New York City actor Paul Helm didn’t expect to be running around Southwood Glen Elementary School in a lion mascot costume to pay his bills.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, the 41-year-old actor found himself in a dry spell when it came to his live performance career as an actor and a singer. So, he packed up his New York City life and moved to his home state of Wisconsin to become an educational assistant at the school. Although he said he adored the special-needs kids he worked with, he longed for the stage and resorted to small moments, like walking around in the lion costume, to get his fix.
“Being on a stage is something that's in my bones and blood,” Helm said. “Not having that for so long, it's just a huge part of me was missing. I no longer take it for granted.”
Now he’s making his return after over a year and a half of not being able to perform.
Helm is making his Gainesville debut in one of the Hippodrome Theatre’s first live performances since the onset of COVID-19. After a year of online performances dubbed the “Hipp at Home,” “Murder For Two” is opening for a live, socially distanced and masked audience this weekend. The premiere will be split between Friday and Saturday to allow for smaller audiences, Helm said.
The comedic murder mystery features two actors, Helm and a Hippodrome regular named Brady Wease, playing over 13 parts and the piano.
Helm, who has performed the show around the country six times, was chosen for the Gainesville production after sending in a virtual audition tape. He said “Murder For Two” is intended to make people laugh and forget about life’s troubles, especially pandemic-related ones.
“If you go in with a serious attitude thinking this is gonna be Shakespeare, you're going to be in for a rude awakening,” Helm said. “It’s silly…It’s a two-person kind of extravaganza, seeing these two gentlemen run around like chickens with their heads cut off.”
Hippodrome Artistic Director Stephanie Lynge said the small cast lent itself beautifully to the theater’s mission of keeping actors, designers, ushers and audience members safe amid surging COVID-19 cases in Gainesville. She said those involved in the production have been “living like monks,”only going in public when it’s essential, to ensure a high degree of safety.
She said the lack of in-person work forced the Hippodrome to reduce its full-time staff of 44 down to 12. Most employees of the theater, like Lynge, saw their hours cut to part-time work.
Lynge said the theater tested the waters with two live summer cabaret performances. With a return to in-person performances bringing revenue back to what it once was, Lynge said the theater is slowly beginning to rebuild its staff one step at a time.
“At the moment, we have enough and we're making it work,” Lynge said. “We’ll see what COVID has for us next. Then we’ll roll with it and find a way to perform around it.”
“Murder For Two,” she said, was the perfect choice to open the season considering the somber climate of the country.
“This show is happiness and joy onstage for 90 minutes,” she said. “It is a whirling dervish of energy and fun. It just seemed like the perfect way for us to come back and like something that keeps everybody smiling and laughing.”
Loren Smyth, a 52-year-old Gainesville resident, said she couldn’t be happier to see the Hippodrome return to an in-person format. She said the theater has been a vital resource for her daughter, a Buchholz High School senior and aspiring actress in the process of applying for college acting programs.
Despite finding masks uncomfortable, Smyth said she’s relieved to learn about the Hippodrome’s COVID-19 policies as the wife of a health care worker.
“The way the Hippodrome is opening back up is vital to the safety of their patrons, their actors, their staff,” she said. “Just everybody.”
While she’s enjoyed amateur performances at theaters that have stayed open like the Star Center Theatre and the High Springs Playhouse, Smyth missed watching professional actors and designers in action.
“During the pandemic it was very easy for everyone to fall into the pattern of depending on streaming, Netflix and everything that we could see online,” Smyth said. “But I think there’s a beauty to seeing things in person that doesn't necessarily get the respect that it deserves.”
“Murder For Two” opens at the Hippodrome Theatre, located at 25 SE Second Place, on Friday, Sept. 17, and it runs until Oct. 3. Tickets can be purchased at the Hippodrome’s website.
Contact Alan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @alanhalaly.
Alan Halaly is a third-year journalism major and the Engagement Managing Editor of The Alligator. He's previously served as Metro Editor and Photo Editor. Alan has also held internships with the Miami New Times and The Daily Beast, and spent his first two semesters in college on The Alligator’s Metro desk covering city and county affairs.