When the first Covid-19 lockdown orders came into effect in early 2020, the world was met with eerie images of vacant city blocks, abandoned bars and restaurants, and entire communities seemingly turned into ghost towns overnight. The absences were keenly felt by arts institutions—which depend on large crowds—and theaters chiefly among them. 

In Reno, there were real concerns about whether small, independent theaters would survive at all. Faced with sunken costs of halted productions, withering donations and an uncertain timetable for when they could reopen, members of the theater community scrambled to come up with ways to salvage their seasons. After more than a year since the world shut down, Reno’s theaters are finally beginning to reopen—with lessons learned and some new partnerships made. But the question remains: what happened to Reno’s theaters the week the curtains fell?

Reno Little Theater had its first closure in 85 years

To put it in perspective, Reno Little Theater was founded in 1935, the same year FDR signed the Social Security Act into law and Babe Ruth played his last ever career game. It has weathered changing public interests, funding booms and busts, recessions, wars and natural disasters for nearly a century—and last year was the first time it ever shut its doors.

Chad Sweet played Black Stache in Reno Little Theater’s 2017 production of Peter & the Starcatcher. File photo: Eric Marks

“In March of 2020, we were in the middle of getting ready to open our fourth show of our 85th season, The Imaginary Invalid,” said RLT Executive Director Melissa Taylor. “It was literally opening night of the show, and I had about six hours before curtain to get my staff in and say, ‘Contact all the audience. I’m going to check in with the cast and crew and have this horrible conversation about, hey, we’re not actually opening the show that you’ve just worked on for eight weeks.’”

Taylor said she made the call to cancel the show out of an abundance of caution—but she didn’t make it alone.

“I don’t know who reached out to whom first, but Good Luck Macbeth, Brüka Theatre, RLT, The Pioneer Center and Sierra Arts Foundation all got together on March 13 and sat in [Executive Director Dennyse Sewell’s] office at the Pioneer Center and said, ‘All right, what do we all think?’”

Taylor and the directors of other nearby theaters made the choice to all suspend their seasons together, as both a sign of solidarity and a message to their audience that the pandemic was something to be taken seriously. It hurt a little too much to scrap their show on opening night, though, so RLT held a special showing of Molière’s The imaginary Invalid for the cast and crew of the newly formed alliance before shutting its doors for the next year.

“I think we were all in a position where no one really knew what to do, and I think that we were all like, ‘Well, whatever it is, you know, at least we’re in it together,” Taylor said. “And we’ve kept that actually throughout this whole thing. I think if there’s any silver lining of what we just went through, it’s that the relationships between the organizations, I feel like, have really been strengthened.”

Luckily, RLT had paid off the mortgage on its space two years prior. Removing that particular albatross made it easier for the theater to survive on savings—which Taylor said had been growing in recent years—but it didn’t stop the full-time staff of six from being furloughed.

RLT spent the year collaborating with Brüka and Good Luck Macbeth on socially distanced plays and virtual productions—all of which still live on Good Luck Macbeth’s YouTube channel. Transitioning to a digital format was difficult, Taylor said, but presented an interesting challenge for the performers. The entire staff is happy to get back to work putting on live productions this summer.

“I think we’ll slow down a little bit, Taylor said. “We’re going from six main stage shows, to four main stage shows, for example, and that’s going to allow us that time to reflect more on how we do things and why we do things and what our impact is. And I think we’ll probably still, as often as we can, offer virtual content for accessibility’s sake. It’s allowed us to reach new audiences.”

Brüka Theatre was right next to the downtown protests

From its location at the corner of First and Virginia Streets, Brüka Theatre staff dealt with the same issues as its fellow venues—too many empty seats and no idea when they’d be allowed to fill them. 

“We make our money from grants and from people coming in the door, but we’re really month to month, you know,” said Executive Director Mary Bennett. “I mean, it’s awful, we’re celebrating 28 years, but we’re like most people. We actually have a very small cash reserve now, which is cool, and we used it—to be honest with you—right away, because we didn’t have the income coming in.”

Brüka Theatre  in June 2021. Photo: Kris Vagner

Spring is a busy time for Brüka, as it usually offers children’s theater classes on top of its seasonal production schedule. By the time the pandemic shuttered the doors, the company was about to debut its production of Waiting for Godot—a play about two men waiting to make sense of an uncertain future.

“So, we will open [this season] with Waiting for Godot,” Bennett said. “It’s been in rehearsal for a year and a half.”

But while Bennett and her staff turned to grant funding to stay afloat and dabbled in online content like their podcast Brüka Bridge, the theater’s proximity to a racial justice protest that turned violent last May meant Bennett witnessed firsthand the frustrations of marginalized communities—ones that are often shut out of artistic institutions as well as political ones. While Brüka was undamaged by the protests, Bennett saw the moment as a chance to reflect.

“There’s a lot of opportunity for us right now to continue to look at ourselves and understand how to make Brüka and our different [theater] companies—I think we all have that same goal—to be able to greet and address and create a place for our community where more people feel welcome than just a handful of patrons that have come in the past.”

 Addressing elitism through inclusivity is now one of the Brüka’s priorities as the theater begins to reopen, and to produce more digital content, which the staff learned to create for their patrons—many of whom donated the price of their season tickets when lockdowns began. In both respects, Bennett believes the pandemic helped usher in some overdue modernization for the theater.

“Which is a long time coming,” Bennett said.

Reno Improv—well, they improvised

Further removed from both the downtown entertainment district and from the larger theater community itself, Reno Improv found itself facing pandemic closures alone, and without much of a plan. Of course, seasoned improvisers are used to making it up as they go. 

Photo courtesy Reno Improv

“We started with a pretty fat bank account actually, because we were in a period of growth, things were just really taking off,” said Diana Martin, Reno Improv’s board chair. “It was clear that it was going to dwindle down to zero because we had no income during the pandemic really. So, we actually decided as a board to let the space go and get a storage unit.”

Reno Improv recently incorporated as a non-profit, and for years has offered weekly improv classes and exhibition shows. The performance school has a loyal and growing community, but all of the group’s momentum came to a halt, Martin said, partly because the format was difficult to translate to a digital space.

“We offered lots of classes and got very few takers for those,” Martin said. “And, so, eventually we settled into Saturday night live stream shows … And we just felt like that was how we sort of kept the light on, you know? We kept a little presence going through the rest of the pandemic that way.”

Reno Improv doesn’t typically collaborate with other theaters in town—mostly due to the simple differences in formatting—but found themselves working more closely with other members of the theater community during lockdown.

“Once in a while, including, like, Reno Little Theater, a few of their people came over and performed on our Saturday night show online, and we also collaborated with a few other theaters or performers around the world,” Martin said. “A lot of us took the time to go take online classes from other theaters because that became wide open during the year as theaters all across the United States are in the same position, trying to stay alive and pay the rent.”

After working from home and moving the group’s furniture into a storage space, the organization was able to retain its studio space through grant funding that paid the rent. Reno Improv is finally able to offer weekly classes and Saturday night performances again, but group members hope to have their full slate of classes available again by September. Improv is a form of “radical cooperation,” Martin said, and the pandemic taught her and her staff some memorable lessons about how to cooperate at a distance.

“You just have to change your idea and your expectation of what’s going on,” Martin said. “We learned some real interesting things. We started using props and stuff, which we never do on stage, and that was fun. We did all kinds of things online just to beef up that format.”

Reno Little Theater has several events coming up, including Midtown Mixtape, showcasing local choreographers and dancers. More info here.

Brüka Theatre’s next production will be the Samuel Beckett classic Waiting for Godot. To keep up with announcements, follow Brüka on Facebook.

Reno Improv has several events coming up, including The Playground Improv Workshop Saturdays at 6:30 pm and the Saturday Night Improv show, 8-9 pm June 26.

Posted by Matt Bieker

Matt Bieker is an award-winning photojournalist and native of Reno, Nevada. He received his degree in Journalism from the University of Nevada Reno in 2014, and currently covers arts & entertainment and community development in his hometown.