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Coronavirus in Austin: Theater company kept older patrons ‘as safe as possible’

Andrew Friedenthal, Special to the American-Statesman
David Jarrott, left, artistic director of Austin theater company Jarrott Productions, works during a rehearsal of the company's 2019 fall show "Admissions," which he directed. On March 11, Jarrott Productions postponed its production of "Mother of the Maid" out of concern over the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. [CONTRIBUTED BY JARROTT PRODUCTIONS]

Theater is on pause right now in Austin.

Texas (and first Austin and Travis County) has banned gatherings of more than 10 people in order to fight the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Virtually all local theater productions have been postponed or canceled for the immediate future.

But weeks before that, local theater companies started to face a daunting task: deciding whether to drop the curtain on their current or upcoming productions. After the city on March 6 pulled the plug on South by Southwest over coronavirus concerns, a wave of event cancellations began.

One of the first theater companies to make the difficult call to postpone a show was Jarrott Productions. In an email sent out to patrons March 11, artistic director David R. Jarrott explained that “Mother of the Maid” — playwright Jane Anderson’s story of Joan of Arc’s mother — would be postponed until February 2021 rather than run at Trinity Street Playhouse at the end of March.

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Jarrott said in the email, “While other similar-size theaters in town may still be moving ahead with their productions, our audiences, performers and designers are unique in that they are comprised of over 40% of people over the age of 60. We felt that despite all the safety measures we could potentially put in place to keep our spaces sanitary, our most important responsibility is keeping our patrons, artists and their families and loved ones as safe as possible.”

Making the call early on was “agonizing,” Jarrott says. The company made its announcement before larger arts entities like Texas Performing Arts, which sent out a postponement announcement on March 12, and Zach Theatre, which announced its first cancellations March 13.

“I’d been watching this whole outbreak happen, and as early as the second week of our rehearsal process, I brought this up as a possibility with the cast,” he says. “I said, ‘I don’t want to do this, I hope we don’t have to do this, but I just want you to be prepared in case we go that direction.’”

As concern over the spread of the coronavirus escalated, Jarrott raised the issue with the company’s “crisis team,” including board members Denise Hodgson and Mark Kiester, marketing director Natalie Garcia, graphic designer Carlo Garcia and box office manager Will Douglas.

“We advanced one scenario after another, but the primary focus in all these discussions was the health and safety of our patrons and our company members,” Jarrott says.

Older age groups are at greater risk of death from COVID-19. About half of the company’s actors are usually in their 50s or older, Jarrott says, and “anywhere from 40-50% of our patrons are also in the upper age demographic, as youthful as we all appear.”

As for why the company draws in so many older audience members, Jarrott credits the material that they produce: “We’ve always been drawn to plays that deal with themes and storylines that adults can relate to. Big picture things like love and death and reconciliation. The themes that we tackle are the kinds of things that appeal to people that like to think and gnaw on things once they’ve seen them.”

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After postponing “Mother of the Maid” until next year, Jarrott Productions offered patrons the opportunity to either redeem their tickets for the rescheduled date or receive a full refund.

While most other local theater companies have since made similar calls, Jarrott says that, at the time, “We were kind of going into an unknown area. Nobody else had advanced a plan, so we didn’t have anybody else that we could copy.”

In hindsight, Jarrott says he knows the company made the right decision, given that restrictions on public gatherings would have led to a postponement or cancellation anyway. “I said at the time that I’m probably going to look like the biggest Chicken Little in the world, and now I look like a visionary,” he jokes.

Jarrott worried about the public reaction at first, but it proved overwhelmingly positive. “The comments on the website were so supportive,” he says. “And that was the kind of validation that made me think we had made the right decision here.”

Jarrott Productions was able to pay production members a portion of their stipend, if they so requested, rather than needing to wait until February. But Jarrott recognizes that not all companies and artists have this option: “The theater community is incredible in Austin as far as being supportive, and it breaks my heart that so many people that depend on the gig economy in this town are hurting now.”

Jarrott is amazed about how much changed in such a short amount of time.

“It seems like a month ago,” he says.