish. Schultes anticipates that all renovations won’t be entirely finished until the end of the year.
The return of the in-person theater experience
Merri Brewer, a former managing director at Theatre Three in Dallas and an avid theatergoer, said she’s excited to see how the renovations change the experience for both the cast members and audience.
Although she frequented several local theaters before the pandemic, Stage West has always been a go-to, and she’s never missed a show. Attending Stage West makes a “really nice evening,” she said, due in large part to its full cafe and wine bar, which is uncommon for theaters to have.
Bradford is excited to get acting again. Over the past year, it took a mental adjustment to lose the dependency of leaving the house and going to rehearsals. Although he was grateful for the opportunity to participate in an audio show and a virtual performance, he missed the comradery of an acting cast and bonding on stage. Showing up to the theater an hour early to chat about previous shows with the stage manager or swapping tips between actors to learn lines faster are some of the little things taken for granted until they’re taken away.
“You can bond over a Zoom rehearsal, but the energy gets lost,” he said.
But as much as he misses acting, Bradford also misses experiencing live theater as an audience member.
Live theater is meant to be experienced in-person, he said. Sharing hushed breaths with the other audience members around you is a unique event that can’t be compared to watching a movie, according to Bradford, because each performance of a show is different. The energy and emotion actors display during one given performance of a show could be slightly or vastly different from that of a show later in the night or the next day.
Brewer, who attended Stage West’s outdoor show and live streamed performances, echoed a sentiment similar to Bradford’s: Nothing can adequately replace the energy of a live theatrical experience.
“Movies are movies, TV is TV, theater is theater,” she said. “And you need that interaction of the live audience to make it work.”
Health and safety during an ongoing pandemic
The major concern looming over the theater is, of course, the ongoing pandemic, and Stage West plans on enforcing a number of different health and safety policies.
During renovations, the theater got all new HVAC systems complete with UV lights to kill all sorts of microbes, and new air will be circulated into the theater six times per hour.
“We should have the cleanest air in the county,” Schultes said, jokingly.
Other safety protocols include a touchless ticketing system, QR codes for programs and menus and mechanisms on the theater entrance to avoid having to touch the door. All high-touch surfaces will get extra daily cleanings, as well.
At this point, Schultes said, the theater will require theatergoers to wear face masks inside the building. She and other management are still debating whether they should also require proof of a COVID-19 vaccine or negative COVID-19 test.
However, actors won’t be required to wear face masks on stage because facial expression is so vital to acting, Schultes said.
Schultes said the theater’s policies will be firmly enforced, partly because the cast members are part of the Actors’ Equity Association, a labor union representing professional American actors. If any cast member gets sick with COVID-19, the bill to house, feed and care for that cast member will be entirely up to Stage West to pay. On top of that, the show will shut down without that cast member because the theater can’t afford to double cast any roles.
A different option for anyone who either doesn’t want to comply with the policies or prefers to stay at home will be a live-stream of the first two shows.
Looking to the future and the start of the season
Despite the regulations, Schultes said, she’s still worried about an outbreak of COVID-19 cases halting the season. She wonders where the priorities of Texas legislative representatives and senators lie as they put small businesses like Stage West in “such jeopardy.” Theatergoers could potentially point to Gov. Greg Abbott’s refusal to enforce a mask mandate and also refuse to comply with the theater’s policies.
“We’re in a real tough situation when we can’t do everything we can to protect our audiences and our casts, especially when so many of them are already vaccinated and so willing,” Schultes said. “It’s like the tiny, tiny slim minority is holding the rest of the state hostage, and it’s really uncomfortable, and it makes it very hard to do business here.”
As an audience member, Brewer said, she’s definitely nervous about COVID-19 and hopes other theatergoers respect Stage West’s health and safety protocols. She’s not confident local small- to midsize-theaters could survive another shutdown situation, and as someone who’s been a theater managing director before, she understands the stress Stage West staff has had to endure.
Schultes feels both exhilaration and intimidation to reopen Stage West’s doors to the public. While she’s missed seeing her patrons, it’s a risky endeavor to be a live performance venue to start back up after 18 months of a pandemic.
“We’ve got a hell of a season ahead and incredible renovations to share with all the public and community that has made it possible,” Schultes said. “My big message to everyone is ‘I can’t wait to see you, and thank you for your patience as we collectively all move though and forward to brighter and easier times.’”
Fort Worth Report fellow Cecilia Lenzen can be reached at email@example.com or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.