Bob Robins walks through the gallery at the Hippodrome — pointing up at the new light fixtures and gesturing to the fresh paint on the walls. He worked on many of the changes himself and oversaw the work of contractors who contributed the rest.
“I did that for the first four months of COVID,” Robins said.
The production and facility manager and lighting designer for the theater proudly sports a hat from “Bat Boy,” a musical last performed at the Hippodrome in 2002. He’s worked there for nearly 36 years (with one short absence). Robins is eager to show visitors around the building and to boast about the beauty of what he and his co-workers affectionately call “The Hipp.”
As one of a small handful of staff members left after Covid-19-related layoffs, Robins was happy to do what he could to keep the lights on at the 48-year-old theater during the lockdown.
“So many theaters I know of, they just shut it all down,” he said. “We got down to about six people, but we were able to stay on payroll the whole time. A lot of times it was only 10 hours a week, but it was something.”
Founded by a group of artists in 1973, The Hippodrome is a staple in downtown Gainesville. Once a U.S. federal building and post office, much of its history is still alive in the building itself. From its repurposed leather courtroom doors to one of the oldest working elevators in the state, the iconic local landmark tells a story separate from the ones seen on stage.
The business was a recipient of the Wild Spaces and Public Places surtax from the City of Gainesville, which allowed for the renovations of the lobbies, art gallery and other parts of the building.
Stage Manager Amber Wilkerson was another employee who was able to use some of the time during the lockdown.
“We did a couple of recorded events that we streamed,” she said, “so we were able to work for a couple of weeks, film something, and then we’d go back to being unemployed… kind of just waiting around until we got word that we could do something else.”
Wilkerson also tackled a side project she’d been wanting to get to — organizing the contents of a 1910 walk-in vault near her office that was full of Hippodrome history.
There’s a stack of posters from shows passed, endless paperwork — even a collection of slides meant to play on an outdated projector. Now, they’re all neatly collected. Some of the art is lovingly displayed in the newly renovated galleries.
“It’s driven me crazy for years. I was like, ‘this is going to be my legacy. I’m going to organize this vault,’” she said, laughing. “I had the time.”
Now back with live performances, both the theater and its workers are refreshed and ready to welcome a (masked and socially distanced) audience. But staff members weren’t the only ones affected. Performer Paul Helm said he gained perspective on how much he loves his job after being without it for a while.
“To have this employment again and be able to create art and make people laugh… it’s something that… I’m never going to take for granted again,” he said.
In his first performance at the Hipp, Helm is playing Marcus Moscowicz in the theater’s production of “Murder for Two,” which started showing in September. His character is a “budding police officer, wannabe detective,” according to Helm.
Although Moscowicz is one of many characters in the play, Helm is one of only two people on stage. Together, the two actors play a total of 13 characters.
Wease said he is also grateful to be back doing what he loves.
“We are some of the few people that are still able to work right now,” he said. “I’m just lucky to be performing. I look at every performance and rehearsal as a gift.”
This season is Wease’s second time back at the Hipp.
“Coming back to do this at a place that I love, that has had me before, it’s been wonderful.”
With the pandemic still affecting the country, the theater has adjusted to accommodate both patrons and Covid-19 guidelines (as set by the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees). The Hippodrome requires masks for audience members, and Wilkerson said it plans to keep casts as small as possible this season. Audience members sit between “safety seats,” which are empty seats in the theater marked off to allow for proper social distancing.
Box Office Manager Anna Verney creates a custom map for each performance, shifting patrons around according to how many tickets have been sold. The House Manager for the night then uses the maps to shift the “safety seat” signs as needed so the audience can safely enjoy the show.
“I know people have missed it,” Wease said. “Theater is a magical getaway — especially this show. We’re not doing some heavy, thought-provoking piece, but you can come here and have a blast… Have a silly laugh and just escape the outside world for a little bit.”
“Murder for Two” is playing at The Hippodrome as part of its mainstage season until Oct. 3. It’s a “zany, funny, farcical whodunit,” according to Robins, where everyone is a suspect in the murder of Great American Novelist Arthur Whitney.
“Artists are dying — pardon the pun — to share our stories and collaborate with the audience, for everybody to have a community experience,” Robins said. “That’s what the theater is all about.”