Planning meetings for Civic Theatre productions begin long before a musical is due to hit the stage. In the case of “Legally Blonde: The Musical,” that meant planning started months before “it all hit,” says executive and artistic director Phillip H. Colglazier.
“It” being the pandemic, which spurred stay-at-home orders and safety restrictions causing theaters across the country to cancel or modify plans. Civic had to cancel the last two productions of its 2019-20 season, but it opens its 2020-21 season next weekend with “Legally Blonde.”
The overall concept Civic was working on for the musical before the pandemic struck still works, though some of the technical details have changed, Colglazier says.
A basic reading of the plot for “Legally Blonde” may be familiar to people who remember the 2001 Reese Witherspoon movie on which the PG-13 musical is based. Elle Woods is dumped by her boyfriend, who is headed to Harvard Law. Intent on winning him back, she follows him and realizes her own potential in the legal field.
Directed by Beth Turcotte, Civic's cast includes Cora Stratton as Elle.
Civic has been putting much of its focus on “Legally Blonde” since March. Masked and socially distanced auditions took place at Sweetwater in mid-May, and rehearsals began in June at Arts United Center's practice spaces where everyone has been wearing face coverings and following other health protocols while preparing for the show.
At the time of the auditions, which were moved to Sweetwater to allow more space for people to spread out, Colglazier said Civic wasn't sure where – or even whether – “Legally Blonde” eventually would be staged. It wasn't until the week before rehearsals that the Civic had confirmed the shift to Foellinger Theatre along with new show dates.
“Legally Blonde” runs at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 7, 8 and 9 and 2 p.m. Aug. 8 and 9. Civic will also stage “1776: The Musical” at the outdoor venue Sept. 12 to 20.
Social distancing requirements mean Arts United Center, which usually seats more than 600 audience members, can seat only 160 right now, Colglazier says.
Foellinger Theatre, however, usually seats up to 2,751 people. With social distancing and current gathering size limits, Civic was able to sell up to 250 tickets per show for “Legally Blonde.”
In a survey Civic did after the start of the pandemic, 44% of respondents said they would come back to see a show, and that number increased to around 53% when asked about attending a show at an outdoor venue, Colglazier says.
When speaking to The Journal Gazette several weeks ago, he said it is a gamble whether or not people will come. It seems they will – or at least they will buy tickets. As of Thursday afternoon, two of the five shows were sold out, and only a few tickets remained for the other three performances. Tickets for those were available starting at $33.05 at Ticketmaster.com.
Tickets were sold in pods where at least six feet of seating space is blocked off around each group of people buying tickets. Audience members are required to wear masks while entering, exiting and moving around the venue but can remove them when at their seats. The program book will be digital.
Despite the decrease in ticket sales due to reduced seating capacity, Colglazier says Civic's plans for “Legally Blonde” didn't need to change because of budget issues. Artistic concepts, not ticket sales, drive productions at Civic, he says.
“We're not going to make money off the show,” Colglazier says frankly. But putting on the production is about Civic fulfilling its artistic mission in the safest way possible.
Away from home
Civic Theatre's offices, costume shop, props room, set construction facilities and more are at Arts United Center. In short: it's home.
Putting on a show away from that home is the biggest challenge Civic faces with “Legally Blonde,” says technical and lighting director Corey Lee. That includes everything being on a different time frame.
Normally, Lee and the Civic's technical team would have a week to get things ready on Arts United Center's main stage before the actors moved up from the rehearsal halls in the back of the building. But with the move to Foellinger, they will have only a few days before starting with the actors.
Lee has used software to create a 3-D model of the Foellinger stage and program lighting cues in advance of arriving in the space. He recorded a rehearsal of Act I so he could see where and when all the action was going to take place on the stage. After completing the lighting cues on his computer, he repeated the process for Act II.
In a process that can take hours on each end, light and sound boards will be set up and torn down each day so they can be locked away and protected from the elements when not in use.
The musical's concept is heavy on projections, and the change to an outdoor venue caused some worry about how well projectors would work when the sun was out. Matinees are at 2 p.m., and evening shows start at 7:30. On opening night, the sun won't set until 8:49 p.m.
But in a test run at Foellinger several weeks ago, the projections were clear, even with only one of the two projectors, Lee says.
Working outdoors has other potential challenges, too. “Legally Blonde” includes paper props and people jumping rope, for example, which can be affected by wind blowing through. There is also no controlling the temperature, so Civic has been looking for where it can position fans to keep the cast cool, Lee says.
Costume designer and shop supervisor Angela Sahli says that though her design approach didn't change aesthetically, she did adapt on the technical side because of temperature concerns at an outdoor venue. The musical features a lot of quick costume changes, and hot summer weather means sweaty actors and sticky clothes that could slow things down. Sahli is using clothes with more zippers and stretchier fabrics.
“Legally Blonde” has scenes set at Harvard University in the fall, and costumes include layers to visually reinforce that the action is taking place in cooler weather on the East Coast. The show's actors are being allowed to choose whether to wear all the layers onstage depending on how they feel in the temperature that day. Instead of wearing a suit coat, they might carry it over their arm, Sahli says.
Not everything at Foellinger is a challenge. The venue has more spotlight capabilities, and there is more space between the stage and the audience, which is a boon for social distancing.
Foellinger's dressing rooms are also better suited to distancing, Sahli says. Arts United Center has two large dressing rooms backstage – imagine spaces about the size of a living room filled with people trying to get ready for a show. Foellinger, however, has a number of smaller dressing rooms downstairs that each can be assigned to a couple actors.
Health and safety is a top priority for the production, and the importance of curtailing the spread of COVID-19 is something Sahli knows firsthand.
She was set to return to the costume shop in June, but her husband was diagnosed with COVID-19, so she had to spend additional time quarantining at home while her assistant costumer was in the shop doing measurements of the cast.
Because the show is set in the early 2000s, Sahli was able to order contemporary clothing online while working from home. The budget previously had been set to accommodate buying items instead of creating an entire show's worth of costumes by hand.
The costume shop does laundry after every show at Arts United Center, and that will be no different now – except that Sahli will probably be taking some of the undershirts, mic belts and other items home with her because it is closer to Foellinger than Civic's facilities downtown. She will take precautions such as wearing a mask while working with the costumes.
Gov. Eric Holcomb's mask mandate means performers will be wearing face coverings throughout the show. Civic is also asking actors to use hand sanitizer when they come off stage or before they go out, and set pieces and microphones are being regularly cleaned.
A props crew of three people will be on hand during performances to sanitize items as they are used, and Lee says Civic has done everything it can to limit props being shared by actors. In some cases, stand-in props are being used, in part because it is unclear what constant sanitizing will do to the surface of actual props such as painted pieces that need to look their best for performances.
And if something does happen to a prop while at Foellinger?
“If something breaks in the middle of a show, we typically can run to our basement props room and get something new, and we're not going to be able to that,” Lee says. “So we're packing extra of whatever we can.”
Lee says the world of theater has opened up online during the pandemic, and the Civic staff took advantage of tutorials and virtual seminars.
Lee, who is in his sixth season with Civic, says the shows at Foellinger will be something to remember.
“I'm trying to stay as positive about it as I can,” Lee says. “Because these are the kind of unique experiences that make me love what I do.
“I don't necessarily want to do them all the time, but it changes things up and makes kind of it fun and exciting.”
Sahli is also looking at the positives in the change to Foellinger, which to her include not only the chance for the cast and crew to work in a new environment, but also for the audience to experience something they might not have before: theater outdoors, where it began.
“In a moment of time that we're forced to rely so much on digital needs to communicate with people,” she says, “to be able to go back and experience theater the way it started hundreds of years ago is really cool.”