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How One Oklahoma Theater Is Staying Open During The Pandemic

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Many theaters around the country are closed for what amounts to a prolonged coronavirus intermission. But in Ponca City, Okla., just 18 miles south of the Kansas border, there's been edelweiss in the air.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SOUND OF MUSIC")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Maria, singing) The hills are alive with the sound of music.

CHAD ANDERSON: My name is Chad Anderson. I am the board president of the Ponca Playhouse. I'm also the producer for our most recent production of "The Sound Of Music" and the conductor in the orchestra pit.

SIMON: My heart wants to sing every song it hears. The Ponca Playhouse launched its 62nd season earlier this month with an in-person audience - more on that in a moment. Chad Anderson says the theater is an important part of the community.

ANDERSON: If you're in Ponca City, it's likely that you are either a farmer or you work for ConocoPhillips, which has a plant on the outskirts of town. The people that assemble to produce shows are not professional performers, professional technicians, designers. They are just members of the community who love theater.

SIMON: And, boy, they were disappointed this spring when the Ponca Playhouse had to suspend its season. Their production of "The Sound Of Music" went, so long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, goodbye.

But as the months rolled on, Ponca City and the surrounding area had relatively few cases of COVID. And that gave hope to Chad Anderson and his team.

ANDERSON: We felt like there might be a way we could do this safely, responsibly. People would still want to come. Actors would feel safe. We decided that it was worth the calculated risk.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARIA")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, singing) How do you solve a problem like Maria? How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?

ANDERSON: Our rehearsals - they contain precautions. Normally we're in a small black box theater, but we went back to the old theater that we used to perform in. It's a large 800-seat historical theater. And our stage manager disinfected the theater every night. He was very, very good and very, very diligent about arranging the temperature checks and encouraging people to keep distant from each other.

A total of about 35 to 40 people were involved. They were rarely ever there at the same time. Up until dress rehearsal, the actors would come in spurts. The director was very good about only calling the von Trapp kids or only calling the nuns.

Onstage, there was less contact than you might see. Rolf and Liesl still danced together. We had plenty of hand sanitizer on hand. Spreading those nuns out on stage, spreading the kids out as much as possible.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARIA")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) How do you solve a problem like Maria?

ANDERSON: Masks were required at all rehearsals. It was definitely very difficult as a performer to wear a mask, but they were champs. And those kids, those adults as well - they kept those masks on, and they were up to the challenge.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DO-RE-MI")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Maria, singing) Ray, a drop of golden sun.

ANDERSON: We opened Thursday, September 10. I was very nervous. In Ponca City, you see a lot of resistance with masks, with distancing. But it went off swimmingly. It went very well. The audience was very cooperative. It did not matter one iota what their political persuasion was. People kept their masks on, and they had a great time, happy to be there and willing to do whatever they needed to do to see the people they know, the people they love in their family up onstage making art.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DO-RE-MI")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Maria, singing) Tea, a drink with jam and bread.

ANDERSON: The actors performed well. I don't know about the conductor, but he did his best.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DO-RE-MI")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Maria, singing) Do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do.

(APPLAUSE)

ANDERSON: I hope that our production will give people hope. It's always a joyous time when people come to the theater.

SIMON: For some, it's like whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm, woolen mittens. Chad Anderson is board president of the Ponca Playhouse in Ponca City, Okla., also producer and conductor for their season opener, "The Sound Of Music." Masked and socially distanced rehearsals for their next production, "Of Mice And Men," begin next week.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY FAVORITE THINGS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Maria, singing) Wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings - these are a few of my favorite things. Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes, snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes, silver-white winters that melt into spring... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.