BILLINGS — Local artists performed a selection of cabaret hits to a socially distanced crowd in the NOVA Center for the Performing Arts parking lot in Billings Sunday afternoon in a free, drive-in show.
“This came to be because we have been dark since COVID-19 started. The state has closed down all theaters. Because we are so intimate in theater, we are too close to be safe. So we tried to brainstorm about some ideas as to how we could get everybody to know that we’re still here," said Dodie Rife, managing producer at NOVA.
Drive-in style musical performances have become more common since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic because the venue lends itself to social distancing.
At NOVA, people parked in every other parking space and watched from inside their cars, from lawn chairs and from the perch in the bed of a pickup truck.
Rife said people were required to wear masks if they chose to sit outside their vehicles.
“Besides being really warm, I think it was really good. People had a good time, they wore their masks. We asked everybody to wear masks while they were here so we didn’t have any possibility of spreading anything. We didn’t want spread. That way we can take care of each other and still put art out there," Rife said.
The Live Drive In Theater performance was the first time since mid March that NOVA artists have been on stage in front of a crowd.
Michelle Berger directed the final show in March and was on stage to sing two songs and perform a duet in the drive-in show.
"It’s been challenging. We have challenges that other people do not have based on when we breathe and when we sing we put out a lot of particles into the air, lets put it that way. It is very challenging and it’s not just challenging in the theater, it’s anywhere you perform like that,” Berger said.
Social distancing on stage is a challenge for a production with a large cast. Berger said an opera titled Sour Angelica originally scheduled for May had to be canceled because of the size of the cast.
Another hurdle at the drive-in show was the position of the live accompaniment from the house pianist. He was situated just inside the open theater door with a view of the backs of the singers.
“We had enough monitors that we could hear him. But that is a very unusual situation. Normally of course you’re interacting with your pianist and he can see you and you can communicate," Berger said.
While the show was free, donations were encouraged to be given by those who attended. Rife said NOVA has had a tough time over the past few months with canceled shows and lack of ticket sales.
"We’ve cut expenses as much as we can but there’s still building expenses, heating expenses and those kinds of things. We’re just trying to spend as little as we can until we can open up and get going again. Nonprofits and theaters are always right on the line anyway. So we’re just trying to stay in the black," Rife said.
The packed parking lot was a sign to Rife that the community will be there to support the arts when the time is right to do so.
"I think that it’s going to be a challenge to get it back going, but Billings loves their artists and loves theater. So, I think we’ll be fine in the end. But we’re going to be really careful down here at NOVA and make sure that we can open up in a safe manner. We’ll wait for the governor to give us the go ahead," Rife said.