CURTAINS UP AMERICA! Small City, Big Impact: Riverside Theatre Entertains Florida

By Kimberly Dijkstra

May 6, 2021 — Halfway between Orlando and Miami resides Riverside Theatre in the coastal town of Vero Beach. The independent nonprofit is notably considered “America’s largest small town professional theater.” Containing a 692-seat main stage, a 250-seat secondary stage, and a campus filled with other modern facilities, Riverside attracts audiences from far and wide to their quality productions and education opportunities.

“Local to us means the state of Florida,” joked Jon Moses, managing director and COO.

Not only do audiences regularly travel up to 100 miles to Vero Beach to see the latest large-scale musical production or newest edgy play, artists and performers travel from all over to work there.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck early last year, like many in Florida, Moses and his team looked to Disney World as a model for their response. Disney closed in mid-March and Riverside followed suit. They had just opened “La Cage aux Folles” and had another show in rehearsals when Moses announced they would close and regroup two weeks later.

“We have an older audience and individuals were becoming concerned,” Moses said. “We were following the audience’s lead, we were following the lead of the staff and the artists, and that was first and foremost, and still is, in our decision making.”

Riverside has been an important amenity to the community since it opened in 1973 and had no intention of abandoning them during a challenging time.

In May of 2020, Moses was granted permission by the city to operate under the state’s restaurant guidelines.

“When we’re not using the second stage for shows, we have comedy, and it’s all table seating like a restaurant,” Moses explained. “We have servers, we have our kitchen. It runs like a restaurant.”

They spaced out the tables and chairs and maintained a 50 percent occupancy rate and have been consistently offering comedy shows every weekend since last May.

In addition, Riverside kept audiences engaged by introducing “Live in the Loop,” free outdoor concerts with food and beverage service on Fridays and Saturdays. A creative application of modern technology allows patrons to place their order and pay from their seats, eliminating the need to wait on crowded lines all together.

Like many theaters, Riverside has also expanded upon its social media presence with a series of videos, from behind-the-scenes and flashback clips to interviews with artists and thank-yous for the viewers.

Riverside has been a success story in the theater community due to its planning and adaptability during the pandemic. The three-year financial plan devised by the board and top donors allowed them to keep their entire staff.

“We did not let people go because of COVID, and we continued to work towards this next season,” Moses said.

The 2020-21 season has been postponed until January 2022. In the meantime, sets continue to be built and other elements continue to be worked on so that Riverside will be ahead of the game when they fully reopen.

Though they felt fortunate to keep their jobs during the pandemic that created so much unemployment, the Riverside staff felt some amount of guilt.

“The entire staff has gone through various phases of mourning,” Moses said. “They kept their jobs, but so many of their friends lost their jobs and they had to live with that.”

The emotions the pandemic has brought on are varied and countless, but Moses does see theater returning to normal. As the president of the Florida Professional Theatres Association, he has kept in close touch with others in the community through Zoom meetings.

“I can tell you that Florida theater is hanging on really strong,” he said. “They’re gearing up. They’re ready to get back.”

For more on Riverside Theatre, visit riversidetheatre.com.

With additional reporting by Waldo Cabrera.

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