The year of empty theaters 

How Boulder’s theater community survived and thrived during the pandemic


Everyone has a last-thing-I-did-before-the-pandemic-started memory. For me, it was seeing SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical at the Buell Theater. The coronavirus panic was starting to swell, but sitting in a theater surrounded by roughly 3,000 other people still seemed like a safe choice. 

Soon after that performance, it was lockdown and a year-plus of varying levels of quarantine. And even though it was a genuinely lovely theater production, I still had some anxious, lockdown-inspired episodes wondering: Would SpongeBob: The Musical be the last theater show I ever saw? 

Though theater-loving patrons went without in-person productions, the artists who put on those productions were hit even harder. Without the capacity to gather securely inside, theaters have stood empty for more than a year. But as the vaccination rollout continues to gather steam and warmer temperatures allow for outdoor gatherings, it looks like the spotlight will soon shine again on a stage filled with actors, over a theater filled with people. 

Many Boulder theater organizations are setting their sights on future live productions. And as theaters begin to plan for in-person shows, organizations are reflecting on a tragic, unconventional year that forced many to innovate and pivot their offerings. 

In spring 2020, companies around Boulder were in various states of production. Local Theater Company was about to open a new play, and Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company (BETC) was starting rehearsals for its final show of the season. After hiring a cast and crew of nearly 30 people, conducting a month of rehearsals, a week of previews, and an expanded orchestra, BDT Stage opened its production of Ragtime on March 14, 2020. And then shut it down on March 15. 

“It was heartbreaking,” says Michael Duran, executive producer at BDT Stage. “It’s such a powerful show. All of us got so invested during rehearsal, and then we were so excited to get it in front of the audience. Then not being able to perform it was just awful.”

Unfortunately, canceling shows wasn’t the only hardship that 2020 would bring. BDT Stage had to lay off most of its staff, getting down to only two employees in the fall. Local Theater’s Founding Artistic Director, Pesha Rudnick, says she had to let go of 50 people in a “crushing” three-day period. 

During a year of so much loss and heartbreak, it called into question art’s place in the world. When survival is the primary concern, where does art fit in? 

But as most of the world was locked inside looking at screens or listening to headphones, art’s importance crystalized. Not only did it serve as an escape route, but it helped to metabolize an experience that was excruciatingly hard to digest. 

“We started to realize early in the pandemic that story is survival, and that survival is about putting the context of our story out there,” Rudnick says. “In a pandemic year, the concept of recognizing that story will comfort us became really clear. This is the time we should be investing in artists. They’re documentarians, memory keepers. They’re our collective consciousness.”

So even as the theater and arts community struggled, as most did, to navigate the pain of last year, many rose to the occasion and pivoted to online shows, lectures, educational programs, outdoor performances and film projects. 

BETC kept busy with multiple projects, including the (inter)Generations program, where it paired younger and older playwrights for collaboration; Science Shorts, which showcased the work of local scientists; and its Ghost Light Series that featured skits, interviews and lookbacks on favorite BETC moments. 

“We stayed pretty busy. It was really important for us on a couple of fronts, in that we wanted to stay connected to our audience, and we wanted to continue to serve our community by providing thoughtful and provoking work,” says Stephen Weitz, BETC’s producing artistic director. 

Breaking the routine also gave BETC time to slow down and recalibrate. 

“The arts are a situation where you’re constantly trying to keep your head above water. To be able to slow down a little bit and go, ‘Who are we and who we want to be? Who do we want to serve, and how do we want to reach them?’ — it was a really valuable opportunity,” Weitz says.

“It was a terrible reason that it happened, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a valuable opportunity for us as an organization. And I think that we’re going to be coming out of this a different kind of organization than we were going in.” 

Local Theater Company Lab virtual presentation of Susan H. Pak’s play Miguk Saram _ performers (l to r) Yun Jeong, Vic Kuligoski

Local Theater Company was able to expand its offerings, as well, for its first virtual season. The company put out 10 shows, from traditional scripted work to pieces born in the rehearsal room. It also explored new viewing avenues, like giving members access to rehearsals and hosting a salon series in people’s living rooms with local playwrights and well-known actors like John Lithgow. 

Through its work, Local was able to reach national and international audiences. Rudnick says a light bulb went off about accessibility and the theater’s mission. 

“We sort of grew into our name. Our name is Local Theater Company, and our intention has always been theater for where you are,” she says. “Our idea was for that moment in time that you’re in a theater, you’re a local there. Becoming an online theater company that could reach people all over the map helped us. It catapulted us into what we always intended for our name.”

Rudnick plans to continue a quarter of Local’s programming online to continue keeping its work available for a broader audience. And for the theater purists, don’t get too nervous about the move online. Rudnick reassures that the majority of productions will still be in person. 

Media evolves with the times. The ability to connect with your favorite theater company online has many advantages. And during a year where it was the safest option, it let art prevail.

The Dairy Arts Center’s Director of Programs, Glenn Webb, says he understands why people are worried that online content will supplant live performance, but it’s a recurring concern as media evolves.

“People were worried that television was going to destroy movies. And then that Netflix was going to destroy movies. And now there’s this idea that online content was eroding away at live performance,” Webb says. “There will be some interplay between those aspects, but there will always be a place for live performance.

ALTIUS QUARTET plays in front of an outdoor audience in the parking lot of The Dairy Arts Center during the pandemic. 

“And that’s kind of reassuring. Going through this difficult learning process to understand just how important what we do is,” he says. “The ability of arts organizations to adapt and transform and be reborn out of their ashes has been proven time and again.”

Webb is optimistic about reopening The Dairy’s doors for larger audiences soon. 

“There is absolutely nothing like a real human being in your immediate presence saying and doing things. That has an emotional impact on you that’s just undeniable,” he says. “A year of Zoom and phone calls has led us all to understand that in a way that we did not necessarily understand before.”

The pandemic has taught Duran, of BDT Stage, not to take anything for granted, and he’s excited to reconnect with patrons. 

“We think we’re always going to be there and that theater’s always going to be there, and it’s not,” he says. “It really reminded me of how badly we all need it. We need that interaction. We need the camaraderie of being in a room together watching a live performance.” 

While plans for indoor shows are still being finalized during, hopefully, the tail end of the pandemic, Local Theater Company had already announced its first live show with Discount Ghost Stories: Songs from the Rockies at the Boulder Bandshell starting June 24.

Rudnick says the mood at Local is “giddy” about performing in front of a crowd again. Local’s Associate Artistic Director, Nick Chase, says the theater is working with COVID compliance protocols from both its actor’s union and the City of Boulder.

“It’s going to be a really exciting experience for everyone to gather safely in a way that feels comfortable. The comfort and safety of our audience are paramount,” Chase says. “It’ll be really exciting to see everyone again, at a respectable six-feet distance.”

With the recent events in Boulder, Rudnick acknowledges the grief and the healing the community needs, and she hopes Discount Ghost Stories will help bring that with its focus on the beauty and singularity of Colorado. 

While the pandemic has been challenging, the silver lining is the new perspectives gained. 

Weitz, of BETC, says the pandemic has forced people to be creative. Whether that’s navigating how to transition work online or thinking deeply about the company’s mission, he believes the theater community will look different when it emerges. 

“Anything that shakes up the norm and makes us revisit who we are, artistically can only lead to innovation and excitement,” he says. “We’ve all heard talk about getting back to normal. But I don’t think that that’s the goal of artists. I don’t think artists should want to get back to normal. I’m really excited to see not only what we do but what all of our fellow artists were thinking and dreaming of over the past year.”    

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