When I sat in the lobby of the Station Theatre in mid-March with the cast and crew of The River, there was a funereal pall in the air. We had ostensibly gathered to rehearse a play that was scheduled to open the following week. We knew our lines, and our set was being built, but our enthusiasm and momentum had given way to concern. We were having the kind of conversation that companies dread about the future of our production. New York and Chicago theaters had just started postponing or cancelling shows, and there was general anxiety about public gatherings, but our own shelter-in-place order had not yet gone into effect. At that moment, sitting around the Station’s cozy red lobby, we hoped there might be a chance to salvage our show later in the season.
Looking back on that night, it’s amazing how optimistic we were. In the days that followed, more and more postponements and cancellations were announced, and then of course the nationwide quarantine measures went into effect. Now, going on six weeks later, theatre artists are wondering if a return to the work they love will be possible in the next year—at the earliest.
Among the people in the Station Theatre lobby that night in March was Linda Evans, the show’s producer. Of all of us involved in The River, Evans wore the most hats—and not just with our show. In addition to sitting in on our rehearsals, she had been coordinating our early publicity as well as our props and set construction, all of which overlapped with the work she had been doing producing the Station’s production of I Hate Hamlet. Add to that her work as a member of the Station’s board of directors. Add to that her duties co-hosting C-U at the Show, a theatre-centric show on WEFT started by local theatre enthusiast (and performer) Eric Schacht.
Until such time as theaters are allowed to reopen and actors and crew get back to work, we wait. And with each passing news cycle, the wait seems potentially longer. Spring postponements have become summer cancellations, and now a fall production season seems like a terribly optimistic notion. The most recent crushing (yet clear-eyed) article I read was about the Guthrie Theater’s recent decision to drop all programming until March 2021. I can’t help thinking that other theaters, large and small, including those in Champaign-Urbana, will probably follow suit. It’s a long wait for all of us, audience and participants alike—and it must seem especially long for someone as involved with and consumed by local theatre as Linda Evans.
So how is she dealing with the current Intermission, and where did her dedication to and love of theatre start? Read on.
Smile Politely: What was your first exposure to seeing live theatre? What do you remember about it, and how did it affect you?
Linda Evans: I’m pretty sure it wasn’t my very first exposure, but my first memory of the Station Theatre was seeing Man of La Mancha with my mother. My mother loved theatre and musicals. I grew up listening over and over to Porgy and Bess, Fiddler on the Roof, Evita, and many others on our record player. When I step into the Station Theatre to this day, the rush of watching Man of La Mancha floods back to me. The space was always an almost sacred place for me. The audience is so close to the actors that, as a child, it was transformative. I felt completely immersed in the show in a way I never felt at bigger venues. I was a little younger than my youngest child is now, and I am so thankful that my kids have so many more memories of theatre at a younger age, but they still never lose the magic and the awe of the entire process. I love the hustle and smell of the set being built, the contrast of the dim dressing rooms with the harsh make-up lights, the mix of anxious energy and complete confidence backstage, and feeling the emotions from the audience during a show and talking with them after. My favorite feeling used to be standing on stage alone without anyone else in the theater, just drinking it all in—the shows from the past and the people involved and feeling the connection. Now with all the theaters dark, it makes me heartbroken and longing for a day when it is safe to create and perform again.
SP: In addition to working on local productions yourself, you have a veritable theatre troupe in your family. How much does theatre consume you and your (very talented) offspring?
Evans: Up until recently, I can’t remember more than a few days a year when we weren’t involved in a live production or a short film. Having three theatre-loving kids is so much fun for me, and it is very time consuming. It does mean giving up a lot of other things in our lives because we almost always have rehearsals, tech week, performances, and preparing for auditions to do it all over again. Family vacations became next to impossible. I don’t think the kids would have it any other way; they get a little lost when they aren’t involved in a show.
I love supporting them in all of their theatrical activities, but it has also been a complete joy for me to work this past year on shows that were outside of the kids. I feel very strongly about my children finding their own space and not being defined by their siblings or their mother. I tread lightly when it comes to shows they are involved in and always make sure my support is in line with what they are comfortable with at the time. When they were younger I was often their transportation and a quiet volunteer. It is rare that I ever run lines with the kids, and I try to avoid being a stereotypical stage mom.
My kids are great at enjoying my passion for their projects and putting down a boundary if I get too enthusiastic. While all three love to act, I’ve always stressed the importance of learning all aspects of theatre and respecting everything that goes into a production. When I’m producing a show, I always know I can count on the kids to lend a hand with lighting, stage crew, building, finding props, giving me a different perspective, and just listening.
SP: You can’t get much more “behind the scenes” than producing. In fact, I imagine most people don’t know how much work is involved in producing a play or musical in local theatre. Could you give us a breakdown of what you do, from auditions up to performances?
Evans: I am a very hands-on producer, and I love supporting my directors. This support means different things for each production, and sometimes my job is to get out of their way, but other times I get my hands dirty building sets or moving scenery. Sometimes I am tasked with finding a director, but most of the time my involvement starts as a meeting with the director to find out where I can be most helpful. I am usually involved with and sit in on auditions; and while I have given input, I am always glad the actual casting job is not mine. I help find a production team if the director doesn’t have their own people, find solutions to any problems that arise during the entire process, act as a sounding board for the directors/production staff, and then promote, promote, promote.
When I have time, I like to get to know the actors and make their time in the production a little easier by providing food or drink they might enjoy backstage or during rehearsals. I look at producing much like I look at parenting. My job is to provide the tools and support for a project to succeed, and if I do my job right it thrives without anyone knowing the labor pains behind the scenes to get it there. Community theatre is very much like a family, and I like to help it be healthy, happy, functional one. Of course, if people aren’t in the seats, I haven’t done my job. Making art for art’s sake is still very important, but part of my job as a producer is to keep the production within budget so I like to sell tickets, but it is more than the economical aspect. Live theatre grows with the audience and the performance is enhanced by people watching and experiencing.
SP: In addition to being a producer and Board Member at the Station Theatre, what other theatre-related ventures are you currently involved in?
Evans: I have been very involved in Kenny Chumbley’s The Goblins and the Gravedigger over the past year. I got involved when my kids were all cast as voice actors for the radio version. I didn’t expect to do more than drop them off at the read-through, but my youngest is dyslexic so they asked me to stay. Cold readings and read-throughs can be nerve racking for dyslexic actors. Kenny contacted me soon after the original read-through and asked me to be part of the production staff, and I thoroughly enjoy working with Kenny, Rodney Woodworth, Lucinda Lawrence, and Roger Francisco. Radio is definitely up there with theatre as a passion of mine, so combining both was really a dream job. Later, in November/December of 2019, I produced the live radio-style reading of the show, and I have been asked to direct the staged, full-length play version. With the pandemic, we are currently thinking of options if live theatre is still not safe several months from now.
SP: Instead of asking about what you hope to do when theatre resumes, I’d like to focus on right now. When you think about Theatre today, right now, what do you think of?
Evans: When I think of theatre in the time of COVID-19, I think of theatrical communities coming together in ways they probably didn’t think of before the pandemic. Locally, it is ironic we had to abandon our group buildings at the same time as several theatrical groups were losing their physical spaces. The synergy between groups already had momentum and it continues to grow. I would like to encourage the film and theatre communities to find new ways to work together as performances go online to keep everyone safe. I appreciate all the cooperation I’ve already seen and look forward to new, inventive ways for people to create and share art. Connecting the artists and the audience will continue to be my focus. I co-host a radio show with Eric Schacht on WEFT 90.1 FM called C-U at the Show and, while we don’t have the traditional shows to highlight, we continue to talk to theatre makers about what they are doing now and ways we can continue to stay relevant without the physical theater. Hearing our guests talk about new and innovative ways they are entertaining and creating keeps me hopeful.
In some ways, the online format allows artists to reach a much broader audience than ever before. Already it seems to be a time for new people to get involved in community theatre because of the connections we are able to make when people are needing connection most. I am amazed to see how quickly some have adapted to our new way of life and we are so fortunate to be going through this at a time when technology can keep us from being isolated. We, as theatre makers, need to use this time to help shape the world we want to see post-pandemic. It is a unique opportunity for change and for new voices to emerge to be heard. For theatre lovers, it is a time to show how art and the artists are essential to our lives and support them in any way possible.
Editor’s Note: A portion of this story was cut accidentally in our system, and we’ve since updated the interview since publishing it this morning. We apologize for any confusion.