Bob Robins walks around the Racecourse gallery – pointing at the new light fixtures and pointing to the fresh paint on the walls. He worked on many of the changes himself and oversaw the work of the contractors who contributed to the rest.
âI did this for the first four months of COVID,â Robins said.
The theater’s production and installations director and lighting designer proudly wears a hat from “Bat Boy,” a musical last performed at the Hippodrome in 2002. He worked there for almost 36 years ( with a short absence). Robins looks forward to showing visitors around the building and bragging about the beauty of what he and his colleagues affectionately call “The Hipp.”
As one of a small handful of staff who left after the Covid-19-related layoffs, Robins was happy to do whatever he could to keep the lights on in the 48-year-old theater during the lockdown.
âSo many theaters that I know of, they just shut down,â he said. âWe got down to about six people, but we were able to stay on the payroll the entire time. Often 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. Formerly the US Federal Building and Post Office, much of its history is still alive in the building itself. From its reused leather courtroom doors to one of the state’s oldest working elevators, the iconic local landmark tells a story distinct from those seen on stage.
The company was awarded the Wilderness and Public Places Surcharge from the town of Gainesville, which made it possible to renovate the halls, the art gallery and other parts of the building.
Director Amber Wilkerson was another employee who was able to use some of the time during the lockdown.
âWe recorded a few events that we streamed,â she said, âso we were able to work for a few weeks, film something, and then we would go back to unemploymentâ¦ I heard we could do something else.
Wilkerson also tackled a side project she wanted to go to – organizing the contents of a 1910 safe near her desk which was full of History of the racecourse.
There’s a pile of posters from past shows, endless paperwork – even a collection of slides meant to be read on an outdated projector. Now they are all neatly put together. Some of the art is lovingly displayed in the newly renovated galleries.
âIt drove me crazy for years. I was like, ‘this is going to be my legacy. I’ll organize this safe, âshe said with a laugh. âI had the time.
Now back with live performances, the theater and its workers are refreshed and ready to welcome an audience (masked and socially distanced). But staff were not the only ones affected. Artist Paul Helm said he realized how much he loved his work after being deprived of it for a while.
âHaving this job again and being able to create art and make people laughâ¦ that’s somethingâ¦ I’ll never take for granted again,â he said.
In his first performance at the Hipp, Helm plays Marcus Moscowicz in the theatrical production of “Murder for twoâ, Which began airing in September. His character is a “budding police officer, a budding detective,” according to Helm.
Although Moscowicz is one of the play’s many characters, Helm is one of only two people on stage. Together, the two actors play a total of 13 characters.
Wease said he’s also grateful to be back doing what he loves.
âWe are among the few people who are still able to work at the moment,â he said. âI’m just lucky to be a performer. I consider every performance and rehearsal a gift.
This season is the second time Wease has returned to the Hipp.
“Coming back to do this in a place that I love, that has had me before, it’s been wonderful.”
With the pandemic still affecting the country, the theater has adapted to accommodate both clients and Covid-19 Directives (as defined by International Alliance of Theater Workers). The racetrack requires masks for members of the public, and Wilkerson said he plans to keep the casts as small as possible this season. Members of the public are seated between âsafety seats,â which are empty seats in the theater demarcated to allow for good social distancing.
Box office manager Anna Verney creates a personalized card for each performance, moving customers according to the number of tickets sold. The night house manager then uses the maps to move the “safety seat” signs as needed so the audience can safely enjoy the show.
âI know people missed it,â Wease said. âThe theater is a magical getaway, especially this show. We’re not doing a heavy and challenging track, but you can come here and have funâ¦ have a little fun and escape the outside world a bit.
“Murder for Two” is playing at The Hippodrome as part of its main season until October 3. .
âArtists die – forgive the pun – to share our stories and collaborate with the audience, so that everyone has a community experience,â said Robins. âThis is the theater. “