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A Tale Of Two Theatres: Prepping The Stage For Post-COVID Performances

Brian Bull

COVID-19 has shuttered or limited virtually all performing arts venues, including those in Oregon. But many community theatres have not only weathered the pandemic; some have managed to raise funds to renovate and update their facilities, in anticipation of big re-openings. 

Inside the Very Little Theater in Eugene, Jessica Ruth Baker walked me through a vast, dark, and empty space.

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
The VLT lobby, one of several areas being renovated by year's end.

“See we’ve ah, pulled everything out of the theater," she said.  "All of the seats are gone, the lobby walls that people are pretty familiar with are gone…” 

But these fixtures will be back, assured Baker, with improved accessibility for theater patrons including those in wheelchairs.

“This space was made in 1950, and there were few considerations made to audience comfort (laughs) when it comes to the seating.” 

Baker is the Very Little Theatre’s development and marketing coordinator. Their $1.65 million renovation is nearing their fundraising goal, and they’ll have a groundbreaking ceremony July 11th, possibly with city officials. 

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
The VLT's development and marketing coordinator, Jessica Ruth Baker, on the main stage which is part of a $1.65M overhaul. 

“We are expecting to be able to reopen our doors in December of this year," said Baker. "It’s going to be a long process certainly, because construction can take a long time. 

"But we’re very excited to be able to reopen this year and continue our tradition of having been open for 92 consecutive years.” 

In addition to a new seating area and a brighter color scheme, Baker said they'll also have a new scene shop with state-of-the-art machinery.  She said for the first time, they'll be able to have crews build set pieces while VLT productions hold reheearsals at the same time.

While the main stage has been quiet, Baker said VLT players have been doing short producitons -including a soap opera- on their YouTube channel, embracing a virtual format.  This also includes productions with Minority Voices Theater, an artistic partner VLT has worked with for some time.

Meanwhile, 20 miles south, Cottage Theatre is also seeing change. Executive director Susan Goes escorted  me through some upturned gravel and ditches outside the Cottage Grove facility, to a wide concrete slab near the back.

“So this new little foundation here will support the patron restrooms and then we’ll have a community room that will be used for non-profit board meetings, or small group receptions before and after a show, or small classes…just a variety of purposes that don’t make sense in the main auditorium.” 

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
Cottage Theatre's executive director, Susan Goes, points out areas undergoing renovation.  The audience area will gain 50 more seats, as well as an in-house audio service for the hearing impaired.

Goes says this $2.4 million remodeling initiative has been planned for roughly a decade, and they’ve been fortunate to land state funds through the Oregon Legislature, as well as grants from the Oregon Community Foundation, the Murdock Charitable Trust, and others.

“I’m really proud, honored, and humbled to say that the biggest single source of contributions for this project is donations," said Goes.

"That accounts for about $950,000, so just shy of a million dollars from individual people who love Cottage Theater, and really want to see it succeed.” 

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
Susan Goes with Cottage Theatre's sign out front.

Goes hopes to reopen in the fall with a musical that got derailed by the pandemic, “Mamma Mia”, with a set and cast that was ready to roll out just as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down venues statewide last year.  She said while many theatres have admirably experimented with virtual formats and outdoor venues, she’s ready to return to a traditional presentation in the newly-renovated Cottage Theatre.

“There is no substitute for people gathering together in real time and real space to share a story, and I am so eager for the day when we can do that again.” 

Copyright 2021, KLCC. 

Brian Bull joined the KLCC News Team in June 2016. In his 25+ years as a public media journalist, he's worked at NPR, Twin Cities Public Television, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio, and ideastream in Cleveland. His reporting has netted dozens of accolades, including four national Edward R. Murrow Awards (19 regional), the Ohio Associated Press' Best Reporter Award, Best Radio Reporter from the Native American Journalists Association, and the PRNDI/NEFE Award for Excellence in Consumer Finance Reporting.
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