This Utah play is inspired by, and will closely follow, social distancing rules

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Spencer Hohl rehearses for the first Utah theater production since the COVID-19 lockdown, titled "The Corona Conundrum," at The Parker Theatre, Wednesday, May 13, 2020.

Are Utahns ready to return to watch live theater, after two months of no mass gatherings because of the coronavirus pandemic? James Parker thinks so, with some limitations.

“We looked at all the safety guidelines and the recommendations, and we thought, ‘You know? Yeah, maybe it’s not financially feasible to do it, but as far as the mechanics of getting people in and out and seating them safely, it’s completely doable,” said Parker, executive director of The Parker Theatre.

The theater troupe (formerly called the Utah Children’s Theatre) aims to be the first in Utah to reopen since the pandemic began with the debut of its comedy sketch program “The Corona Conundrum,” Friday night at its theater, at 3605 S. State St. in South Salt Lake.

“Right now, we need laughter and we need positivity,” Parker said. “We talked about doing something that was more at the heart — do something that makes people feel like there’s hope in the future. As we looked at it, we said, ‘No, we need to do something that just makes people laugh.’”

The family-friendly play is a series of short sketches — similar, Parker said, to the old “Laugh-In” comedy show, or “Saturday Night Live’s” recent shot-at-home episodes — that make jokes about “the ridiculousness of what we’re having to go through.”

Subjects, he said, include social distancing, working from home and running out of toilet paper. “It’s what everyone else is talking about or laughing about,” he said.

Social distancing isn’t just the inspiration for what’s on stage. It’s what Parker has worked to engineer throughout the theatergoing experience, following state and county health guidelines.

The play itself is only about 40 minutes long, about the length a person might spend making a grocery run, “and that’s about what people feel comfortable doing in a space where it’s shared with other people,” Parker said. “If an hour goes by, people would start to be thinking, ’Should we really be doing this?’”

A short show also means no intermission — and no chance for audiences to crowd into restrooms or mingle in the lobby, he said.

Tickets will be sold online only, so Parker and his team can map out where everyone will sit without being too close to other groups. Every other row is left empty, and a four-seat gap will be maintained between groups seated in the same row.

On average, Parker said, up to 60 people can be placed in the auditorium, which in pre-pandemic days could seat more than 200.

Ticket buyers will enter through open front doors (no need to touch door handles), stand at 6-foot intervals in the lobby, and be let into the theater one group at a time — with a map showing them where to sit and how to get there without getting too close to other patrons. When the show is over, groups will be let out one at a time, through the opposite corridor from where they went in, and exit through the lobby.

Audience members age 6 and above must wear face masks, and masks will be available for purchase.

Even the five actors in the show will be practicing social distancing. The sketches will be performed on three platforms on the stage, each far enough away from each other and from the audience.

The Parker Theatre — started as Utah Children’s Theatre in 1985 by Parker’s parents (his mother, Joanne, is the artistic director) — is opening just as other Utah theater groups are delaying their next shows until 2021. The Utah Shakespeare Festival announced this week it has canceled its 2020 season. Pioneer Theatre Company announced it would mount a shortened 2021 season that won’t start until February.

Parker said he knows of Utah theater companies that are weighing whether to open over the summer or “go into hibernation.”

“I feel like we’re a vanguard for what can be done during this time,” Parker said. “We’re leading a path where most people wouldn’t go down because maybe they don’t feel like they can. But I know a lot of theaters are thinking about it.”

The mystery, Parker said, is whether audiences feel ready to come back. The answer will mean more than whether theater groups can sell tickets.

“This is more about hope,” Parker said. “It’s more about belief that things will return to normal.”

‘The Corona Conundrum’

The Parker Theatre opens a comedy sketch program, inspired by and closely following social-distancing rules.

Where • The Parker Theatre (formerly Utah Children’s Theatre), 3605 S. State St., South Salt Lake.

When • Opens Friday, May 15; running Friday and Saturday, 7 p.m., for the next two weeks. Doors will open at 6:30 p.m.

Tickets • $17; must be purchased in advance online at parkertheatre.org. No tickets sold at the door.

Health and safety • The theater company is limiting ticket sales and has cordoned off the lobby to encourage social distancing. Face masks will be required for all ticket holders ages 6 and up. (Masks can be purchased at the theater for those who don’t bring one.) No concessions will be available.