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Monday, March 04, 2024

Fifty and fireproof: The Hippodrome has more than an anniversary to celebrate

The theater revels in its post-pandemic comeback

<p>Mason Baria prepares a wig for the Hippodrome’s production of &quot;Fahrenheit 451&quot; Wednesday, Sep. 14, 2022. </p><p><br/><br/></p>

Mason Baria prepares a wig for the Hippodrome’s production of "Fahrenheit 451" Wednesday, Sep. 14, 2022. 

The Hippodrome Theatre is used to overcoming the challenges the last few years have thrown at it. Now, it’s celebrating a monumental anniversary and wishing a warm welcome back to live theater.

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Hippodrome was forced to reduce its full-time 44-person staff to just 12 part-time employees, the theater’s artistic director Stephanie Lynge said. At the time, live shows were only recently becoming feasible, and the theater’s limited staff worked tirelessly to split the work meant for a team of more than 40 people, she said. 

A year later, Lynge has hopeful news to share with Gainesville’s entertainment community. 

“We have a full production staff back, we have a full front of house staff back and we have a much stronger team up on the admin floor,” Lynge said. “I’d say we’re back about 85 to 90 percent, and it’s just been amazing.”

Every staff member who was forced to work part-time during the pandemic has resumed their full-time positions, Lynge said. In addition, across all theater programming areas — mainstage, education, cinema and events — there has been a steady increase in ticket sales. 

On top of the public’s eagerness to attend live entertainment after strict quarantine guidelines were lifted, the Hippodrome received a 2021 federal Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, which gave the theater the necessary funds to rehire most of their staff. 

The grant was established to support the ongoing operations of eligible live venues during the uncertain economic conditions created by the pandemic. Eligible applicants could receive up to 45% of their gross earned revenue.

Some actors, like Katelyn Crall, have mostly returned to a full-time career after widespread theater shutdowns.

In 2019, Crall said, she optimistically graduated with her bachelor’s degree in musical theater from the State University of New York at Fredonia. She had no idea that live theater would soon succumb to the pressures of a pandemic.

“It was really hard trying to launch a professional career and having it immediately stalled and set back,” she said. 

Crall is currently playing Mildred in “Fahrenheit 451,” which debuted at the Hippodrome Sept. 2. During rehearsals and backstage, she said, not much has changed since the early days of the pandemic. 

“That’s a huge part of being in theater,” Crall said. “You can’t just be like ‘Oh, if I get COVID, I get COVID.’ It’s like you’re directing people’s income and their jobs and their stability.”

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Crall still wears a mask to protect herself and the theater’s staff is required to test consistently, she said. 

David Ford, a 48-year-old professional actor working at the Hippodrome, said the valor of the theater’s small staff during the temporary halt of live shows is helping the theater create a new breed of plays during their 50th season. 

The technical knowledge the Hippodrome staff gained quickly during the pandemic has brought a new edge to their in-person content, Ford said. Staff members learned about filming, editing, sound capturing and special effects when producing online shows for the first time, and those skill-sets are beginning to enhance their in-person live shows. 

When the pandemic started in 2020, Ford was the sole actor in an online play called “This Wonderful Life,” which is a one-man adaptation of the holiday film favorite “It’s a Wonderful Life.” 

Delivering virtual content to patrons wasn’t an easy feat, he said. 

“They had the camera set up in the room with me, and then everyone else had to stay out of the room,” Ford laughed. “They were not actually allowed to be in the room with me, which, if you’ve ever been on a movie set, is just crazy.”

Two years later, Ford is now playing Beatty in "Fahrenheit 451” alongside eight other cast members.

The production is bolstered by new projection technology that the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant allowed the Hippodrome to purchase. This technique is a fundamental part of adapting the Ray Bradbury classic, since the actors can’t utilize real flames on stage. 

Ford believes the time at home helped foster a new appreciation for live theater, he added. 

“Being back on the stage and everyone having their lines memorized, where we can really look at each other and talk to each other,” he said. “That connection, I feel, is the most important part of what makes live theater spectacular.”

The Sept. 11 showing of “Fahrenheit 451” sold out — something Ford said he considers rare for the Hippodrome. The audience is soaking up the tension of raw connection on stage, he said. 

Amanda Alvarez, a 21-year-old UF art history student, attended the Sept. 18 showing of “Fahrenheit 451.” After the pandemic, she said, she values entertainment that doesn’t feel passive. 

“Live performances are exactly that — that feeling of being in a crowd and enjoying something together,” Alvarez said. “It’s a lot more fulfilling.” 

The Hippodrome announced via email it would extend its showing of “Fahrenheit 451” until Sept. 25 due to popular demand. Despite the success, Lynge said the theater is still struggling to match revenue levels from before the pandemic. COVID-19 testing protocols and supply chain issues have also increased the cost of producing a single show. 

However, Lynge is optimistic the Hippodrome is on track to eventually be as lucrative as it once was.

“Most people in the theater world think this is going to take a number of years – for people to want to come back out again,” she said. “We all separated ourselves from our community events for so long, it takes time to come back.”

If there’s one thing that has steeply increased since 2020, it’s the general morale at the Hippodrome Theatre. Cast and crew alike are looking forward to continuing their 50th season and sharing the art of live theater with the community. 

Even if it’s a difficult path back to normalcy, Ford said the Hippodrome staff will get it done.

“Theater people are a scrappy bunch,” Ford said. “They’re going to make things happen, and it’s going to be magic.”

Contact Averi at Follow her on Twitter @averijkremposky.

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Averi Kremposky

Averi Kremposky is a senior journalism major at the University of Florida. When she’s not covering music, art and culture beats for The Avenue, you can find her going to a concert, finishing another book in one sitting or submitting to the latest Taylor Swift album theory.

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