How CROW’s repertoire of theater and dance is on hold during the pandemic

June 6, 2020 — “When you’re an arts organization, your product is often not something tangible. It’s a performance. We all get together, we work really hard and we perform. That is what audiences see, and what reminds them of our good work. It makes them say, ‘I need to make a donation and support kids in the arts.’ Without the capability of making that product, it has been a really big challenge to remind people that we exist,” said Children’s Repertory of Oregon Workshops (CROW) Artistic Director Melanie Heard.

CROW began rehearsing for its spring production of “Mary Poppins” in January, but planning started for it two years before. The show, along with the Spring Dance Showcase, dance classes, Flight rehearsals, and summer camps, all fell victim to the novel coronavirus COVID-19.

“When I was cast as Mary Poppins, I felt exhilarated and extremely proud of myself,” said Alizabeth Norton, who just completed 10th grade. “I have been working on my talents for a great while and they had finally paid off!”

Norton has been involved with CROW for five years, performing as Jane in “Tarzan” and in CROW’s Flight Dance Team. 

“I feel that CROW is a great community of people that help children break out of their shell and feel more comfortable in their own skin,” Norton said.

Like with the rest of the more than 35 youth in the cast, halting rehearsals just weeks before showtime was heartbreaking. 

“I just really miss being a part of something,” said Alex Fuller, who just completed ninth grade. “My favorite part of rehearsing is seeing the show come together and being with amazing people.”

People are a big part of why Cort Waggoner decided to audition for the role of Bert. He was “very excited, energetic and slightly nervous” for his second big role after playing Scarecrow in last year’s “The Wiz.” He just finished eighth grade.

Waggoner said he missed “the vibe of the environment. To explain my reasoning, it’s because you are all kids around your age acting and singing together. You grow very close after three or four months together.”

Initially, CROW announced postponing “Mary Poppins” but as time went by, that became less and less feasible. The annual spring show, held at the Florence Events Center, is performed on the main stage of the 455-seat theater. Current restrictions continue to limit large gatherings.

“Because of that, we pushed ‘Mary Poppins’ back to 2021,” Heard said. “I couldn’t bear the idea of not doing it. The kids put in so much work, and we were less than a month from opening. We just had to polish up the show and get it ready. Then everything happened.”

“Over quarantine, I tried to read through my lines before I went to bed, until I found out that it had been moved to next year,” Waggoner said.

The CROW Board of Directors decided to honor the hard work of the cast and crew and save the show for later. While it might create difficulty with some graduating seniors, Heard hopes to maintain the bulk of the cast.

For Owen Harklerode, playing the role of Mr. Banks, “When the economy reopens, I’d like to be able to finally perform Mary Poppins. It should’ve happened in April, but I’m willing to wait.”

Delaying “Mary Poppins” a full season has caused some further challenges.

Heard said CROW had to work with the show’s licensing group to move dates of the show, as well as rescheduling backdrop rentals and an aerial flying company.

“We already picked our 2021 show, and already placed a deposit, so we had to move that one to 2022,” she said. “It was a paperwork issue and a bit of a headache, but it was doable. Everyone has been so understanding and really supportive.”

Similar changes are taking place across the theater industry, where “there’s a lot of money invested,” according to Heard.

People everywhere are losing deposits, wasting unused marketing and advertising materials and facing reduced income.

“At CROW Center for the Performing Arts, we can’t hold any classes. We can’t lead workshops or summer camps. That funding has evaporated for us. Plus, Wildflower Montessori can’t operate (on our property),” said Heard.

To fill in some of the gaps, Heard continues to write grants, but competition is stiff with so many arts nonprofits facing similar circumstances.

“It’s a big challenge trying to stay alive. We will, because we’re stubborn, but it’s hard,” she said. “If there’s any comfort, it’s that we’re all going through the same hard stuff.”

As the governor continues to release details for gatherings of more than 25, Heard isn’t opposed to creating some outdoor theater opportunities for CROW. 

The board also decided not to do structured online classes for now.

“Our board discussed it and feel strongly that online is not the most beneficial for our kids in the arts,” Heard said. “It just feels impersonal. It’s not as inspiring. And it’s hard to connect and for us to give them what they need. … Kids, especially little kids, just need you. They need to be in the same room, they need to feel your energy, and they need to know that they are safe and can be expressive. 

“Theater is an expressive art form. In order for art to be successful, you need to be in an environment where you can express yourself.”

For the time being, that may be hard to do with online platforms. 

So, what CROW has been doing is engaging with CROW kids and families, and the greater community, through social media.

From humorous Tutu Dads posts about new “tulles of the trade” under COVID-19 to fun contests, CROW is finding ways to connect. The cast of “Mary Poppins” got together virtually to sing and dance to “Super-cali-fragilistic-expialidocious,” which aired on regional TV stations. 

In addition, Oregon Arts Commission shared a CROW collage of local kids being creative while on lockdown. 

CROW also held a Broadway Costume Challenge, with Landon Peck winning for his portrayal of Ursula the Sea Witch from “The Little Mermaid.” 

Other winners were Eryn Morgan, Kya Hobin and Grace Dotson depicting characters from “Beetlejuice,” “Waitress” and “Hairspray.”

Lasting for one more day is the “Dress Up Your Pet” Challenge, where people are encouraged to dress up their dog, cat or other pets as characters from any of the shows CROW has performed.

“There’s all these fun things we’re doing to keep the kids connected to us as much as we can,” Heard said. 

While many people have been home on lockdown, they have been watching TV shows, listening to podcasts and reading books.

“There’s been a lot of rallying from people in the arts. I see it not just here in Florence, but I see it across the nation. I see a lot of resilience,” Heard said. “The idea that the arts matter —” she paused to repeat CROW’s motto, “The Arts Really Do Matter” — “and we need them. I hope that when all the dust settles and the virus goes away, that maybe people will show that new appreciation.”

CROW kids, too, are keeping the arts alive at home. Both Harklerode and Norton performed in Jason Wood’s virtual “Sleepy Time Showcase.” Waggoner sang with the school choir and plays guitar. Norton practices piano, and she and Fuller keep up stretching and strength training for dance. 

“I still dance like crazy at home,” Fuller said. 

Heard also expressed regret for the dance classes CROW held for all ages, the canceled Spring Dance Showcase and the Flight Dance Team.

“All my Flight kids are so sad. For dancers, it’s how they express themselves, it’s how they get their emotions out, their frustration and joy, and how they become comfortable with their bodies,” she said. “And the teenagers especially need that.”

According to Heard, dance falls under sports requirements, so any practices or future tryouts will wait on regulations released from the government. 

“Dance is such a contact support. It involves lifting and getting all sweaty, and dancers are such athletes,” she said. “I look forward to when we can get back to work.”

CROW also has plans to bring some choreography to the community with future challenges.

“We hope to just uplift the community,” Heard said.

She acknowledged the difficult times that everyone is facing now and the complicated emotions that can bring up.

“Not only is COVID-19 not gone, we don’t know when it will be gone. For me personally, as an artist, that’s the scariest thing. I’m very project oriented and I like to work on one project and think about the next project. We plan a year and a half ahead of time — and right now, it’s like everything has been erased. We just don’t have any concept of when we can get back to work,” she said.

However, that’s not to say that CROW has dimmed the stage lights. The board is still planning future shows, moving storage units and making plans to continue supporting the arts for youth in Florence. This could include some outdoor classes, get togethers or performances for CROW, all of which would be easier with an amphitheater or other outdoor performance space.

“I am still optimistic about the future, because I know that the families, the community, the audiences all love what we do and are going to be there when we come back,” Heard said. “I think it’s going to establish a new appreciation for the arts. Those are good things. When you don’t have something, it’s the whole ‘absence makes the heart fonder’ concept. We’re hoping the community will come back and go, ‘Oh, I really missed that.’ And maybe they’ll buy a ticket, send in a donation or come in and volunteer.”

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