Blank Canvas Theatre Stages Drive-In Productions During Pandemic

Tasha Brandt and her partner Danny Simpson perform for one of Blank Canvas Theatre's drive-in productions.
Tasha Brandt and her partner Danny Simpson perform for one of Blank Canvas Theatre's drive-in productions. [Andy Dudik]
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Generally, car horns are neither a sign of affection nor appreciation.

But that's exactly what a group of performers are hoping to hear this weekend as Blank Canvas Theatre stages its latest drive-in production.

Like a lot of folks in local theater, Patrick Ciamacco thought the pandemic would last only a month or so.

But when it dragged into the summer last year, the director and owner of Blank Canvas Theatre began to worry because the company's income relies mostly on ticket sales.

Patrick Ciamacco is the artistic director and owner of Blank Canvas Theatre. [Blank Canvas Theatre]

"So it was very difficult to not do anything and not have any income, yet still having rent and utilities and all kinds of other bills and stuff that we need for a theater," Ciamacco said. "To not have any of that income coming, it was kind of a scary and daunting undertaking at that point."

Blank Canvas Theatre is housed inside the 78th Street Studios on Cleveland's Near West Side.

With the building much more quiet last year, Ciamacco was able to host a socially-distanced birthday party for a friend outside, in the studios' parking lot.

He projected a movie musical on a screen while broadcasting the film's sound on a low radio frequency so guests could watch and listen from their cars.

Blank Canvas Theatre sets the stage for its drive-in musical production. [Andy Dudik]

That one-off birthday party gave Ciamacco an idea.

"I was just looking at the building and going, well, how could we do this actually live?" he said. "So I started brainstorming that night and thought, you know what, I think we can do this safely and have it happen."

The windows of 78th Street Studios face the parking lot about 15 feet from the ground.

Darius Stubbs, Madeline Krucek and Pat Miller perform for Blank Canvas Theatre's drive-in musical production. [Andy Dudik]

So Ciamacco thought, what if you had performers singing inside, behind the glass, to an audience outside watching from the comfort of their sedans and SUVs?

"Ideally, the audience is safe because they're in their cars. But my main thing is, I wanted to make sure our artists and staff were safe as well," he said. "So I started brainstorming that and then we put up our first show in September."

Mandalyn Stevens helped manage parking for that first drive-in show last September.

On opening night, after all the cars were situated in the lot, and the show began, Stevens was ready to go home, because she'd purchased tickets to the next night's performance.

"And they started singing and I was just so captivated and had been missing the theater so much, I ended up watching the whole show," Stevens said. "I was just so surprised that it was something that we had done every single day for years. And for it being gone, it just captivated me and pulled me right in."

Neda Spears sings during a Blank Canvas Theatre drive-in musical production. [Andy Dudik]

Tasha Brandt performed in that first drive-in production, and she said it felt like she hadn't peformed in a decade even though it'd only been a year.

"Everyone was safely in their spots [with] temperature checks when we got there. And then we started singing together and it was just like old times," Brandt said.

Once each song was over, it was immediately followed by silence.

Tasha Brandt sings during a Blank Canvas Theatre drive-in musical production. [Andy Dudik]

"And then all of a sudden there'd be all of these honks and lights flashing. And that was the type of energy that we were working with," Brandt said. "So it was a little removed from a normal performance, but it was still so much fun."

Stevens now serves as stage manager for the drive-in shows and is responsible for the actors and crew staying safe and healthy, taking everyone's temperature before rehearsals and documenting all the results along the way.

"I made sure that at every table there has hand sanitizer, that there are enough pencils that no one has to share, like nobody's passing anything around. You know, there's no fun rehearsal snacks that people bring in," Stevens said.

The drive-in shows are cabaret-style productions featuring a collection of musical favorites centered around a theme. This weekend's show is "A New Hope: A Night of Joy and Inspiration," with performances on Friday and Saturday nights. 

Ciamacco is staging the show and looking forward to the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel when his company can perform like it used to.

"So this show is a night of inspirational music focusing on the optimistic outlook that we can move back to some sense of normalcy," he said.

Eric Fancher sings during a Blank Canvas Theatre drive-in musical production. [Andy Dudik]

While they may do more drive-in shows, as they've helped cover the company's rent, Ciamacco longs for something more.

"There's musicals I want to perform, and we can't really do all of that in a window. So the concerts have been a great, you know, a taste of what we all want to do and what we all want to see. But I'm still craving to do more and go back to being able to do a full-on show like we normally would," he said.

The view from inside the stage manager box for Blank Canvas Theatre's drive-in musical production. [Mandalyn Stevens]

For now, Stevens is happy to be calling shows again, even if it's from a make-shift stage-manager booth in a parking lot.

"I'm so grateful that I get to sit outside and watch them for the next week, just belt their faces off," she said.

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