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COVID-19: Re-opening date for small Citrus Heights theatre still in limbo

Blake Flores stands inside Theatre in the Heights. // M. Hazlip

By Mike Hazlip–
The stage is still set for Neil Simon’s The Dinner Party, but there are no guests for the affair since Theatre in the Heights suspended performances March 17.

Theater President Blake Flores and vice president Vanessa Voetsch spoke with The Sentinel last week about future plans for Citrus Heights’ only community theater. Despite the absence of box office sales at the roughly 50-seat theater on Auburn Boulevard, Flores and Voetsch say they are committed to keeping theater alive in the community.

“Theater is just in our blood,” Flores said. “It’s just something you have to do. It’s not an option.”

Flores said the landlord offered a deferred rent plan, but he worried the organization would struggle to keep up with the debt once doors reopened.

“We’ve never even broke even yet, so we’d never even catch up,” he said.

After the closure of Costume Junction next door, and the prospect of losing more tenants, Flores said the landlord agreed to accept half rent beginning in August.

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“In the beginning a lot of people didn’t know how long it would be,” Voetsch said of the extended closures. “I think he realized it’s long term.”

Theater is a labor of love for Flores and Voetsch, who both work full time jobs during the day. Their income helps keep the theater going along with donations from patrons.

“We have several people that are really great and continue to donate to us,” Flores said. “Fortunately we’ve made a lot of good friends and a lot of good patrons that really like our theater, and so they’ve been really great about wanting to see us stay.”

Flores said donations continue to trickle in despite the absence of a performance schedule. Faithful patrons also call to check up on them.

The business partners are looking at new ways to keep their craft alive during the shutdown. The pair are considering taking October’s performance of Clue online, but they are worried about losing the magic of theater in a virtual format.

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“We love live theater and we want the magic of that,” Flores said. “At first we dismissed [virtural theater] as not being something we wanted to do because it’s not theater. But as we go along, maybe we’ll change our tune.”

Voetsch chuckled at the pun, but admitted losing the live performance experience has been difficult for her.

“It’s almost a different kind of depression that you get because you can’t be doing that thing,” she said. “I take it extra personal. Theaters were the last thing that had to close, but we’re the last thing that had to reopen.”

Flores said they typically average half-capacity crowds, and could easily accommodate limited audiences with families sitting together, separated from other groups.

Performing Clue virtually would avoid the expense of an elaborate set design, however there will be technical problems to overcome. The team also worries that the technology to view the performance might be out of reach for much of their audience.

A typical production costs the organization between $3,000 and $5,000 for royalties, set design, props, and costumes, according to Flores. This year he was hoping to break even for the first time in the theater’s history.

“We were actually doing really well this year, it’s unfortunate,” he said. “I think this year we could have turned the corner. We had a good subscriber base. Word is starting to get out. Might have come close to breaking even this year.”

Despite these challenges, Flores remains committed to the project, saying he wants “to make sure it continues one way or the other.” He is grateful for the support of the community, and plans to reopen as soon as officials allow.

“We owe it to the people who gave us all the money,” he said. “I don’t want that to go to waste. However long it takes, we’ll be here.”

Flores and Voetsch say theater can bring people together in a way that is unique among all other art forms. They appreciate their patrons and the community support they have received.

“That’s been the greatest thing coming out of this for me is finding out how much we have touched people,” Flores said. “Finding out how much people really like the fact that we’re here.”

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