The ‘Curious' Reopening of WaterTower Theatre

While navigating safety protocols, streaming options and a casting controversy, the Addison theater company returns to live performances with “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”

WaterTower Theatre Curious Incident
Jerry Walker

Elizabeth Kensek uses a poster advertising WaterTower Theatre’s 25th anniversary season to count how many shows have been canceled during the pandemic. Now the theater’s associate producer is eager to welcome live audiences to indoor performances of one of the shows listed on that poster: Simon Stephen’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, now playing through July 25 in Addison.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is one of two shows the Addison theater company managed to salvage from its milestone season. The theatre will produce Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun Sept. 1 – 11.

Shane Peterman, the theater’s producing artistic director, and Kensek wanted to return to the live performances with shows that are more than just a piece of entertainment.

“These two have an important message, they have something to say. They are not just good art; they are also good messaging,” Kensek said.

Unlike other local theaters, WaterTower Theatre decided not to perform outdoors.

“Doing outside theater was not an option for us because the Town of Addison, at the time when we were planning, was not fully staffed or able to help us facilitate that. So, we worked with Actor’s Equity [Actor’s Equity Association, the union for professional actors and stage managers] to make sure we were one of the first back indoors in the country and we are,” Peterman said.

Actor’s Equity Association has different levels of safety protocols for theater companies. WaterTower Theatre is complying with the union’s protocols for a fully vaccinated cast.

“Their safety standards for indoor companies are very high and we’re happy to adhere to those because the number one priority this whole year has been keeping everyone safe,” Kensek said.

The theater tested and balanced its HVAC and ventilation system to ensure there is increased airflow and outdoor air mix in the facility. Masks are strongly encouraged for the audience, hand sanitizer stations will be available, and a digital program with be provided instead of a hard-copy version.

The cast and crew are regularly tested. Kensek and Delynda Johnson Moravec, the theater’s director of finance and administration, are certified to administer the COVID-19 tests.

“If I have a castmate that comes in and says, ‘Hey, I think I feel like I’ve got a sniffle,’ I say, ‘Okay, let’s test you. Let’s go. Don’t even step into the space. Let’s go into the testing area and make sure you’re okay.’ I would rather spend the money to have someone rapid-tested every day than risk anything that might endanger someone else,” Kensek said.

The theater filmed a couple of shows during the pandemic, including Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife and released the shows as video-on-demand.  The theater is considering how many shows it will film and how it will release future productions.

“For us, it’s a matter of return on investment, seeing how that makes sense for us,” Peterman said. “How much do we invest in that, how much audience do we retain or how much audience do we capture and grow?”

Bob Hess in I Am My Own Wife
Jason Anderson
Bob Hess in I Am My Own Wife at WaterTower Theatre. WaterTower Theatre filmed I Am My Own Wife last summer.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time has been filmed.

“We were lucky that we had the rights to stream Curious early on and they let us keep those. But a lot of publishers are starting to say, 'Well, maybe we don’t need to allow that anymore' and they are starting to close that door, or they are starting to make restrictions more strict on filming,” Kensek said.

A controversy erupted when the all-white cast of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was announced. The theater community reacted on social media with condemnations about the lack of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) representation for a show set in modern-day London.

“It was pretty much the perfect storm of not having the resources or perhaps having a blind spot on my behalf of not putting that in focus as we should have,” Peterman said. “We are still in what is a teachable moment, I think, for us as a company, but also for me as a leader,”

WaterTower Theater issued an apology on June 28, pledging to change its casting process, develop a community student-based partnership initiative and host a live-streamed community forum Sunday, July 18 at 6:30 p.m. The theater plans to announce more action items by July 31.

Peterman notes the theater’s board is more diverse than it has ever been, the theater works with BIPOC owned and operated companies, and A Raisin in the Sun has been cast. He acknowledges there is more work to do.

“We are excited and eager to do constructive work and yes, to be held accountable, but also accountability is finding the solution and coming to a solution rather than staying in the drama of the issue,” Peterman said. “I think the key is to keep talking with one another and stop talking at each other.”

Peterman was part of a virtual Community Conversation with Denise Lee on July 12. He listened to the experiences of BIPOC theater community members, quietly taking several pages of notes.

“The large part of what I took away is there’s still a lot for me to continue to be open to learning, and I am committed as a leader to take the information as a privileged white male one piece at a time and to digest it and to work with others in the community to better understand that,” Peterman said. “And there are some really amazing leaders and members of the BIPOC community who want to help move towards a constructive plan to move to a solution.”

Peterman hopes to rebuild a more diverse staff for the theater. During the pandemic, the staff shrank from nine full-time staff members to three. One full-time staff member volunteered to go part-time. Peterman and two other full-time staff members took a pay cut. For Peterman, who came to the theater nearly three years ago when it was in financial distress, this is his second pay cut.

Peterman and Kensek chose to put the theater’s limited funds on the stage, raising the rate for non-union actors, maintaining stipends for designers, paying all interns, and setting a minimum wage of $12 an hour for hourly employees.

“We all know there’s a much larger purpose than us,” Peterman said. “And that’s WaterTower Theatre.”

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