Because she loves live theater, Diana Chabai-Booker could not stand by and do nothing when the coronavirus pulled the plug on local stage productions.
Chabai-Booker has worked part-time as stage manager for theater companies affiliated with the Empire Arts Center and Fire Hall Theatre. Because of the public health emergency and ban on public gatherings, both companies were forced to cancel or postpone events.
She has designed and is marketing a T-shirt -- one for Grand Forks (“I (heart) GF”) and one for East Grand Forks (“I (heart) EGF”) -- with the profits going to the theater companies. Online orders are due Friday, May 1 -- and may be placed until midnight.
“Our local event-based businesses are struggling,” Chabai-Booker said.
“And it’s not like we can do ‘takeout’ plays or anything like that,” she said, referring to restaurants that offer pick-up orders to stay afloat while in-house dining is prohibited. “(Theater companies) are just shut down entirely, so the only thing I can think of to bring money into the theater is to do a fundraiser like this.”
Her designs will be printed on other garments, too, and sold online by a company, Bonfire, with profits to be split evenly between the Empire Theatre Company and the Greater Grand Forks Community Theatre Company -- the latter stages shows at the Fire Hall.
Customers may choose T-shirts, baseball shirts and crew neck sweaters. Children’s sizes in T-shirts and baseball shirts are also available.
After May 1, the garments will be printed and sent directly to the customer, thus eliminating unnecessary handling. Except for the first name of the buyer and the item ordered, Chabai-Booker will not receive any other customer information, she said.
About 55 T-shirts, selling for $20 each, have been ordered so far, she said.
Since moving from Winnipeg in January 2018, Chabai-Booker has been “overwhelmed by how much love there is for this little town, especially in our little theater community,” she said. “And in an industry where you need ticket sales to survive, (theaters) need our help more than ever.”
She started working as stage manager for a Fire Hall production in the fall 2018 and continued in that capacity on almost every show that season. Her first stage-manager job with the Empire Theatre Company was for last summer’s comedy, “Legally Blonde.”
The idea to use the T-shirt as a fundraising tool evolved from her role as stage manager.
“For every production I’ve done at the Empire, I’ve done a cast shirt,” said Chabai-Booker, who, until recently, has been employed full-time as a graphic designer.
“I was thinking of doing a cast shirt for ‘Puffs’ but something told me to hold back, and we ended up being canceled.”
In place of the cast shirt, which includes the show names and dates, “I had the idea to make it more universal, so that way it would be of interest to more people outside the cast,” she said.
She was aware of the Bonfire company, and its services, because she had purchased a T-shirt from the company in the past to support the Actors Fund. The company keeps a portion of the sales price; the remainder goes to the local theater companies.
Up until the pandemic nixed group gatherings, Chabai-Booker and the Empire Theatre Company were working on “Puffs, or Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic,” which had been set initially to run the first three weekends this month, then rescheduled for late May.
In the time-honored spirit of “the show must go on,” cast members were bravely rehearsing via videoconferencing, under the direction of Amy Driscoll.
In mid-April, though, the decision was made to cancel the show.
“I’ve been lost not being at rehearsal,” Chabai-Booker said. Whether it will resume production later is undetermined.
‘Feels so strange’
“I miss the theater so much,” she said. “Since I started stage managing, I’ve basically never stopped. I guess it’s been over a month since I’ve been to the theater it just feels so strange to be at home and not have that sense of community. Outside of my husband and my dog, everything I have in my life in Grand Forks, I owe to the theater.”
“All of my friends are from the theater, and all of the support has come from them,” she said. “I would not be the person I am today, I certainly wouldn’t be doing this campaign, if I didn’t have such a strong connection to the theater and the people there.”
Chabai-Booker is worried that going to the theater will be among the last public activities to reopen when the economy gets moving again.
"It’ll be a large group of people in a confined space for two hours or more. And that’ll probably be one of the last things that people are willing to do,” she said. “So we’re definitely going to have to be creative on how we come back -- maybe do a smaller play and space everybody apart in the audience more, or something like that.”
“The theater and the arts are one of the things that bring people together spiritually the most, and so it’s one of the things we need the most,” she said, “but how we’re going to get back into the space the way it was is definitely going to take a while.”