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WALLA WALLA, Wash. – There is a steep turnoff from US 12 in Walla Walla that leads to a small road and a large red building.

Inside, at seven o’clock on a Tuesday evening, a group of hopeful comedians are assembled. Anyone in the Little Theater auditorium could be the star of the next show, if only they could wow the director – and stay healthy during rehearsals.

“Once a cast is set, we ask that cast to self-isolate as much as possible.”

George Smith is Chairman of the Little Theater Board of Trustees. I had the opportunity to chat with him and fellow board member Alfred ‘Al’ Chang during the auditions for the Bernard Slade film Romantic comedy.

Auditions take place on a stage set up for the current show, Agatha Christie’s And then there was no more. Chang says that despite their best efforts, COVID-19 disrupted rehearsals.

“Every two weeks someone would call and say, ‘Oh, I was exposed to someone who tested positive’ or ‘I myself tested positive’.”

It’s a familiar problem in the age of Omicron. The Little Theater has asked its actors to engage in a ‘bubble’ of almost no socializing outside of the theater to try to keep the virus at bay. When, inevitably, people were exposed at work or school, the cast adhered to CDC guidelines — and the show went on; something Chang describes as “particularly difficult”.

“It’s not so much that the person who is absent cannot enter the practice; but that person leaves a hole in the cast that people have to work around, have to imagine someone is there,” he explains.

And then there was no more is the latest piece in an educational program that The Little Theater uses to train future directors. Chang says it could have added another level of difficulty to the production, but director Jeremy Reed rose to the challenge.

“It would be really difficult for one of our regular directors to put on a show during Omicron,” Chang says. “But for him – I really have to say he did a great job with all the changes he had to make, due to the pandemic.”

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Smith tells me The Little Theater has been performing shows, despite COVID-19, almost since the first shutdown in January 2020. The board has been working with the health department to find a safe artistic outlet and has put itself agree on performances in the parking lot of the theater.

“We just felt like the community had been shut down and locked down for five or six months, and we wanted to give them something to do!”

Those early pandemic performances were old radio shows, produced on a shoestring budget, with no admission fees — just a donation jar.
“We were hoping to break even, because we had spent about $100 just on printing and a little advertising,” Smith says, sounding incredulous at the memory. “We won $3,500! People were very generous. »

Maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise. Smith and Chang agree – there’s just something special about live theater.

“When you watch professionals on a screen, you react at them.” says Chang. “When you see a live performance, whether it’s music, dance or theater, you react; you laugh with them. And it’s a whole different experience.

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Of course, live performances mean in-person actors on stage and strangers all around you in the audience. Smith says everyone at the Little Theater is working to make sure the actors — and the audience — stay safe.

“Because they can’t be masked, the actors stay behind the arches and we’ve blocked off the first three rows of seats,” Smith says. “There is a 30′ distance between the actors and the first spectators.”

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While theaters typically rely on assigned seating, The Little Theater has transitioned to “festival style”, based on audience feedback.

“We found that some people were not comfortable sitting next to some of the people they sat next to,” Chang says. “For this show, and probably for the rest of the season…if you don’t feel comfortable where you are, you can move.”

Masks are mandatory, though vaccinations are not, and hand sanitizer is plentiful. Smith says each performance takes up about half the seats – but that’s enough to break even, and that’s all they need for now.

“We’re not here to make money,” Smith said. “We’re here to keep our ticket prices low and to give people in this community the opportunity to see live theater.”

And then there was no more is scheduled until February 13. Tickets and more information are available here.

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