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Choirs have played a special part in the pandemic — one that choral singers and conductors would just as soon forget.

“Singing is just one of those things that spreads germs,” said Bob Gunn, artistic director of MenAlive — The Orange County Gay Men’s Chorus. “We didn’t even realize how much until that choir in Washington got hit in the first month of the outbreak.”

Gunn was referring to a 61-voice community choir in Skagit County, Washington. After a rehearsal in March 2020 during which some social-distancing precautions were taken, 32 confirmed and 20 probable COVID-19 cases occurred; three patients were hospitalized, and two died. “Transmission was likely facilitated by close proximity during practice and augmented by the act of singing,” the CDC reported in an investigation of the event.

As a result, unlike many performing groups in Orange County, which are planning their first post-pandemic live events as early as this week, MenAlive is being extra cautious, Gunn said. Its next show, “CampTini … With a Twist!,” which debuts online this Friday, will be entirely pre-recorded and streamed, and Gunn doesn’t anticipate any live event before the group’s annual year-end holiday show, though he’s leaving the door open just a crack.

“We’re still trying to sort out how that will work as we open up more,” Gunn said. “Once we get through this weekend, I think we’ll kind of dive head-first into what to do this fall.”

Gunn is getting more hopeful that MenAlive could return to the concert stage before December. Recent progress in California means that audiences might be ready to go to a choral concert by the autumn.

“One of the guys on our board works as an ER doctor and has firsthand experience with (COVID-19) and everything that has been going on,” Gunn said. “He’s going to sit on a special committee and help us gear up for what to expect in September.”

Concerts were a major source of revenue for MenAlive, but the group has fared surprisingly well during the shutdown, said Michael Auchter, the group’s president and chairman.

“Actually, we’ve done OK. I wouldn’t say we’re doing the best we ever were, but we’ve received a couple of arts grants, which really helped a lot. And, in fact, we have some very loyal patrons and donors that have fostered a family feel within the group.”

Auchter acknowledged that active membership in MenAlive has fallen off over the last year, when the choir moved from live to remote rehearsals and performances.

“Not everybody is built for Zoom. Not everybody is even built for phone calls or texts. It took a great deal of discipline to be as cohesive as we could.”

As the choir gradually returns to normal practices, Auchter said he would be mindful of the diversity of feelings and varying comfort levels among the membership.

“You only have to go to the grocery store to see where we are today. Some people aren’t comfortable about not wearing a mask yet. In a gay men’s group we have a wide variety of safety and health situations and we have to be able to accommodate everyone.”

Shunning the Head Box

Robb Neale, MenAlive’s creative manager, is creative director of the choir’s latest show, a collection of songs threaded together with a summer camp narrative. The show can be viewed free of charge for a time after its premiere (Neale was unsure for how long).

Neale said his role has changed substantially since pre-pandemic days.

“Under normal circumstances, being creative director meant I was very involved with all the creative content of the concerts, whether it was helping to select the songs or the themes. I chair what’s called the creative committee. The artistic director, Bob, has the final say, but I would always be involved in the actual staging of the show: the choreographers, the acting. I also work with the costumer and set designer.”

But for over a year now, Neale’s role has of necessity been a little different. “For this show in particular I became the producer, which means I’m more like the cat herder, to make sure everything got done on time and we all approached the project with one vision.”

Many choirs have adopted a standard format for online concerts that consists of variations on the “head box” concept: Each singer performs individually and visually records his contribution, which then is edited into a coordinated collage. Neale wanted to stay away from that look this time around, although he didn’t completely eliminate head boxes; those sections will be interspersed with scenes and skits.

“This show is a little more ambitious than we’ve done since we started performing online. Head boxes, creating a kind of grid — we can do that as well. But we felt that that has gotten a little old after a year. We wanted to make sure everyone remembers it’s about the chorus. The world has started opening up as we were working on this, so I wanted it to feel a little more free and less claustrophobic.”

BenDeLaCreme, a star of the Emmy Award-winning “Ru Paul’s Drag Race,” is the host of “CampTini” — a casting coup that was inspired in part by Auchter.

BenDeLaCreme is the host of the “CampTini … With a Twist!,” an upcoming virtual concert by MenAlive. Credit: Image courtesy of Mark Auchter

“My husband and I saw him perform a couple of years ago,” Auchter said. “We liked his combination of innuendo and gentle humor. There’s not a mean bone in his body; his character is just really sweet as well as funny. We thought he resonated with what we stand for in our type of shows.”

Auchter said the finalists for the starring role in “CampTini” were narrowed down to four. “Ben was the best of the bunch, and we were thrilled to have him be a part of our show. We hope it’s going to be a long relationship. There’s an ongoing place here for someone like him, and he’s more available now that he’s moved to Southern California.”

Neale had a very specific idea for incorporating BenDeLaCreme into a show themed around summer camp.

“I knew exactly what I wanted this drag queen to do, which was to act as the camp director of our fictional summer camp. When we conceived this we thought we’d be strictly quarantined. How would she be incorporated into the show? So we came up with the camp director idea. and then because this summer camp is meant to be an adult camp, we came up with cocktails as part of the concept.”

BenDeLaCreme filmed her part in a Long Beach bar, Neale said.

‘CampTini … With a Twist!’

Available Starting: 7 p.m. June 25, 2021

To view the show, subscribe to MenAlive’s YouTube channel and turn on notifications.

“She was totally open to it. She was very very happy to get out of the house. We filmed in a bar in Long Beach to be closer to where she lives. We were there in the middle of the week when it was mostly empty. She couldn’t have been easier to work with. We wound up filming it twice for safety. The first time through it was so good, but we did it one more time and she came up with brilliant new bits.”

Auchter sees opportunities to leverage the marketing techniques developed during the pandemic to help grow MenAlive.

“More people know about us now through our streamed events. In terms of membership we are already one of the largest nonprofit (performing arts groups) in Orange County, but there are areas where we’d like to expand.

Auchter wants the community-service role of MenAlive, one of the positive developments the group made during the pandemic, to become increasingly active going forward.

“We have a group called HeartsAlive that does a lot of community outreach,” he said. “We discovered that there are so many needs in our community that the last 16 months have laid bare. The LGBTQ Center does a really good job, but there are a lot of folks out there who need help and support and a voice who are (currently underserved). We want to be a bigger part of that advocacy: outreach to the senior populations and ethnic groups — Hispanic, Persian — all of these little niches. There’s a lot to do besides putting on shows.”

Paul Hodgins is the founding editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at phodgins@voiceofoc.org.

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