Hanford theater immerses us in a different pandemic

Zoom is the name of the game these days for many theater organizations. As the pandemic continues, live streaming is considered the closest thing we have to capturing the immediacy of live theater.

Pictured above: Christa Van Gemert is one of the narrators in the Kings Players’ version of ‘The Masque of the Red Death.’

But some organizations are bucking the trend. The Kings Players in Hanford is one. Director Hugh Munro Neely conjured up an interesting idea: Film his actors individually reading the narration and dialogue from well-known short stories, then edit the individual performances together for a seamless experience. It’s sort of like a visual audiobook, if you will, with an added bonus: No social distancing requirements were violated in the making of this production.

For added impact, Neely picked a theme for his Readers’ Theatre series: spooky stories. I told you about the series when it started back in July. The eighth and final episode launched on Friday, Aug. 28. Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” is brought to life in a 17-minute production that brings to life an unsettling tale about a deadly pandemic. (Imagine that.)

I caught up with Christa Van Gemert, a Kings Players veteran making her second major appearance in the series as one of the narrators in “Masque.” (She will also appear as one of 17 cast members in a non-spooky encore episode featuring excerpts from the humorous book “The Horror Film Guide to Life” by Erin Naillon. (The episode will be read by everyone who has participated on camera thus far, plus some additional guest artists.)

Here’s my interview with Van Gemert:

Q: Where does “The Masque of the Red Death” rank on the Scary Pulse Scale, with mildly scary registering as a few heartbeats over normal per minute ranging up to so frightening that you’re close to cardiac arrest?


A: I should preface this by saying that I have a pretty high threshold for scary, being a fan of true crime books, podcasts and documentaries as well as atmospheric horror (e.g., Shirley Jackson, Stephen King). With that in mind, I’d rate this at a 6 … moderately scary.

Q: In the story, written by Edgar Allan Poe, a terrible plague is sweeping across the land. Can you set up the premise for us?

A: The story begins at a point in which the plague has already been affecting the country for six months or so, and has reduced the population by about half. The Prince Prospero chooses this moment to throw a big, extravagant masked ball with a thousand guests and an orchestra. But of course, it’s Poe, so there’s a macabre twist in the form of an uninvited guest. The plague itself has a supernatural element to it, which gave me pause at first, but actually made sense when I thought about it a bit more. This story was written before the Germ Theory of Disease was well established.


Q: These days, even a mention of “plague” immediately brings to mind coronavirus, of course. What connections can you make between Poe’s story and our present pandemic?

A: The thing that immediately comes to mind is the similarity between the out-of-touch Prince Prospero and the most privileged 1% of our population who, in their insulated bubble, have no concept of how this has affected everyone else. By contrast, it also might remind the reader that socialization is a basic human need, and that while some people (introverts like myself) welcome more solitude, others can only handle isolation for so long before they feel willing to risk their physical health because their mental and emotional health is suffering.

Q: Prospero, the prince of this land, feels like he can ignore the plague, and he plans a big party at his palace. Something tells me he doesn’t have a temperature check at the entrance. What can you tell us about the party and his decorating scheme?

A: Prince Prospero invited a thousand of his closest friends to come dressed in their most outlandish costumes, with the promise of entertainment and adult beverages. The décor is lavish. Corridors branch from the main hallway, and each of them is decorated in a different color. The last is a rather ghastly combination of black and red.

Q: It’s been fun to watch the “Spooky Stories” series. For those who haven’t yet seen the episodes, explain the format. Which episode do you think has been the scariest?

A: For most of the episodes, there is a cast of several actors who take turns reading dialogue or narrating the story, and everything is edited together so that the parts blend seamlessly into a cohesive narrative. It’s a nice format because there’s variety as well as cohesion. I’d say the most thrilling of the series, in my opinion, is “The Cold Embrace.”

Q: Tell us a little about yourself. Have you done a lot of work with the Kings Players?

A: I first got involved with the Kings Players back in 2013, when they did the summer variety show “50 Years of Broadway.” My neighbors had been involved with the Temple Theatre for some time and knew that I was a singer, so they told me about the auditions. I was cast in the show and have been hooked ever since.

For the first few years I was in graduate school, and was only able to participate in shows that happened during the summer, but after graduating I was able to get more involved. I’ve joined the board, acted in several plays, and served as assistant director a couple of times now. I’m also pretty good with a sewing machine, so I enjoy helping with costumes too.

Q: How has the pandemic affected you?

A: Thankfully my job has been secure since I work in health care — I work as a speech-language pathologist for Adventist Health. I know that many other people have not been as lucky. We have to wear extra gear at work, though, which can make it difficult to communicate, and that’s a problem since communication is what my job is all about. But I’ve had the opportunity to see first hand how our staff is taking care of the more seriously ill patients in the hospital, and I admire them so much.

And I’ve seen some truly brave patients. It’s not easy to be stuck in a hospital room, isolated from everyone, already feeling pretty miserable, and unable to see your friends and family. Even under those circumstances most of those patients haven’t been rude or snippy with me, just appreciative. On a different note, my kids have had to get used to doing school online. They both hate it, but there’s not much we can do about it.

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Q: People are really worried about community theaters surviving in this environment. What are your thoughts?

A: It’s a legitimate fear. Community theaters struggle under normal circumstances. Thankfully, our patrons have been incredibly generous with donations during this time, and we’re staying above water. We are so, so thankful for these friends. Everyone is struggling right now, and it’s really touching that they are still sharing what they have with us. Every little bit helps.

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

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