Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre opened the charming musical dramedy Church Basement Ladies on March 5, 2020, and enjoyed positive reviews and strong ticket sales. But before the show could finish its two-week run in Mars Hill University’s Owen Theatre, the COVID-19 pandemic prompted Chelsey Lee Gaddy, SART’s senior artistic director, to halt production — a pause that she and her colleagues figured was merely temporary.
“I just thought, ‘Oh, we’ll get to do a second weekend in a few weeks,” Gaddy says. “We had no idea that it was going to inflate to this giant pandemic.”
Over 13 months later, and after numerous virtual offerings, SART resumes live, in-person, indoor theater with the musical The Last Five Years, which opens Thursday, June 17. The show features a cast of two characters who only interact once, plus six crew members, several of whom are taking on multiple behind-the-scenes roles. That scaled-back approach will remain consistent across SART’s 2021 season, which subsequently spans the comedy First Date in mid-July to dual December presentations A Southern Appalachian Christmas and A Christmas Carol.
“I just played it really safe with choosing our season,” Gaddy says. “We also selected shows that had streaming rights, so if the pandemic had reared its ugly head again, we had a plan to still bring virtual productions.”
For now, patrons are also required to follow SART safety measures. Masks are mandatory, regardless of vaccination status. The company will also conduct temperature checks at the door. But despite these initial precautions, SART leadership is confident its fully vaccinated staff will welcome back a full house soon. [Editor’s note: SART announced on June 10 that patrons who are fully vaccinated are no longer required to wear masks inside Owen Theatre, which will be operating at 100% capacity.]
“In a perfect world, the hope is that by the winter, we will all be enjoying Christmas together in the theater,” says J. Ethan Henry, SART’s managing artistic director. “As trends are going in the right directions, people are getting vaccinated and we’re all doing what we have to do to help each other, I think the theater industry is going to come back even stronger than it was prior to the pandemic.”
Helping encourage that outcome are other area theater companies, each of whose staffs are likewise adjusting to the novel challenges of planning a season during a pandemic.
Haywood Arts Regional Theatre in Waynesville has been producing smaller shows at its secondary location, the Fangmeyer Theater, since late March. Executive Director Steve Lloyd notes that the venue’s flat floor allows for tables to be spaced out in a responsible manner and its 50-person capacity has been met on almost every performance of the Cole Porter revue, Love, Linda, and the George Burns play Say Goodnight, Gracie.
With those encouraging practice runs complete and statewide indoor venue restrictions lifted, HART returns to its main stage on Saturday, June 12, for Sister Act Jr., which runs for two weeks. Attendance will be at full capacity, and masks are optional.
For the rest of the year, the company will host its intended 2020 season, with the exception of The Music Man, which Lloyd says would have had to be cast and in rehearsals at the beginning of May. With no guarantee that North Carolina guidelines would allow for 40 singers on stage at once by early summer, Lloyd pivoted to the George Gershwin revue, ’S Wonderful, which opens Friday, July 9, and requires far less rehearsal time and fewer people.
Additional programming includes Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (Aug. 27-Sept. 19), The Diary of Anne Frank (Sept. 24-Oct. 10) and Harvey (Oct. 15-24), each of which Lloyd feels will prove popular with area theatergoers.
“Over the course of the past month, as we’ve been doing performances and having our patrons come back, they have been just so unbelievably happy to be in the theater and to see that we’re still here and still going forward,” he says. “I think the arts in general and live events across the board are going to have a blockbuster year because people are so tired of being cooped up and so tired of Zoom and watching things on screens.”
Meanwhile, Asheville Community Theatre has taken down the plywood panels from its windows and is getting back to business with a four-show main stage season, slated to begin in October. The first production will be Clue — the stage show, not the musical — with four weekends of adult casts. For the last two weekends of the month, the set will also be used for the youth production Clue Jr., one of several ways that ACT seeks to maximize time and resources as it gets back into its groove.
As will be the case for the sci-fi/comedy Fight Girl Battle World (February/March 2022), the adaptation of Lois Lowry’s young adult novel The Giver (May/June 2022) and a musical slated for summer 2022, marketing director Jenny Bunn says each show will be double cast. Instead of having understudies who may never get a chance to perform before an audience, all four shows — none of which have casts larger than 10 people — will have separate rotating casts on the stage for two weekends apiece, under the guidance of the same director. In turn, nearly as many people as usually participate in an ACT production can be involved while limiting the amount of human interaction.
“It’s been interesting to think through the types of shows that we think are safe for us to produce in terms of COVID and that are still hopefully interesting for our community to be a part of and to come and see,” Bunn says.
During the handful of open weekends on the main stage between productions, ACT plans to pull in the curtains and offer content that would typically play in its 35below black-box theater — which has no targeted opening date — including Autumn Players Readers’ Theatre Showcases. Bunn adds that the management team would also love to realize ideas it devised during the pandemic but couldn’t implement. Among the possibilities are collaborations with Grail Moviehouse to project rarely seen movie musicals and a guest curation series where local artists select a film that influenced them and engage in a post-screening discussion about its impact with the audience.
“The silver lining of COVID has been we had to do things that we’d never done before. That was our only choice, basically,” Bunn says. “We’re trying to keep some of that creativity and enthusiasm and thinking outside of what a community theater has been and what a community theater can be and should be.”