By Jesse Tellez/El Inde
The smell of Lysol disinfectant hit Emily Gates as she walked through the back door of Invisible Theatre. Had she been wearing a blindfold in addition to her face mask, she might have thought it was a doctor’s office. Gates found one of the red velvet seats in the audience not covered by a black garbage bag and sat down, as did her other cast mates. Devoted theatergoers would soon fill these seats, separated from one another by the plastic bags, which had been unoccupied for over two months.
Gates, a 22 year-old Tucson native and senior studying theater at the University of Arizona, was just weeks from making her Invisible Theatre debut.
This impending play rehearsal of “Filming O’Keeffe” was more intimate than the ones Gates, her fellow actors, and director Nancy Davis Booth had done via Zoom online meetings, but Gates still felt the space between them.
“It felt so weird to have to sit so far away from all these people that I genuinely love and want to be so close to,” Gates said, recalling the cast’s socially-distanced return to Invisible Theatre in June.
Rehearsals for Invisible’s production of Eric Lane’s 2014 play about two young art students making a movie about artists Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz in Lake George, New York, initially began in early March, with opening night set for April 21. But before “Filming O’Keeffe” could close out the theater’s 49th anniversary season, the company, like many others across Arizona, closed its doors mid-March after rising COVID-19 cases led to a state-wide shut down.
“I remember I was holding my script, hoping that we weren’t going to cancel because everybody started canceling performances and shows,” Gates recalled of the day she heard of the show’s postponement.
Susan Claassen, Invisible Theatre’s managing artistic director, remained hopeful and put the adage, “the show must go on,” to the test.
The usual 80 seats in the theater shrank to 22, an air ionizer was attached to the air conditioning system to increase circulation in the venue, and a list of new safety regulations were implemented for staff, performers, and audiences. Come hell or high water, Claassen was determined to finish the 49th anniversary season at Invisible, which was its most lucrative in nearly a decade, and usher in the 50th.
“(The pandemic) taught me enormously about resiliency, about thinking outside the box, about flexibility, and also commitment to live theater,” Claassen said from her office at Invisible.
On June 23, the stage lights that sat idle for two months went up once again for the theater’s sold-out reopening. One by one, mask-wearing theatergoers were greeted at the front and back entrances of Invisible at their assigned times—Claasen calls each ticket holder the day of a show to instruct them when and where to enter—signed in, sanitized their hands, and made their way to their assigned seats as Claasen welcomed them from a distance. Tucson audiences were so eager to get back to the theater that three additional performances of “Filming O’Keeffe” were announced for the beginning of July after tickets sold out for the show’s run in June.
But the excitement was short-lived: These newly added performances came to a halt on June 29, when Governor Doug Ducey signed an executive order prohibiting large gatherings and once again closing bars, gyms, and theaters.
Claassen and the Invisible team got back to work ensuring the theater was the safest it could be and applied through the Arizona Department of Health Services (AZDHS) to reopen.
“We had a surprise visit, they didn’t tell us they were coming, and they said we exceeded anything they were recommending for reopening,” Claassen said of Invisible being inspected by AZDHS.
On August 18, Claassen opened her email to find the application to reopen approved. All the safety precautions meant the doors at Invisible could reopen a second time, with “Filming O’Keeffe” returning Sept. 1.
Gates and her fellow actors reunited on stage once again, still socially-distanced, the way they had done the show in June. In one intimate scene, Gates reached out her hands towards actor Andrey Lull, playing Gates’ love interest, and mimicked an embrace. Lull, six feet away, reacted by placing his hands on himself where Gates’ would ideally be. This added challenge of conveying touch while keeping a safe distance was new to Gates and she welcomed it.
“It was different, but I loved the experience because I learned so much about intimacy and what it means to have those intimate moments as an actor and that you don’t even need to touch to make them work,” Gates said.
Gates, Lull, Samantha Cormier, and Joseph L. Smith remained in their own designated spot on stage, often seated on stools, for each 75-minute performance.
“I stayed on the stage the entire time because there was nowhere for me to exit, so whenever I wasn’t in a scene I’d be sitting down, head down, lights off,” Gates said.
The constraints of social distancing reached behind the scenes as well. The cast handled their own props, be they a painting or a camera, and were responsible for styling their hair, doing their makeup, and coming to the theater already in costume. A normal performance night for Gates involved putting on a faded tie-dye shirt, rolled-up jeans, and a pair of Converse sneakers; her two brunette braids secured beneath a pink bandana. She was thankful for the simplicity.
But clothes and hairstyles were just the surface appearance of Lily, portrayed by Gates. She felt a need to dig deeper into the character and while self-isolating, she had ample time to do that.
“I had so much free time on my hands because school was all on Zoom and everything so I was like ‘I may as well do improv games for myself, I may as well journal for myself’ and it was a lot of fun and it really kept my spirits up during quarantine,” Gates said from home, where she spent Arizona’s lockdown period with her parents, Tammy and Christopher.
When not practicing her newfound bagel-making skills or trying, unsuccessfully, to keep her succulents alive or weightlifting or filming herself perform a monologue in her backyard for a school assignment, Gates found herself watching Harry Potter films and studying the teenage characters for ideas on how to play Lily in “Filming O’Keeffe,” who is 17.
“It really brought a new insight to being young and being insecure about things and it was just really fun to just like go back to that magical world and have it inspire my performance,” she said.
Having been signed on to the production since March, Gates viewed her extended preparation time as a silver lining amidst the pandemic. Her cast mate Samantha Cormier, did not have as much time, however, as she got the role of Melissa in April after the actress originally set to play the character backed out.
Cormier was in the middle of performances of “Radiant Vermin” with Live Theatre Workshop when the pandemic struck Arizona and the show was cancelled, allowing her to join “Filming O’Keeffe.” The one-woman show Cormier was producing at Gaslight Music Hall, in which she pays tribute to fellow auburn-haired entertainers such as Lucille Ball and Carrot Top, also came to a halt.
“I had a whole season of shows … I would have been doing another musical by now that would have been opening this month. Everything has turned upside down,” Cormier, who also teaches drama at BASIS Tucson North, said.
Although now well-versed in using Zoom for interactions, Cormier was excited to return to Invisible’s stage and once again feel the “magic” that happens when actors and audiences are in the same room. After all, the unseen energy exchange that occurs during live theater is where Invisible Theatre got its name.
“I think that’s what’s so important about Invisible Theatre and us opening up is having the audience and what’s important is how much we need that as actors,” Cormier said, “We need our audience, we need that relationship with them.”
Following the Sept. 12 finale of “Filming O’Keeffe,” Invisible Theatre’s team was quick to start preparing for the two-man show, “Trumbo: Red, White, and Blacklisted,” but not before Claassen threw what she called “the most unusual cast party.” In place of the regular communal pizzas and snacks, individual bags of chips were handed out. Gates, Cormier, and company, still six feet apart, slipped their straws under their masks to sip champagne and celebrate the end of the first show in Invisible Theatre’s 50th anniversary season.