LAYTON — Big, loud, laughing reunions seem out of the question these days, what with social distancing rules and all.
But virtual reunions?
On Pitch Performing Arts, which bills itself as Layton’s only live theater, is responding to these new rules of community engagement by offering real-time online reunion specials from past theater productions, as well as virtual concerts over the internet.
Brandon Stauffer, executive director of On Pitch Performing Arts, said the theater is simply trying to find ways to continue getting art out into the world.
“When we started OPPA!, it was all about art and how we can keep moving it out to the world,” Stauffer said.
But then the pandemic broke, and gatherings like live theater became an early casualty. Stauffer admits that social distancing has taken its toll on the theater’s mission.
“It’s devastating. There were days when I just thought, ‘I’m done. I can’t do this anymore,’” Stauffer recalls. “But then I got to thinking about art, and what it’s lasted through down the ages, and its ability to bring art to the people. And I thought, ‘What can we do?’”
The answer turned out to be virtual concerts and cast reunions on the theater’s Facebook page. Concerts began Saturday, March 28, with an evening of music from favorite musicals, including “Hello, Dolly!,” “Tuck Everlasting,” “Les Miserables,” “Aida” and much more. OPPA! players also sang songs dedicated to Utah shows that have been postponed or canceled due to the coronavirus.
OPPA! followed that up Tuesday, March 31, with a reunion show featuring the cast from OPPA’s “Nunsense” production — complete with backstage secrets, favorite moments, clips, still photos and plenty of laughter.
“Everything is live, and mostly unscripted,” Stauffer said of the online events.
The live shows are basically a melding of Facebook Live with Zoom teleconferencing software, according to Stauffer. The producers and performers connect via a Zoom meeting, and Stauffer then routes it all through Facebook Live, where the virtual audience members can view it.
It’s a mildly complicated process, Stauffer admits.
“On my desk at my house I’ve got two computers, an iPad and a smartphone, all running at the same time,” he said. “It’s another thing I never thought I’d be doing in life — becoming a TV producer. But here we are, desperate times call for desperate measures.”
Stauffer said that first virtual performance was “one of the most stressful things I’ve done in my career, to be honest.” Although he’s used to solving all sorts of problems on the fly in a live theater setting, the idea of working remotely with others’ computers takes it to a whole new level.
Still, Stauffer believes that first concert went well, evidenced by the fact the show had been viewed by 9,000 people in the first few days it was up on Facebook — “which is astonishing for us,” he said. Stauffer and his business partner think these sorts of live, local performances are exactly what people are looking for these days.
“It’s something that’s not Netflix,” Stauffer said. “And this is nothing against Netflix, because I’m watching plenty.”
In some ways, Stauffer says these virtual performances are even better than live theater in a stage setting. For example, on Facebook they’re able to get instant, specific feedback throughout the event.
OPPA! also had a “The Wizard of Oz” cast reunion special in the works, and on Thursday, April 9, they’ll present “MisCast Broadway,” featuring various performers throughout Northern Utah singing Broadway tunes from their homes. Stauffer said they have plans for two virtual cast reunions per week, and an online concert every other week.
Shows can be viewed live, or later on the theater’s Facebook page.
“On top of everything, how do we survive through this?” Stauffer asked. “This virtual stuff is what it is for us right now. I think we as artists — and theaters — we have a higher ability to help than we think. We’re just trying to do everything we can to keep people excited, and just keep on going.”
And while Stauffer says the online shows are “stressful, they’re definitely stressful,” it’s also an incredible opportunity.
“Because we get a chance to do something new,” he said. “And what theaters have done to survive for hundreds and hundreds of years is to do something new.”
Stauffer believes the arts can help change people’s lives, especially at this unprecedented time in history.
“Here we are in one of the most unbelievable times we’ve experienced, and the response is to step in and try to make life better for people,” he said. “We just want to keep art going out into the world.”