Circa Actors and Owner Frustrated By First Holiday Season Closing
Imagine rehearsing for a musical you won’t get to perform for another year.
That’s what the 10 members of the cast of “Winter Wonderland” did last week for Circa ’21 Dinner Playhouse, at their scene shop, even days after the venerable Rock Island venue announced it would close for the rest of November and December to comply with Illinois’ indoor dining ban, which took effect Nov. 4.
“It was so very strange,” actress Savannah Bay Strandin said Monday of rehearsing through Nov. 6, including recording a video of the show for Circa to have for late 2021 when they reunite. “It was weird rehearsing a show you know is not going to open for another year.”
“It’s too bad people aren’t seeing it,” Circa veteran Tristan Tapscott said of “Winter Wonderland,” an original story penned by head Bootlegger Brad Hauskins in 2000 and re-written this year. “It’s so cute, it’s so heartwarming. It would have done a lot of good. It was ready to go. Kudos to Circa for putting people over profits, keeping people safe. There’s something to be said for that. A lot of people are defying the orders. Circa really values their customers.”
They credited Mason Moss and Laura Hammes for coming up with great arrangements of Christmas favorites in the show, and Ron May was music director.
“For ‘I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,’ Mason Moss created the most beautiful arrangement I ever heard,” Strandin said. (You can hear it in rehearsal HERE.)
Tapscott has done 10 of the Circa holiday shows in the past 13 years and it’s always special. This is the first of 44 Christmas seasons the dinner theater won’t perform.
“I’ve been there so long, what’s great to watch is people’s reactions to holiday shows. They’re a little more vibrant,” he said. “The enthusiasm around the holiday is so great. I don’t know what it is about the building, it exudes a lot of joy.
“The Quad-Cities has lost most of its holiday traditions this year,” Tapscott said. “My holiday looks a little different. It doesn’t feel like the holidays without Circa. It’s a really special place; the theater is so beautiful, how it looks for the holidays.”
Strandin has never been in a holiday show, but saw “Elf” there last year.
To make some money, she’s been working as a nanny for her cousins, and Tapscott has been doing some freelance acting, and cooking videos for QuadCities.com.
He and Savannah will be in the January play at Circa (which has a state-mandated maximum seating capacity of 50 during Covid), and Tapscott feels safe with their precautions.
“Even though I didn’t want to be in this position during the holidays, I feel our personal safety is top of mind there,” he said. “If they have to shut it down, that’s what they have to do. There’s no hard feelings, no judgment at all there. We’re resilient; we’re going to make stuff happen on our end.”
Over the past week in Iowa, there has been an average of 3,498 positive coronavirus cases per day, an increase of 175 percent from the average two weeks earlier as of Nov. 9. There have been at least 155,583 cases and 1,845 deaths in Iowa (including 6,614 cases and 51 deaths in Scott County) since the beginning of the pandemic as of Monday, according to a New York Times database.
Over the past week in Illinois, there’s been an average of 9,160 cases per day, an increase of 106 percent from the average two weeks earlier. There have been at least 488,980 cases and 10,548 deaths in Illinois (5,503 cases and 109 deaths in Rock Island County) since the beginning of the pandemic.
“Winter Wonderland” started rehearsals Oct. 29, and Circa found out Nov. 2 about the new Illinois restrictions, but they continued rehearsing, while on the mainstage, the four-woman play “Savannah Sipping Society” concluded its run Nov. 7.
“Obviously, financially, this is a big hit,” said “Winter Wonderland” actress Ashley Becher, who was to be in the show with her husband Bobby. “This is our profession, to be actors and creators. It’s how we make all our money, from the arts. So this year has been really tough for us financially, as I know it’s been really tough for the theater as well.
“Obviously, people’s lives are more important, so while it’s certainly difficult to have to deal with these financial setbacks, we feel it’s important to make sure we’re taking care of the community,” she said, praising Circa owner/producer Denny Hitchcock.
“His priority is for the safety and the well-being of his actors and his staff and the patrons of the theater. He cares so deeply about the community that Circa has created and they provide for.
“He treats us all as if we’re family and really cares about everyone,” Ashley said. “He’s really led with that, even in the midst of the huge setbacks the theater is facing, he’s been really kind to us and maintained the messaging that the people are what’s important to him.”
“The uncertainty of everything has been a difficult learning curve for us,” she said. “You think you have things scheduled and planned out and then you get a curve ball thrown at you. It’s definitely been difficult to adjust to those, but at the same time, we have to focus on how we can pivot and adjust to these things in time.”
Bobby Becher said Circa made a difficult but wise decision, to substitute a smaller Christmas show (from the previously scheduled “A Christmas Story,” last done here in 2013), because of the restriction on audience size.
“I’m sure they would have loved to put as many people in there as possible, when that number was what was going to be, they did what they needed to do to get the best opportunity for everyone,” he said, noting they planned to add performances as well.
“It was good for us to finish and get everything set, so that next year, we’ve already got a framework down for whoever is involved,” Bobby said of “Winter Wonderland.” “It will make that process all that more smooth.”
Before rehearsals started, everyone was required to have a negative Covid test, and they wore masks during rehearsals.
The cast was also organized by couples – the Bechers played a couple, and Tapscott and his partner Strandin played a couple.
The first dark Christmas since 1977
Denny Hitchcock said they looked into doing “Winter Wonderland” virtually, but it didn’t make sense financially.
“It would have cost a few more thousand dollars to get the show ready. The set wasn’t completed yet,” he said Monday. “The load-out of ‘Savannah Sipping Society’ would have to be done; the load-in, plus getting the lights designed.”
There would also be costs of getting it filmed and online, and they didn’t think that there was a potential of making back the extra money they’d have to spend.
“It just didn’t seem to be financially feasible after we ran the numbers, to do it online,” Hitchcock said.
After being postponed this past March, they hoped to open “Saturday Night Fever” (including Bobby Becher and Tapscott in the cast) in mid-April, then May, and then June, while paying actors half-salary. “Savannah Sipping Society” didn’t open until Sept. 9.
“If we were strictly a restaurant, it wouldn’t be as much of an issue if one person had to be pulled out. It’s different when it’s a cast member, someone who knows the show, or is running sound or lights or stage managing,” Hitchcock said of the new indoor dining ban, set by Gov. JB Pritzker for at least two weeks.
“So it just seemed to us, rather than it’s two weeks maximum, and then being told it’s four or six weeks and then the run is two-thirds over, we would lose much, much more money,” Hitchcock said.
They originally planned to do “A Christmas Story,” which had a much bigger cast and would be expensive to obtain rights, so they asked Hauskins to adapt his smaller “Winter Wonderland,” which Circa did in 2000.
“It’s a terrific script and perfect for this time. That’s why it was so difficult for all of us to shut down, because we got to the Friday before we would have gone into a performance the following Wednesday,” Hitchcock said. “It was not only the perfect show, but the perfect sized show under the circumstance.”
Circa has appealed the state’s decision to deny the dinner theater being re-classified as a restaurant, with the support of several state lawmakers, as well as Congresswoman Cheri Bustos.
They could have continued now without serving food, but that’s not what they do, Hitchcock said. There isn’t any dinner theater category for state regulations.
“Our business doesn’t exist in the guidelines for Covid-19 in the state of Illinois. I don’t know if it does in any state.”
“We are a bar, we are a restaurant, we are a theater. But we are not a bar, a restaurant, or a theater.”
“Theater is the only category in the state of Illinois where the number of people who can attend or be in your business, is dictated by a number – an arbitrary number of 50, as opposed to a percentage,” he said. “It is partially a percentage – it’s 50 people or 50 percent, whichever is less.”
For restaurants, it’s only that tables have to be six feet apart. And Hitchcock doesn’t understand why casinos are able to stay open, other than the tax revenue generated for the state.
In other states, several dinner theaters have been classified as restaurants. Rock Island Mayor Mike Thoms changed Circa’s liquor license to that of a restaurant.
“We’ve got about 5,200 square feet in the theater and when it opened as a movie theater-vaudeville house in 1921, it could seat 864 people in the space where we can seat 50,” Hitchcock said.
“We just want to be treated fairly – like restaurants and bars have distances and percentages. They don’t have a raw number.”
It’s frustrating not to be open for the holiday season for the first time in theater history.
“Our first holiday season was in 1977 and we haven’t missed any,” the owner said. “Of course, we missed a few performances here and there because of weather. We missed a month because of a fire. But we’ve never missed an entire season, and this is gonna end up being seven or eight months total out of the 12 we’ll be shut down.”
“We’re lucky that we got in ‘Savannah Sipping Society,’ so our subscribers had the opportunity to see three of the six shows,” he said. “Winter Wonderland” will be done at the same time next year.
Hitchcock is happy that many ticket-holders and subscribers asked for credit (toward future shows, with no expiration date) than refunds.
“It’s frustrating for us, because this will be our 44th Christmas, and we know lots of people have a tradition, that they bring their families here for the holidays. We love to see that, the same people coming back every year.”
“It’s really disappointing not to have that here and not be able to perform and serve those people.”
And the losses of 2020 extend to family – six Circa staff lost their mothers this year (including Hitchcock), two of them due to Covid, he said.
Staying busy during mainstage closure
The Bechers, Tapscott and Strandin have stayed very busy with Circa, since it was able to reopen the smaller Speakeasy next door in July, as the typical 125-seat capacity was cut to 50 and it hosted many cabarets, a children’s show and the annual October run of “The Rocky Horror Show” (which starred Tapscott as transvestite Frank N. Furter).
He also organized the “Music on the Marquee” concerts outside in June and August, in which performers sang atop the Circa marquee for audiences in the street.
“We were lucky to have been able to continue performing and be part of theatrical things,” Bobby said, noting he and Ashley sang for the second one. “I know for many people who didn’t to come to indoor shows, it was really special for them to have that Music on the Marquee, to be able to get over here. We had a lot of really positive feedback, just for the idea itself — which Circa ’21 and Tristan specifically deserve credit for.”
Tapscott said “Rocky Horror” – done over four weekends, including Strandin as Janet – went well.
“It was a different experience due to the Covid times; I think it still provided a nice escape for us and the audience,” he said. “It’s very different when you can’t interact with them as you normally would. Circa did a very nice job of keeping everyone safe.”
“It was still bizarre you could do 50 there and 50 in the big room,” Tapscott said of the Speakeasy versus the mainstage, which usually can seat 334. The Speakeasy also closed Nov. 7.
“This year, we had a lot of first-time Rocky-goers,” Strandin said. “I think all the people who’d seen it before thought, we don’t have to go see it, it’s a pandemic; there are only 50 seats.”
“It was a little quiet; the first-timers didn’t know all the callbacks,” she said.
“People were just looking for something to see…I think it brought out a lot of new people, lot of people weren’t sure what to do with the masks,” Tapscott said. “People are adjusting to the new normal.”
Ashley, a 36-year-old Bettendorf native, directed “Aesop’s Falables: A Rock Musical” at Davenport Junior Theatre in February 2019, when Bobby was sound designer and music director.
The wife-and-husband duo are creators and owners of the New York-based production company WhatFun! Theatre, founded in 2014 to produce theater for youth that’s smart, approachable, artistic and fun. Ashley and Bobby met in 2012 while touring South Korea, performing and leading workshops for youths and families.
Ashley, a 2003 Bettendorf High alumna who’s performed in Quad-City Music Guild and Countryside Community Theatre shows, moved back to the Q-C in May 2018 to teach dance and theater at DJT, which serves students age 3-18. With Tapscott, they were in the Circa cast of “Holiday Inn” (the Irving Berlin film that made “White Christmas” famous) in summer 2019.
After that, the Bechers moved to Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre in Lancaster, Penn., to do “The Will Rogers Follies” in fall 2019 and “Holiday Inn” again there, last holiday season.
The couple returned to the Q-C, where Bobby was cast in “Saturday Night Fever” (to open in mid-March), and Ashley was scheduled to be in “Beauty and the Beast” at Circa, as well as directing both children’s shows, “Grace for President” and “Seussical.”
They had their first dress rehearsal for “Saturday Night Fever,” and then things were shut down. “When things got pushed back, they decided to do ‘Seussical’ with the ‘Saturday Night Fever’ cast, give up on “Grace for President’,” Bobby said. Ashley then cast “Seussical” with local people, and that got pushed back again, and she was going to cast it with people from “Winter Wonderland.”
Dutch Apple and Broadway Palm in Ft. Myers, Fla. (owned by the same company) have been able to stay open, at reduced capacities and performers in face shields.
“That is obviously an inspiration and something everyone will hope for in their areas,” Bobby said. “Not all areas are able to support themselves theatrically at this time.”
New children’s programs at Circa
Ashley and Bobby were given the chance by Circa to start a new student musical theater program over the summer, which they called “Rising Stars.” They also put together a “Broadway Backwards” cabaret in the Circa ’21 Speakeasy a couple times, and did their own show, “Rapunzel in the Wild West” in the Speakeasy.
“Rapunzel” rehearsed just one week and did four performances across two weekends in August. That had a cast of seven – including Bobby and Ashley, Tapscott and Strandin, Doug and Sara Kutzli and a local high school student, Lillian Cobert.
“It worked out really well,” Bobby said. “Everything we did in the Speakeasy, that Circa has been able to do has been really safe and well done, with safety in mind as a first priority, while trying to produce theater for the community.”
All their rehearsals, performers were in masks. During performances, the actors were distanced from the audience, and when they entered or exited through the audience, they wore bandanas over their face.
They originally wrote “Rapunzel” in South Korea, where it was first performed. They obtained the rights, and did the first American version at the New York International Fringe Festival in 2015, and did it at Little Theatre on the Square in Sullivan, Ill., in 2018.
At Circa, the Rising Stars program was for students who were serious about theater. At Davenport Junior Theatre, the Bechers worked with students of all skills and abilities – but they saw a need for more advanced curriculum. “We were able to create something only for middle and high-school age students, for students seeking an advanced course of study,” Bobby said.
They did two weeklong camps over the summer, one each for middle and high school students (15 each), and continued classes for an audition boot camp, and musical theater/dance four-week course (10 per week) through the fall, all on the Circa main stage. They’re hoping to do more in the future.
They met on Saturday mornings, and Monday and Tuesday nights, when Circa was dark.
“We wanted to increase revenue for the theater and increase opportunities for students in the area to learn and perform,” Bobby said. “Denny and the rest of the staff understand that other theaters in the area that are for children, teens exclusively, they didn’t want to take away from their businesses, and that was something we really respected that about them. They weren’t just trying to make money any way they could.
“This is something they really put a lot of thought into,” he said. “We wanted to make sure we weren’t taking away from them either. It was something we felt could be an addition to the other children’s theater opportunities in the area.”
They had performances for students (in the Speakeasy), where each could bring a couple audience members and Circa filmed them, available for their families as well.
The students got to “constantly be up on a stage, getting to sing, dance and act – which I think has been really important for us, especially, and for these kids who have had their opportunities taken away as well,” Bobby said.
Ashley concluded classes Oct. 31, and they hadn’t anticipated more with “Winter Wonderland” and “Seussical.” Now they are looking at doing more classes and performances for kids by December. The Bechers have been in a Christmas show together 6 of the last 8 Christmases.
“Broadway Backwards” has been done in New York City, with “miscast” numbers – like flipping ages and genders of well-known songs. “We thought it would be a fun way to involve some local performers,” Ashley said. They had a few kids from shows that got canceled.
“It was a time for people to come together and have fun, and enjoy life,” she said. “We streamed it as well, so it was accessible for people who didn’t feel comfortable coming out, so they could get some arts in their life.”
“We have to move forward, so the more you can focus on the opportunities you can create, innovating, is time well spent,” Ashley said. “I think the Quad-Cities community really wants to support artists and there are a lot of opportunities here, so we’ve been really thankful for our opportunities with Davenport Junior Theatre.”
The couple has continued to teach virtual classes for DJT this year. Bobby had been music directing “Thoroughly Modern Millie” at North Scott High School last February and March, before it got canceled, but they’ve been doing virtual coaching for their students since.
“We’ve been trying to diversify our opportunities,” Ashley said. “One thing that’s great about the Quad-Cities is that it has a lot of arts here.”
Bobby credited DJT for continuing to innovate and offer programs, as safely as possible, including their first virtual performance – of “Snow White 2.Zoom” – which opened Nov. 7.
“They had it set up really well at Junior Theatre,” he said. “They were quick to pivot and innovate, set up virtual work stations in their classrooms, so it wasn’t just the teachers were teaching at home. We as instructors would go to Junior Theatre, in their classrooms, so that when we were on Zoom calls with students in their homes, they were still seeing us in that familiar setting of the DJT classroom.”
They hope to reunite as many “Saturday Night Fever” cast members for that show next summer, Bobby said.
Like many artists, they’re getting unemployment benefits and have some savings they can live off of.
“We are always still looking for more opportunities to work,” Bobby said. “We have been shown extraordinary generosity and loyalty from Circa ’21 and Davenport Junior Theatre and the North Scott Lancers. This area is really, really working to keep the arts alive, to try to keep them going. We feel we have been given a lot by the arts community in this area, and we have made it a priority to give back as much as we can.”
Ashley said it’s been nice to have her family here during hard times.
“It’s been nice to see how this area has grown and changed since I was here last,” she said. “It’s fun to be a part of and witness the changes that have happened here.”
Tapscott (whose daughter Harper is in 1st grade) said some of “Wonderland” actors are planning more performances to stream soon.
“We’re all under a red light, and we all have to look for green lights,” he said. “We have to do stuff on our own now. In a way, it’s so stressful — oh my God, I lost my job, but now there are no rules, no playbook. That’s always a little exciting.”
“The industry is so shut down, we were hopeful that the area could get to a point we could do that,” he said of reopening the mainstage. “I was looking at the numbers, and thought, there’s no way. We remained hopeful to the very end. We all worked very hard knowing it wouldn’t happen. That’s a testament to the artists that Circa employs. We were all ready to go…It’s a wild, wild time to be an artist.”