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As theaters remain closed, performers take to rooftops, drive-thrus

Updated May 29, 2020 - 1:08 pm

In the city that became famous for its headlining shows and star-studded lounge acts, theaters and performing arts centers now sit vacant.

Entertainment venues went dark following the state’s stay-at-home orders. And while several nonessential businesses reopen this weekend as part of Phase Two, theaters remain closed.

Unable to seat audiences, performing artists in Las Vegas are flexing their creativity to prove not only that the show must go on, but that it can go on, even if that means meeting audiences from rooftops, behind plastic sheets or from outside their vehicles.

Theater owners expect their facilities will be among the last to reopen in Nevada.

In his remarks Tuesday, Gov. Steve Sisolak indicated that live performances would not be permitted with audiences, putting theaters in the company of only a handful of other businesses that must remain closed, including strip clubs, brothels, dayclubs, nightclubs and sporting events with fans.

On Wednesday, The Smith Center announced that it will remain dark indefinitely.

While the immediate future for theaters and theatergoers may look grim, four new experiences have emerged in Las Vegas to ensure that our new normal will still have performing arts.

Drive-Thru Theatre

Two weeks ago, Troy Heard, artistic director of Majestic Repertory Theatre in the Arts District, took advantage of his retail license to launch “Majestic Drive-Thru Theatre: Decontamination.”

“Under Phase One we are allowed to deliver merchandise curbside,” Heard said with a smirk. “We can’t help it if our staff is especially talented.”

After seeing video footage of strip clubs in Seattle that had taken the circular stages outside, Heard decided that if they could do it, so could he.

In the immersive production, drivers pull into the alley behind the theater and are greeted by an actor in a hazmat get-up who questions them ahead of their decontamination.

As a car of one to four people moves down the alley, the vehicle is “decontaminated” by a clown show. Or a burlesque act. Or COVID-19 itself, gyrating on the hood.

Heidi Rider performs as part of the Majestic Drive-Thru Theatre outside of the Majestic Reperto ...
Heidi Rider performs as part of the Majestic Drive-Thru Theatre outside of the Majestic Repertory Theatre in downtown Las Vegas on Friday, May 15, 2020. (Chase Stevens/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @csstevensphoto

Heidi Rider, a clown in the Las Vegas Strip show “Absinthe,” developed a clown routine just for “Decontamination.”

“The beginning was a lot of grieving,” Rider said of being told “Absinthe” was closing. “I didn’t know what was going on with me. I just missed everything. The people I work with, the space, the character. Even the stupid drive to work.”

For the past two years, Rider has become accustomed to the high energy that comes from performing for 600 people in a tent.

“The energy from ‘Drive-Thru’ felt almost that big, just concentrated in one or two people,” she said. “It felt very intimate. Very exciting.”

Heard envisions what shows may look like in the not-too-distant future: audiences of 10 people, scattered across the auditorium while an actor performs a one-man show. “It’s a hunger for storytelling and sharing space,” he said. “As we move forward, we need to be willing to make adjustments. Everyone says this is the new normal, but I think we’ll get back to something similar. Just maybe not for six or 12 months.

Dinner and a show

Since March 18 when Derek Stonebarger shuttered his ReBar tavern, he has pivoted several times in a bid to remain both relevant and in business.

Shortly after coordinating the massive mural project in the Arts District, he converted ReBar and sister property Davy’s into the Boardwalk Liquors bodega.

Singer-songwriter Jowzay performs behind protective shields to a socially distant crowd at ReBa ...
Singer-songwriter Jowzay performs behind protective shields to a socially distant crowd at ReBar in Las Vegas, Thursday, May 21, 2020. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @rookie__rae

On May 21, Stonebarger reopened ReBar’s patio as a dinner-and-a-show experience in which guests were seated 6 to 10 feet apart and served appetizers, dinner and drinks while local musician Jowzay played a two-hour set.

“Dinner and a show is a classic Vegas thing,” Stonebarger said. “It’s trying to stay relevant, trying to bring in revenue and bringing the staff back to work. It’s a new business model. You can’t stay afloat unless you get creative.”

On opening night, about two dozen locals were seated on a hodgepodge of outdoor furniture while Jowzay played from behind the required plastic sheet — which Stonebarger cleverly bordered inside a picture frame.

“Derek is unbelievably involved with the downtown community. He is the reason Main Street has refurbished itself. He knows every person’s name here,” Las Vegas native Deaudre LeCato said. “The entertainment is phenomenal. But being here has nothing to do with the entertainment; it has to do with giving back to someone who has given us so much.”

While the sparse crowd and plastic sheet were a far cry from the traditional Vegas lounge act, they filled a need for live music, both for audiences and performers.

“It doesn’t make a difference,” said Jowzay, who has performed music for 10 years. “People are farther apart. But I can look at the faces and have the same reception and emotions. People are quieter, but it’s the same feelings.”

The Blue Angel

In looking to bring moments of joy to her friends’ lives amid the coronavirus crisis, Las Vegas artist Victoria Hogan found kinship with one of Las Vegas’ icons.

Victoria Hogan, dressed as the Blue Angel statue from the former Blue Angel Motel, stands on to ...
Victoria Hogan, dressed as the Blue Angel statue from the former Blue Angel Motel, stands on top of PublicUs in Las Vegas, Wednesday, May 20, 2020. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @rookie__rae

Hogan, who owns the FloraPop wedding experience and runs Sure Thing wedding boutique with two friends, has started putting on one-woman performances as the Blue Angel, the statue that stood watch for 60 years over the former Blue Angel Motel in downtown Las Vegas.

In keeping with social distancing, she stands in the front windows of friends’ and acquaintances’ homes. And, a few mornings a week, she can be spotted watching over downtown from the rooftop of PublicUs.

“I started thinking about it, I realized she’s always been this socially distanced figure,” Hogan said. “It seemed to be the right time to bring her out. I went to my friend Holly’s house and stood in her yard. And it started there.”

Hogan referenced old photos to select a yellow wig and a fabric that matched the statue’s powder-blue dress. She turned to cardboard and an old broomstick for the figure’s wings, halo and wand.

Then, she took to adopting the Angel’s stature and rotation.

“I wanted to bring joy into people’s life. Just a little bit,” Hogan said. “It meant also, in a way, being an advocate for social distancing.”

What started as a creative way to interact with her friends evolved into an opportunity for connection among strangers.

“The best part is reliving personal stories from people who visited the motel in its existence,” Hogan said. “You also get that connection out of meeting someone new.”

Drive-in Drag

For the past 12 years, Edie has hosted the Cirque du Soleil show “Zumanity” as the Mistress of Sensuality.

The show has been closed for more than two months and Edie, the drag queen character played by Christopher Kenney, says it is frightening to still not have a light at the end of the tunnel.

“We need to eat, we need to keep our houses,” Edie said. “It’s also hard not having that artistic outlet. As a performer, the great joy is making people happy. It’s a fire that comes from within. It’s really easy to take it for granted.”

Rhyanne St. Marie of Drive-in Drag Show. (Drive-In Drag Show)
Rhyanne St. Marie of Drive-in Drag Show. (Drive-In Drag Show)

When Chris Crescitelli, founder of the DreamlandXR startup, approached Edie about creating a socially distanced drag show, Edie realized that, now that she wasn’t performing in 10 shows a week, she could work on a new production.

The inaugural Drive-in Drag Shows will be staged Saturday and Sunday at the Dreamland Drive-In at FreshWata Studios. They will feature singing, dancing and comedy acts by drag queens performing on stage in front of multimedia visuals, before an audience in their vehicles.

Proceeds from the shows are to be split between The Actors’ Fund and Golden Rainbow, an organization that was founded in the ’80s to provide housing and financial assistance to people living with HIV/AIDS in Southern Nevada.

Every June, Golden Rainbow hosts its major fundraiser. This year, it was canceled.

“Entertainment is the lifeblood of this community,” Golden Rainbow Executive Director Gary Costa said. “It’s amazing the withdrawals people go through not seeing shows. Especially in LGBTQ communities, bars and nightclubs have drag shows. Many performers on the Strip will do open mic at small gay bars. People are anxious to go out and see a live performance. This is a way to do it without putting anyone at risk.”

According to Crescitelli, the excitement for live performance extends beyond audiences, as performers are also longing to get back on stage.

“We’re looking at COVID-19 is an opportunity for theater performance to innovate,” said Crescitelli. “It’s exciting to see the response.”

Contact Janna Karel at jkarel@reviewjournal.com. Follow @jannainprogress on Twitter.

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