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Back in the holiday swing

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Oregon Cabaret Theatre takes the stage with a holiday show after cancellation in 2020
Photo by Denise Baratta "Christmas, Contigo" is performed before a vaccinated and masked audience Friday at Oregon Cabaret Theatre in Ashland.
Photo by Denise Baratta Server Isaac Newton pours a drink for patrons prior to the Friday showing of "Christmas, Contigo" at the Oregon Cabaret Theatre in Ashland.
Photo by Denise Baratta Oregon Cabaret Theatre attendees are asked to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination and remain masked while actors are on stage.

ASHLAND — Last year, the cast had completed final rehearsals for the Oregon Cabaret Theatre’s holiday show when a COVID-19 surge forced management to cancel the show. The cast performed a run-through one more time “for each other” and video, recalled Rick Robinson, managing director for the Cabaret.

“It was traumatic to not be open last holiday season,” Robinson said. “It’s one of our more popular times of the year, it’s when people gravitate toward the Cabaret. … This year, we’re starting to get stable staff-wise, we’ve got a really nice show, and it has just been nice — it has been entirely different from the experience last year.”

“Christmas, Contigo,” written by Carlos-Zenen Trujillo, opened at the Oregon Cabaret Theatre Nov. 18 and closes Dec. 31.

Cabaret actors said administrators’ adaptability, consistent communication and trailblazing approach to cast and staff safety has been crucial, while audience capacity, health protocols, restaurant staffing and finances shift with the turbulent variability of the pandemic.

Carrie Brandon served as cast deputy during the showing of “The Spitfire Grill” Feb. 26 through April 18. About once per week during the run, actors exercised the power granted by directors to stop a show if audience members were not complying with face mask policy. Audiences were generally respectful, and often it seemed as though people simply forgot to replace their mask, Brandon said.

Neglecting the mask rarely felt like an intentional display of disrespect, because most people coming through the door knew the protocols to which they had agreed by purchasing a ticket, Brandon said. Robinson and artistic director Valerie Rachelle set expectations effectively and kept theatergoers regularly updated about changes, she said.

“The fact that [Robinson and Rachelle] prioritized safety above everything else in an industry that is so focused on ‘the show must go on’ … now I appreciate that even more, how much they prioritized the safety of their employees,” Brandon said. “I think of them as leaders in the industry for creating a safe work environment.”

For every job offer she considers, Brandon requests to see backstage and in-house COVID-19 safety protocols, and will not accept the job without confidence in their safety protocol management approach.

“At a time when nobody was vaccinated, I hadn’t heard of anybody else [with the policy],” she said. “I think they have been really good about changing and reevaluating and constantly listening to people, listening to their employees, and knowing what their boundaries are and respecting that.”

The Cabaret’s updated policy requires face masks to be worn throughout every show and a vaccine card or negative COVID-19 test upon entry. Audience members are not seated within six feet of the cast and tables can only seat familiar parties together.

The self-imposed policies keep in-house capacity around 75%-80%. Cast members must be vaccinated and are tested for the virus twice per week. Actors retain the power to stop the show and leave the stage if they notice an absent face mask.

“Given the time we were in, the Spitfire cast used that power a lot more than any of the casts have since,” Robinson said.

The management team has fielded no shortage of negative feedback from people opposed to requiring vaccine cards, Robinson said, which leads to occasional arguments at the door. Robinson and Rachelle handle the majority of vaccine card checking, because “it's something you hate to ask your employees to do,” he said.

Still, in general, for every one person opposed to their policies, five to six people express gratitude for the security, he said.

“We’re upfront about our policies very early in the casting process,” Robinson added. “And given the lack of work in the acting industry, we have not had any problem finding talented cast members to come to Ashland and do shows.”

Actor Angela Hernandez serves as the nonunion cast deputy for “Christmas, Contigo” — her first show back in a live space with an audience since early 2020. For Hernandez, previous work during the pandemic has been exclusively remote.

The cast of “Christmas, Contigo” met for the first time on day one, greeted each other like long-lost friends and memorized the show in 11 days, Hernandez said. Taking a COVID-19 test twice per week is an easy request to fulfill after collectively building up desperation to get back on stage, she said.

On the restaurant side of the Cabaret, one staff member left when the company instituted the be-vaccinated-or-test-negative policy. The restaurant shares staffing and recruiting problems endemic to many organizations in the food and beverage industry: It’s a difficult time to find cooks, servers and hosts, Robinson said.

To meet the labor shortage, the Cabaret increased server and back-of-house wages. The Shuttered Venue Operators Grant also bolsters the company’s ability to maintain kitchen talent, he said.

Robinson recently hired a new restaurant manager, and the staffing situation is settling, he said, representing an improvement over rapid turnover during the summer that led to directors waiting tables and doing dishes at certain times to keep the restaurant doors open.

“I’m looking forward to being able to increase capacity back up to 100% when it’s safer, because I think that when we come out of this completely, there’s going to be a real desire to congregate again, to get dressed up and see live shows,” Robinson said. “I missed it terribly. … It reaffirms that theater is your life work, because when it’s taken away from you, you miss it like an appendage.”

Reach reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497.