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After Okoboji Summer Theatre cancellation, Stephens College students take their shows to Zoom
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After Okoboji Summer Theatre cancellation, Stephens College students take their shows to Zoom

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Okoboji Summer Theatre on Zoom

Stephens College students Diana Gish, left and Ella Witt, middle are shown in a Zoom meeting with Okoboji Summer Theatre director Stephen Brotebeck. 

OKOBOJI, Iowa -- It looks like no one will tread the boards at the Okoboji Summer Theatre this year. 

This was to have been the 63rd annual season of the Okoboji Summer Theatre, but in April the Okoboji Summer Theatre Association (OSTA) announced the suspension of the summer's performances due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nine dramas had been slated to run between June and August. 

The theater is operated by Stephens College of Columbia, Missouri. Students who would have performed at Okoboji this summer were given alternatives -- they could wait to take part in next summer's performances, or instead, they could create a one-person show at home. 

In late July the handful of students who went with the latter option will perform from the comfort and safety of their homes on Zoom, the online video-calling program that became hugely popular during the pandemic. 

There are tentative plans for the shows to be performed on campus at Stephens College in the fall. Unfortunately for members of the public who enjoy the Okoboji Summer Theatre, access to the Zoom performances will likely be limited to a small number of people, including faculty. 

For her performance, Diana Gish, 61, is doing a sort of one-woman behind-the-scenes retrospective of her 2017 appearance on "The Gong Show" (the reboot, not the old "Gong Show") as "Pearl the Singing Mermaid Queen." Some of the details of her show were still being ironed out at the time of this interview. 

"I'm not sure what the title is yet!" Gish said of her show. 

Okoboji Summer Theatre

The Okoboji Summer Theatre isn't open this summer, but its students will continue to get the summer experience through mentoring and Zoom performances.

Gish is a non-traditional musical theater student; she started classes at Stephens in January, just before the pandemic hit. "This is my original passion. After college I didn't pursue it, I took other routes." 

This was to be Gish's first summer performing at the Okoboji Summer Theatre. She said she doesn't have a problem with doing her show on Zoom. 

"It's a completely different situation, but it's a really, I think fascinating solution," Gish said. 

"I think they wanted us to have the experience of acting, behind-the-scenes production, design and marketing as we would get at Okoboji, only it's recreated in this way," she added. 

Stephen Brotebeck, the Okoboji Summer Theatre's artistic director, said one particularly important element of the stage -- an audience in the seats -- can't be replicated on a webcam. 

"This could never be a substitute for live theater," he said. "Getting the reaction from the audience is so important, the reaction to laughs, the reactions to the drama in the show, applause, that's what makes theater so wonderful." 

He and a small band of design and musical staff are providing the students with guidance on the finer points of their shows, like lighting and costuming, inasmuch as that's possible. 

Okoboji Summer Theatre

The Okoboji Summer Theatre has been a Northwest Iowa staple for decades. This year, the theater is closed to the coronavirus pandemic.

"They're working with me and another director to help craft the shows, they're working with the musical director to come up with the music, and then the design students that normally would come up, I'm mentoring them along with one of our design mentors," Brotebeck said. 

For Ella Witt, 18, a musical-theater major in her third year, this would have been her first season with the Okoboji Summer Theatre. She wasn't sure how performing on Zoom would play out. 

"I can't see the audience, which could make things better, or it could make me freak out a little bit," she said. "Hopefully it makes things better." 

Witt declined to describe the plot of her performance because of the possibility she'd need to make last-minute changes. 

"I did try to incorporate as much as I could: singing, dancing, all different types of things, in the show," she said. 

Nobody was trained for any of this. It's a jarring experience by now familiar to late-night comedians, performing in the kitchen or on the stoop, and using family members as crew and dogs and children as guests. 

"Creating shows specifically for an online platform, that's completely new to me," Brotebeck said. 

Correction: A version of this story which appeared online and on page 32 of the summer issue of the Siouxland Life magazine contains an error in regards to the number of productions originally planned at the theater this summer. The Okoboji Summer Theatre canceled a total of nine mainstage productions. 

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