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“In the 45 years of my career, with GALA and starting GALA, there has never been a challenge as big as this one,” says Rebecca Read Medrano of preparing to resume live performances, before a limited audience, inside the company’s landmark Tivoli Theatre.
“This is really over the top,” continues the GALA Hispanic Theatre Co-founder and Executive Director. “Not just for the emotional and physical challenges of getting the space ready, meeting all the regulations of union requirements and the scientists, protecting the actors and having them tested every week, waiting for results, quarantining the rehearsal room, getting all the PPE, having multiple cleanings of the theater, renovating the whole theater. It’s been really an incredible voyage.”
Like companies all over the world, GALA was forced by the pandemic to halt live performances and cancel a portion of the 2019-2020 season. But the company, based in Columbia Heights, serves a civic role beyond just staging theater. “This community, the Latinx community, has been hit harder, just as the African-American has,” says Medrano. “They are used to coming as a family to GALA. The kids in our after-school program were used to coming there every single day. Now, they’re doing everything virtual. They’re tired of it. Some of them don’t even have access to computers — they’re single-parent families and have to depend on their mom’s phones, for example. So, for us, it’s important that we continue to provide a safe place that will connect them to their culture and language and be uplifting and be a place to make them feel good.”
To that end, the company made prodigious use of the downtime, and a renovation grant from D.C. City Council, to complete planned restorations, as well as update to meet city and CDC requirements. “We basically had to get a whole new air system, new carpeting, new bathroom floors, deep clean all of the seats and put protection on the armrests,” Medrano says, noting that the process has offered a crash course in post-COVID safety and compliance. “We had to be project managers of crews to put in MERV-14 filters that have point-three microns. I mean, I learned more about this than I ever want to learn.”
In addition to fitting the space to meet technical requirements, GALA’s also done some redecorating, with a new granite-top bar, redesigned lighting, “and more atmosphere in the lobby,” says Medrano. “The big, wonderful treat is that finally that historic dome from 1922 — which we had restored almost all of it, but a good portion was not finished — we’ve finished doing all of the ornamental restorations with the gilding on the roof, and on the pilasters that had not been finished since we first opened in ’05.”
While the company couldn’t redo the stage, audiences certainly will notice a redo in seating — capped at 25 tickets per show — and operations. “It will be different, because we don’t have paper tickets anymore. People will just show their telephones because we’re trying to reduce any passing of paper that could have germs. We’re debating about how many programs to make available. We would try to give everybody a virtual program. But if that doesn’t happen, we will have some printed programs available. And then, of course, when they come in, they’ll be asked to have their temperature taken, have some questions asked, and be asked to leave their mask on.”
The theater also will require contact information to pass along to the city for COVID contact tracing. “So all of those are new things to expect, but hopefully everybody will really be delighted with the restoration, and just the experience of going back to live theater,” Medrano says.
Opening with Lope de Vega’s classic Baroque comedy El Perro del Hortelano, adapted by Paco Gámez, GALA plans to continue a full season. But that will depend on being approved each week by the city for a waiver renewal. And it will depend on the good faith and support of their audience. Medrano admits that not everyone considers GALA’s reopening a wise move. “It’s very strange,” she says, “because I feel that sometimes people aren’t quite transparent that are saying, ‘Oh, that’s so brave and courageous of you.’ Secretly they’re thinking, ‘These guys are crazy. Nobody else is opening. Why are they opening?’ I’ve gotten those kinds of vibes.
“But we feel we’re prepared. We’re going to track everybody. And hopefully we’ll serve as a pilot for other groups, to see how they want to open. Because I think even though other theaters haven’t announced, and maybe don’t have dates, they probably will still have to go through these same hoops, because I don’t think the pandemic will be that different. It may be less critical and maybe people will have more capacity to open. But I think they’re still going to have to lay the groundwork.”
El Perro del Hortelano (The Dog in the Manger) runs through November 22 at GALA Theatre, 3333 14th St. NW. Performances are in Spanish with English surtitles. Tickets are $20 to $45. Call 202-234-7174 or visit www.galatheatre.org.
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