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Live theater lives

by BILL BULEY
Staff Writer | December 12, 2020 1:07 AM

COEUR d’ALENE — Shortly before “Almost, Maine” is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. Thursday, the audience is gathered outside on a basketball court.

Yes, outside, on a basketball court.

It is 32 degrees.

It is dark.

There are no seats.

This is live theater at Coeur d’Alene Charter Academy.

This is what it takes to pull off live theater in North Idaho.

“Welcome to our group,” says one of the tour guides as a few guests walk up. “Are you ready to see some Northern Lights tonight?”

They, and about 60 others, are indeed ready to see the lights, and more.

All came bundled up for this high school production. They were about to spend most of the next 90 minutes walking around the academy campus in seven groups of 10 or fewer, watching seven short plays at seven different points about love, about loss, about friendships and about relationships, all set in northern Maine on a winter night.

From the court, they walk across a grassy field, where they are greeted by student Ava Munyer, playing the role of host as she outlines what’s ahead.

“If you run into one of our residents here in town, you will notice that they are not wearing masks. Since our community is so small and so isolated, the governor has allowed us to forego mask wearing,” she says. “But we ask you to keep your masks on at all times since our nearest hospital is 38 miles away.”

Many in the audience shuffle around and keep hands in coat pockets to try and stay warm.

Munyer offers advice.

“Laughing is going to burn calories, which is what’s going to keep you warm tonight. And it’s pretty cold up in Maine. So, feel free to let loose and live it up,” she said as everyone did as instructed.

They kept laughing throughout the evening as the students delivered engaging, spirited performances despite frigid conditions.

Sofie Anderson, actor, later said the best part was, “just being able to have the opportunity to bring our community together again. With COVID, we haven’t had the chance to interact with the community, so I think being able to bring something to people that can help them be joyful and let them kind of step away from our daily lives for a second is something that's really special and I feel so honored to be part of that.”

Dana Fleming, the academy’s theater arts and communications teacher, was delighted they came up with a way to perform live before a small audience Thursday and Friday night.

She explained that the scenes from “Almost, Maine” by John Cariani are usually watched one after another.

“However, seeing as the scenes are linked by theme rather than plot line, we figured that the audience can watch them in any order,” she wrote. “In addition to staging the show outside at various locations on our campus, this allows us to rotate audiences in small groups, to keep our performance safe for all involved.”

Liam Hurst, who shares a hilarious scene with Anson Wright, said while each scene is different, they share a bond.

“That’s kind of the magic of it, all these little moments of love that link these scenes together,” he said.

To pull it off, they devised a concept of the "Northern Lights Tour Company" based out of Almost, Maine. These guides led small groups on a "tour" of the fictional town, stopping to watch different scenes along the way.

“These kids are so dependable. I just trust them,” Fleming said. “And I just love seeing them surrounded by their community and something they could be proud of.”

She said they were grateful to put on a live performance when almost all have been canceled.

“I know that a lot of theater companies have been making the move to livestream things, but to me, that defeats the purpose of live theater,” she said.

Munyer, stage manager, said practice, and a bit of improvisation, paid off. Because scenes were different lengths, tour guides got creative when necessary and interacted with audiences, sharing facts and stories about Maine and asking questions, until the next scene was ready.

“We pretty much just decided to wing it, more or less, and that turned out to work the best,” she said.

Senior Ellie Cook, who shared a humorous, touching scene with George Pierowski, said as it’s her final year at charter academy, “Being able to do one last show is really, really special.”

Anderson said having an audience to play off made their night.

“Then we could really lock into our emotions and make the scene the best it could be with the energy they were giving us, we could give it back to them,” she said.

Fleming said they weren’t sure how many people would be willing to stand outside on cold, dark nights and pay to watch the live performances, but they sold out both shows.

She told a story of attending an outdoor theater in the woods two summers ago in Norway.

“My friends and I did not dress appropriately for it. We were freezing for four hours in the rain, and to this day it’s my favorite theatrical experience," Fleming said. "So I think there’s something about asking your audience to come and sacrifice something with you, get a little uncomfortable with you.

“It asks the audience to be in a more active role instead of passively sitting in a theater,” she continued. "In the end it’s more meaningful for everyone involved.”


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BILL BULEY/Press

Eleri Dobbins and Fred Garcia act out a scene from "Almost, Maine" Thursday night before a live audience at Coeur d'Alene Charter Academy.

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BILL BULEY/Press

An audience watches Jacob McGaughey and Maddie Heaton in an outside scene from "Almost, Maine" Thursday night at Coeur d'Alene Charter Academy.

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BILL BULEY/Press

Ella Gaines and Oskar Hepworth share a hug in a scene from "Almost, Maine" Thursday night at Coeur d'Alene Charter Academy.

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BILL BULEY/Press

Ellie Cook and George Pierowski share a conversation in a scene from “Almost, Maine” on Thursday night outside Coeur d'Alene Charter Academy.

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BILL BULEY/Press

Austin Mahnke and Jessi Garr-Coles act out one of the scenes from “Almost, Maine” on Thursday night at Coeur d'Alene Charter Academy.