Pictured are Kira Lace Hawkins (L) and Jen Dow (R). Photos provided.
Pictured are Kira Lace Hawkins (L) and Jen Dow (R). Photos provided.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, everything from concerts and fairs to dances and theater have been cancelled or rescheduled this year.

Wagon Wheel Center for the Arts has found a way to present 12 live theatrical performances of “Always ... Patsy Cline”: outdoors under a tent. The theater started in a tent 65 years ago, so the shows are not only a throwback to those days, but also a fundraiser for the Warsaw theater.

Artistic Director Scott Michaels said he and Jennifer Dow – who is playing Louise Seger in the musical – have both done outdoor theater at one point in their lives.

“It’s kind of nice to go back to my roots and do some outdoor theater, but it’s definitely different than being in the round, but we’re actually having a great time and enjoying the fact that we’re going to be able to bring some live entertainment to some people who desperately need it,” Michaels said.

Dow said she grew up doing outdoor theater in her community theater group in  her Illinois hometown. “So I’m definitely used to the idea of bugs flying around my face and sweating a lot,” she said, but she’s enjoying the change of pace.

Kira Lace Hawkins, who plays Cline, said in the last 10 years she’s hasn’t performed outdoors but “I can’t definitely say I’ve never performed outdoors, but definitely not very much. Definitely new.”

She said the experience has been great. The most interesting thing has been rehearsing for a proscenium stage instead of in the round. “It’s just fun to be with Jen, a different setting, and I’m also kind of proud of the whole ... we’re having to think outside of the box to keep everybody safe.”

Moving the show from indoors to outdoors, Michaels said the actresses’ costumes will be a little lighter to deal with the heat.

“We’ve also adapted a set and made it for the tent out there, which is kind of fun and looks really kind of homey,” Michaels said, noting there will still be lights and everything else. “So it’s just going to be a regular show but it’s going to be outdoors.”

Dow said, “Because we are definitely adhering to all the social distancing guidelines, not only for our public that’s going to come see the show, but Scott has done a really great job of doing the choreography and blocking for Kira and I to be always 6 feet apart.”

Dow has performed in two other productions of “Always ... Patsy Cline,” including playing Seger in 2011 at the Wagon Wheel with Ashley Picciallo as Cline. Dow said in past performances, the actresses playing Seger and Cline “we very much interacted face to face. But what’s cool about this show is that, ‘Patsy Cline’ is really the story about some memories of Patsy Cline. So the idea that Louise and Patsy never have intimate contact, it’s kind of poignant to say, ‘this is actually told through the stories of Louise’s memory and Patsy is never really physically in her presence because it’s all looking back at her memories with Patsy.’”

Hawkins had heard of the show before, but this is the first time she’s been in a production of it. As for Cline’s music, she said she was familiar with songs like “I Fall to Pieces,” “Crazy” and “Walking After Midnight.”

“After that, I really didn’t know much about Patsy Cline at all,” Hawkins said, but has felt lucky to be able to dive into Cline’s music.

“Obviously, it’s a huge task to try at all to capture that iconic sound. You can’t hope to be exactly like any other performing artist ... she was really known for the emotions that came through in her voice. People would call it the cry of her voice. I’ve just done my best job to honor her,” Hawkins said.

Now that Dow is playing Seger for a third time, she said people often ask her if she has the show all memorized. Seger has almost all of the dialogue in the musical. “Not really,” she said. “Nine years ago, my long-term memory held on to some of the dialogue, but really my short-term memory I have to start from scratch with memorization. It wasn’t totally starting from zero, but I definitely had to put in a lot of work with memorization.”

Seger is a “very colorful” character, based on a real person, and Dow said the author and original director of the show, Ted Swindley, has really “brought that to life.”

Like Seger and Cline, Dow and Hawkins have been friends for many years.

“I will say, not to reveal anything, but most people know Patsy Cline died very young. At the end of the show, when I have to tell that part of the story, it definitely gets me a little more close to heart because the idea of losing one of my best friends hits home and it’s hard to get through that part of the story. I will cherish getting to do this with Kira more than anything,” Dow said.

Hawkins said, “It’s nothing but a huge honor to share the stage with just Jen. I just love everything about getting to work with her. She’s the consummate professional. She’s always on top of her game. She’s so talented. I just feel so lucky.”

Michaels said he was proud of Hawkins and Dow for doing this fundraiser.

“All the proceeds, all the tickets are going to help get us through this difficult pandemic time that we’re going through right now. So we encourage people to come on out, bring your lawn chair with you or your blanket and come spend an evening under the stars with us. It’s going to be so much fun to be outside for a live performance with great music and great acting,” Michaels said.

Shows are limited to 225 people, with times and dates set for 7 p.m. Aug. 6-8; 6 p.m. Aug. 9; 7 p.m. Aug. 13-15; 6 p.m. Aug. 16 for those 65 and older only; 7 p.m. Aug. 20-22; and 6 p.m. Aug. 23.

“There is seating in the parking lot, where you can either bring your own camping chairs or lawn chairs or whatever you want to bring; bring a blanket if you want to sit on the ground,” Michaels said.

Wagon Wheel will provide a few chairs if someone comes without one or from out of town. Dow said Warsaw Party Rental loaned the theater “a bunch” of folding chairs and the tent as part of its sponsorship for the show.

Along with the Wagon Wheel originally planning to celebrate its 65th season this year, this would have been Michaels’ 25th season. His first season was the Wagon Wheel’s 40th season.

“We’re not going to call this the 65th anniversary season. We’re going to kind of take a mulligan on this one, and we’re going to celebrate it next year when we can actually have a 65th season,” he said. “But, for me, what it means is that this theater is so special. Sometimes you take it for granted when you do it every single day all the time, and then to have it taken away from you with this pandemic this last summer season, it’s really been tough on us to realize how fragile theater can be and how lucky we are to provide entertainment for people. We’ve had so many people call us or talk to us and say how much they miss us this summer and how much they’re looking forward to seeing live theater again.”

Dow’s first season with the Wagon Wheel was in 1999. This would have been her 22nd season. Now 44, she said the Wagon Wheel has been a part of half of her life.

“So Wagon Wheel is very much a part of my life. It’s part of my identity. It’s part of who I truly am,” she said. “We’ve been struggling a little bit, but we’ve been doing everything we can to keep the arts alive because right now, our society is completely deprived of the arts and depressed and not getting to be with loved ones. And the arts can help mend that brokenness that we feel, and we really feel like that’s our duty and our mission at the Wagon Wheel: to bring that to our greater community in our Warsaw.”

Hawkins has been a part of the Wagon Wheel since the Christmas show in 2007, in over 40 productions. “Wagon Wheel is just everything to me in my professional career. We moved here for Zach’s farm in northeast Indiana and the fact that this theater exists kind of makes my life make sense here, alongside his.”

She said Wagon Wheel also is unique in the country in that it’s in the round and is a training ground for Broadway performers.

“The theater, more so than any other theater I’ve worked in, in the past, has connected me with this network of actors and musicians and tech crew who have gone on to Broadway and it makes me feel connected to the broader theater world even just living here in northeast Indiana,” Hawkins said.

Michaels said “Always ... Patsy Cline” not only provides over 20 great songs, but also great storytelling.

Dow pointed out there will be a live band, but will be socially distancing by performing indoors.

“Our sound engineer, brilliant sound engineer Chris, is making it possible to pipe the sound out to the parking lot from the band playing indoors, and then it will just be me and Kira on the stage to help with social distancing,” she said.

Tickets can be purchased online or by calling the box office in advance. Details on how to arrive by car, weather cancellations and other information can be found on the website at www.wagonwheelcenter.org.

Michaels said, “I think everyone is going to have a great time and we’re looking forward to have people come out and support it and make a donation by buying tickets to the Wagon Wheel’s performance of ‘Always ... Patsy Cline.'”

Hawkins said, “Because we get to keep this so small with a limited amount of performers, we are also keeping it at the high standards that Wagon Wheel performs at. It’s a show that’s not compromised. We’ve really taken on the challenge ... of doing the work we do inside and bringing it outside. It feels like it’s going to be this really joyful, fun time to honor both the Wagon Wheel and the incredible music of Patsy Cline.”