Helen R. Murray has just the ticket for some needed respite from the pandemic crisis. In fact, you can even get a few tickets.
“It’s time to come back,” said Murray, just days away from opening night of “Tomfoolery” at the Aurora Fox Arts Center.
Real opening night. Real actors on a real stage with real people watching from real seats inside the real theater on Colfax.
“I’m excited and nervous,” said the Fox executive producer.
Months after every stage in the metro area went dark in March during the onset of the pandemic, the Fox stage will light up Friday night as the first regional house to bring together actors and audiences again.
It’s taken months of planning, consultations with a bevy of health, pandemic and city officials.
“Please, just open,” Murray said she heard from those who used to fill the empty theater seats. The actors want this. She wants this.
“We’ve done everything we can at this point to mitigate the risks,” she said.
“Everything” is a lot.
From ticketing to curtain calls, this is going to be very different than live theater was before the pandemic.
The largest possible audience will be 90 people, scattered strategically across the 250 seats, Murray said. Seating software allows patrons to sit together if they want, with unassociated patrons sitting more than 6 feet from each other. Hosting 90 people is a best-case ticketing scenario.
“We’re expecting to accommodate between 30 and 50 patrons each night,” she said, based on predicted seat requests.
Patrons must wear masks the entire time they’re inside the lobby and theater, and throughout the show. Actors, screened for COVID-19 repeatedly, won’t wear masks. They’ll be at least 25 feet from the closest members of the audience.
“We actually have a ‘how-to’ video,” she said. It’s posted on the Fox website.
Murray says this might have been just too much for people to deal with several months ago.
“But everyone is really pretty used to all this now,” she said.
We all know the drill. Masks on while you’re buying groceries, at the pharmacy, in the doctor’s office. If you’re in a restaurant, no one sits near you.
At the Fox, there are no concessions. There’s no intermission. If you have to leave your seat at any time, you won’t ever have to squeeze past other patrons.
“We’re fortunate that the design of the Fox allows us to do that,” Murray said.
And while this will essentially be the first regional curtain to rise in public since the pandemaggedon hit last spring, cultural experiences have been edging back for weeks now. Some museums are reopening. So has the Denver Zoo.
“We’ve been able to learn from them,” Murray said.
After months of checking boxes, she’s confident they got this. The Fox is offering four shows a week through Oct. 11.
So when the stage lights come up, the pandemic will fade for the hour or so as four actors, a musician and a small crew bring to life the satirical wonderment of Tom Lehrer.
Tom who? Not so very long ago, Lehrer was a thing. A big thing. He was a math brainiac, a brilliant musician and an astute political critic from Harvard. During the 50s and 60s, he entertained a generation of people in print, radio and TV. His wit was drier than Molly Ivins’, His bite sharper than Joan Rivers. His humor cast a swath darker than Neil Gaiman. All this was wrapped up in an irresistible Tommy Smothers charm.
He was most famous for a huge catalogue of parody songs and his jovial black humor. I sang, “Poisoning Pigeons In The Park,” for years as a child. I was among those enamored with Lehrer’s ability to get away with what he did during a time American media was virtually puritanical compared to what’s on prime time these days.
“Tomfoolery” was the perfect pick to fire up the spotlight again, Murray said. The show is the product of a collaboration of Sir Cameron Mackintosh. producer of all big shows, like “Les Misérables” and “Phantom” and English actor Robin Ray. Fox Director Kenny Moten mashes the pandemic into the mix.
The material is as relevant now as it was decades ago, Moten says: Racism, drugs, weird people, over-the-top politicians, all tossed in a piquant salad of catchy tunes.
Inside the theater will be different, but the show on stage will seem perfectly familiar for Fox patrons. The Fox has for years been hailed as one of the top regional houses in these parts. The bar is still that high, Murray said.
For now she’s shrugging off how already struggling metro theater companies can make all this work with a few dozen people watching live shows from a theater seat. The god-sent Science and Cultural Facilities District has been able to help keep outlets like the Fox alive. So, too, has the City of Aurora. Patrons have overwhelmed Fox officials with support in buying season tickets in hopes there will even be one. Everyone has stepped up.
And while the theater audience has been empty, some shows have been going online. The Fox, like many venues, stream and record live performances for viewers at home.
It’s not the same thing as being part of a show when you’re in the audience, but it’s been a great way to bring theater to people unable or unwilling to venture in, Murray said.
“It’s created a way to democratize theater like we’ve never done before,” she said. People who could never afford a ticket to a Broadway show, or even a local one, can see why “Hamilton” is so mesmerizing. She said the pandemic pushing theater online has intrigued a whole new audience who could see for themselves what theater is and isn’t.
She’s hoping they’ll vote to turn out for a live show when they’re ready. Maybe even this one.
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