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Brooks Theater
For the last two months, the historic Sunshine Brooks Theatre's stage has been empty due to health restrictions related to COVID-19. The change has prompted the theater's owners to shift to more virtual content. Courtesy photo
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Theater company transitions to virtual performing arts

OCEANSIDE — As social distancing rules extend into the summer, theaters, museums and other art houses are finding ways to continue bringing the arts and culture of downtown to the community.

For the last two months, the stage at the Brooks Theater has been empty of props, costumes, music and performers. With no shows and a state order to stay at home, the seats of the theater have remained empty as well.

The decision to close the historic theater came just one week after the Oceanside Theatre Company’s successful opening weekend of “Sweet Charity.” The musical was one of the Brooks Theater’s biggest productions.

But the beloved playhouse fell into a financial crisis shortly thereafter, only to quickly recover with the help of a few generous patrons.

“We contacted ticket holders by phone if they would like a refund or if they would like to donate their tickets back to the theater to help with the immediate budget crisis, which was about $16,000 to cover the cost of ‘Sweet Charity’,” said Leann Garms, Oceanside Theatre Company board member. “We had about 80% to 90% of our patrons donate their tickets back to the theater.”

According to Garms, the next steps were to figure out how they could continue bringing the performing and visual arts to the community with a closed venue. Like many schools, jobs and churches that have transitioned online, the company decided to live-stream its performances.

The most recent virtual production was a Mother’s Day concert from pianist Robert Parker. There is also a virtual tour of the theater’s “Pop!” exhibit, offering the sale of 1960s-style artwork associated with the theater’s production of “Sweet Charity.”

Despite several fundraising campaigns, Garms said the company still faces an estimated $40,000 in losses due to the inability to provide in-person productions.

The theater recently canceled its summer youth program, which Garms noted is usually a moneymaker.

Lori Butler, who became the theater company’s executive director just weeks before the Brooks Theater closed, said she is particularly saddened by the youth program’s cancellation, in addition to the discontinuation of its after-school partnership with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Oceanside.

“A lot of these kids come from foster care homes or from really bad circumstances, and they’re able to use these workshops to work out their emotions,” Butler said.

Butler said the company’s plan for Brooks Theater is to create virtual workshops teaching youth a variety of skills related to theater production, such as instructional videos on stage makeup, hair and costume design or a video tutorial on how to auction for a role.

The company also plans to renovate the building that houses the Brooks Theater during this temporary closure. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the company was already planning to make renovations to the theater, including adding bathrooms and making the lobby bigger. Those renovations will also help to maintain social distancing when the theater does reopen to the public.

The “Arts Recovery Team” fundraising campaign hopes to raise an initial $42,000 to help keep the theater’s programs running and to begin renovations. Each person who contributes a donation becomes a member of the “team” and will be first to receive news on upcoming OTC activities.

Butler noted the theater will likely require more funds to complete the planned renovations. Oceanside Theater Company wasn’t eligible for federal aid related to the coronavirus, but the theater did receive a $5,000 grant from Union Bank and has recently applied for a micro-grant through MainStreet Oceanside.

Oceanside Theater Company is also launching a “Play It Forward” social media campaign in the next few weeks that will give community members an opportunity to share how the arts have impacted their lives.

Like the Brooks, the Oceanside Museum of Art has also been empty of visitors but has brought its art online. The museum launched its “Museum From Home” webpage that provides links to upcoming virtual events, such as workshops, paint-ins, conversations with artists, and virtual tours of art galleries from around the nation.

Oceanside Museum of Art Executive Director Maria Mingalone said she is currently reviewing a plan to reopen but isn’t rushing the decision, especially with a “400%” increase in community involvement in the museum’s new online programming. However, Mingalone estimated the museum could be open by mid-summer.

“We feel we could easily accommodate visitors in a safe manner and make it safe for employees,” Mingalone said.

Mingalone said they intend to keep the new online programs even after the museum reopens.

Like the Brooks Theatre, the Oceanside Museum of Art has successfully continued its programming thanks to the support from its members and the community.

One way the community can support the Oceanside Museum of Art is by participating in an upcoming month-long art auction in June, Mingalone said.

Oceanside’s downtown area is one of the first 14 designated cultural districts in California. Garms and Butler, who are both parts of the district’s steering committee, said the district’s collaboration among the different museums and theatres is strong.

According to Butler, the cultural designation will be an important element to bringing back Oceanside’s economy as well as bringing together its community.

“The community needs to come in and hear laughter, hear music, and see art,” Butler said. “It’s a huge part of our recovery and that sense of community.”