What happened on the way to directing Magnolia Art Center’s most recent comedy was anything but funny.
Three weeks after rehearsals for “Something Funny Happened on the Way to the Forum” began, production was abruptly halted. It was in March 2020, a time when the lights went out in theaters around the world due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Magnolia’s artistic director, Mitch Butts, recalls it as a dark time in more ways than one.
âThe actors were ready, they followed, they had memorized the scenario. Everyone was having fun and then boom, âhe said. “We were thinking maybe three or four months (of closure) so we were planning how to deal with the lack of income during that time.”
Members of the cast and crew at Magnolia and community theaters across the country were unaware at the time that the script given to them would involve such a long intermission. But after almost a year and a half, the shows are finally taking place.
“Nunsense,” a musical slated to open for Magnolia in 2021, is set to premiere on July 22. This is one of four shows the community theater company plans to put on before the end of the year.
âWe always planned to do shows again,â said Collice Moore Jr., Chairman of the Board of Magnolia. âWe just didn’t know when. “
The theater is sanitized before opening night and spectators are encouraged to wear masks. At least for the first few performances, Magnolia plans to limit ticket sales to around 50 per show, which is around three-quarters of the theater’s capacity. But after 16 months of an empty theater, these numbers are creating excitement.
“It’s amazing we’re back,” said Butts, adding that some theater companies based in Raleigh, Wilmington and Fayetteville have already reopened. âSmaller theaters like us, we are the first that I heard we managed to reopen. I hope there are more. “
A few months ago, Jason Coale would most likely have said that Whirligig Stage would not be part of the return of community theater to Greenville. But today, the company he founded with his wife Elana Kepner in 2016 is preparing its second act.
In May 2020, when theaters, schools, restaurants and other establishments remained closed due to COVID-19, Whirligig produced virtual shows, including “The Show Must Go Online” and “10 Ways to Survive Life in a Quarantine “. Prior to COVID-19, Whirligig and the city were at odds over the types of performances the local zoning ordinance allowed at its Pitt Street location. In June 2020, Coale and Kepner announced that they were saying goodbye to their theater house.
The couple remained in Greenville, where Kepner is a professor at the School of Drama and Dance at East Carolina University and Coale is a professor of drama at the Wahl-Coates Elementary School of the Arts. But the Whirligig cast members, especially the Youth Academy members, failed to share the stage with them.
âWe are sad that we had to take a break,â Coale said. âIt was very hard. But you know when you love to do theater, and of course we do, there are a lot of people in the area looking for opportunities. So we do all we can. “
Whirligig plans to relaunch classes next month for ages 5 to 18 and hopes to stage âGodspellâ in September, followed by a children’s show later in the fall. While details on the venue are still being finalized, Coale said Whirligig was trying to rent a rehearsal space downtown near the State Theater, where he would hold performances.
Masks should be required for rehearsals and performances involving students too young to be eligible for COVID-19 vaccines.
“We are ready to go back on stage,” he said. âIt’s been a year and a half and we weren’t sure if we would be able to shake things up. But it looks like we’re there now.
Whirligig is helping organize a musical event this fall as part of Musical Theater International’s “All Together Now” that would serve as a fundraiser for himself and other local theater organizations. Designed to celebrate the return of live theater, the global event is a chance for theaters to host a music revue fundraising event without paying royalties.
Local groups such as Magnolia, Smiles and Frowns Playhouse and the theater company A Place in the Heart have been invited to participate.
Place in the heart
The November music review could mark the first time back on stage for A Place in the Heart, which presented its first local show four years ago but has been inactive for over a year.
Founder Preston Coghill has said his theater company is preparing to tour with performances of his original play “Old Timers” in the spring of 2020.
âOf course COVID hit and we were pretty much done,â he said. “It’s very difficult.”
Coghill, from Winterville, said the effects of the virus have been particularly harsh on his cast members, who are predominantly African Americans.
âI have had three of my cast members who literally almost died with COVID,â he said, adding that one member is still suffering from serious side effects.
Over the past year or so, Place in the Heart has seen more than one reopening deadline come and go. While the group originally planned four shows for 2021, Coghill believes it may take next year before they can put on another play.
âWe don’t have a home for our organization, so we usually try to find space to do things,â he said. âWe are not even able to do rehearsals.
In the wings
The closure was also difficult for organizations with movie theaters. Magnolia, an all-volunteer group that began renting a building in the Perkins complex to the city for a small fee in 2014, is responsible for utilities, maintenance, and upgrades.
During the shutdown, Butts and other volunteers spent time working behind the scenes to improve their playhouse. They created a secondary stage for smaller performances that will also allow two shows to be rehearsed simultaneously.
âWe had a year to paint the walls, paint the ceilings, put on a stage here, hang the curtains,â Butts said. “We had a lot of time to do a lot of things and it was good because it would have been difficult to do it with a full season.”
He said that in a typical month, Magnolia spends between $ 800 and $ 900 on expenses, including utilities and insurance, just to stay open. Butts credits community support, as well as donations through a Go Fund Me account, for helping the nonprofit survive the pandemic.
But he considers the loss of talent over the past year to outweigh Magnolia’s financial losses.
âI lost a whole bunch of teenagers this year,â Butts said. âThey were juniors when this thing started. They were supposed to spend their junior and senior year with me in the theater, but they didn’t make it. Now a lot of them are in college. Many of them rose through the ranks, playing roles, seeking bigger roles. There was nothing to offer them last year. I feel a bit cheated by good actors.
Smiles and frowns
Susan McCrea, artistic director of Smiles and Frowns Playhouse, expressed a similar regret over the time lost for actors at the nonprofit theater company for elementary, middle and high school students.
âThey love each other,â she said. âWe have kids who have been through our program and have been doing it for a decade or more. “
Knowing that it would be nearly impossible for her to reunite the cast and crew from the March 2020 production of “Jungle Book” at a later date, it was especially difficult for McCrea to cancel the show. The production was in its final week of rehearsals when and other members of the Smiles and Frowns board learned that their 44-member cast, as well as the expected audience of 200-250, would exceed the news. state public assembly limits. After months of rehearsals, McCrea announced that the evening’s dress rehearsal will be the only time the play will be staged.
âThere was a lot of crying,â she recalls. “Heather Brimhall, who does our makeup, had to reapply a lot of faces because they screamed them out.”
After volunteers helped cast and crew take down the set, McCrea told the students she would see them again at Ayden’s Doug Mitchell Auditorium in the fall. But auditions for “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” did not take place in fall 2020. The show was postponed for a second time earlier this year.
âThe third time is the charm,â McCrea said in a telephone interview this week. âWe are doing it this fall.
In the meantime, the group, which turns 35 this year, has organized a reading theater in the park, as well as workshops for children, to keep its young actors active. Participants were masked and distanced to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
âThe interest is not waning,â McCrea said. âI heard from someone new every week. Parents were eager to find things to do for their children.
âWe need happy things to look forward to,â she said. “Probably as much as the kids are, I can’t wait to be back in the theater.”
Still, she doesn’t know how many students will be showing up for auditions in September. “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, which Smiles and Frowns hasn’t performed in decades, features wide distribution. While some community groups have chosen to return to the stage with shows featuring smaller actors, McCrea has decided to stay the course.
âBroadway is coming back. They bring back ‘Wicked’ and they bring back ‘Hamilton’, âshe said. âIf they bring back their full shows, I feel like I can do one. I can try anyway.
Ready to reopen
As âSpringsteen on Broadwayâ returned to the New York scene late last month, Broadway announced plans to reopen completely with shows such as âChicagoâ and âThe Lion Kingâ after Labor Day.
Magnolia’s Collice Moore said the return of community theater should generate excitement because that’s how most people experience live entertainment.
âNot everyone can afford to go to Broadway and bigger theaters,â he said. “But most people can drive and afford to go to community theaters.”
Whirligig’s Coale is hoping the patrons are as excited as the cast to return, but he believes the return to cinema may be slow.
âIt won’t be a switch, unfortunately,â he said. âI wish we could just say, ‘OK, now things are going well. Letâs come back to it.
âTheater companies are facing new challenges,â Coale said. âWe already exist with very, very tight budgets. People have gotten used to staying at home. They don’t like to be indoors with people. So it’s going to be a fight. “