Local theaters surge ahead, wondering what next season looks like in new normal 

Published 9:05 pm Wednesday, May 27, 2020

As guidelines are still being developed by the governor’s office on how to safely reopen theaters to audiences in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, local venues are waiting to see what it all means for their next season. And some are looking at creative new ways to make sure they keep those audiences engaged, and hopefully anxiously awaiting for shows to return.


Readers theater and radio plays 

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West T. Hill Community Theatre’s managing director says everything left in its past season “is gone” due to the social distancing restrictions. “We’re still waiting to find out what we’re actually going to be permitted to do,” Karen Logue said.

WTH’s season runs September to September. The theater was able to get about two-thirds of the way through its current season, but the incredibly popular Shamrock IV Summer Camp had to be canceled, which Logue admitted she was heartbroken about.

Instructors from an Irish performing arts school have been coming over for years to host the performance camp. “That has been a big, big hit, to let go of that,” Logue said about Shamrock, which brings in half of the non-profit theater’s budget annually.

Plus, Logue was due to make the trip to Ireland this year, spend some time then return with the instructors, which was really hard to realize, with all the planning that took place.

But, she said, WTH has decided to view this as some downtime to be more inventive. “We are coming up with some things, creative juices are starting to flow,” Logue said, like the planned upcoming table reads, to be streamed live on Facebook.

Local playwright Liz Orndorff will write another “Hollerwood” installment for the theater to produce, focusing on how the coronavirus affects the small, fictitious town of Random, Kentucky.

“We’ll read what she gives us and we’ll have the original characters there, reading them weekly, in character,” Logue said. “It will be like a hilarious soap opera.”

Logue said they also plan to create a silent auction, where members of the public can vye to have their name written into the play as a character.

“We’re calling this a season of R&R, meaning readers theater and radio plays,” she said. “Because no matter what happens, we can always do those.” Logue said with radio plays — which are l produced on stage as an old-fashioned radio broadcast — the casts are smaller, which will help if they can only have 50 people in the theater.

WTH’s patron drive also happens in September. “Hopefully patrons will come through, as they always do, for us.”

“Financially, it’s going to be tough. There were times I wasn’t sure, but we’re gone 40 years now. Surely we can sit out this one year,” and be OK, Logue said.

The theater’s website is westthill.net.


Scarlet Cup hopes to be at distillery 


Playwright Orndorff also heads up Scarlet Cup Theater, offering a periodic pop-up production in uncommon venues. An Irish drama/comedy was to open Oct. 29 in Wilderness Trail Distillery’s visitor center, which is the perfect location, Orndorff said: it’s all set inside an Irish bar.

“We’d start rehearsing in September. We might put it off, there’s just no telling now,” Orndorff said, but there are only three characters in the piece, which is easily controlled where social distancing is concerned.

But Orndorff is still trying to cast a male in their mid to late 20s who can do an Irish accent. “It’s difficult. I can’t say, ‘Would you like to maybe …’” until she knows more about what the guidelines will set.

“We have to be able to sell at least 40 tickets, or it won’t pay for the play.”

To keep up with when tickets go on sale, check danvillearts.org/scarlet-cup.


Engaging with blogs and Zoom calls  


Norton Center for the Arts is also on a September timeline to start its season. Executive Director Steve Hoffman said they’ve spent a lot of time looking at different plans from other performing arts centers “to help guide us for when we need to submit a proposal” to reopen.

In the meantime, Hoffman said they are focusing on offering some engagement opportunities, not only for patrons but anyone who’s interested. They began a new blog post, titled “Great Stories,” with some featuring interviews with student workers, and current and past employees, for example.

“I posted one talking about blockbuster events, what have you been able to check off your bucket list at the Norton Center.” Hoffman then paired that with a Zoom call, which included local musician Travis Kern playing a tune at the beginning and end, with several who dialed in to observe and send motivation, while others participated by telling stories about shows.

“We had close to 50 people on the call .. It was very warming to see so many people.”

As of now, Hoffman said Norton is following the same guidelines applied for churches or any public event; the rule of thumb is one-third of capacity. He’s not sure exactly what this will look like, if still in place by September. It’s premature, he said, but they would probably “put groups who are social distancing together, like family members …” then space them apart from other audience members.

Hoffman said hopefully the guidelines will have moved further along by then. “Our goal from the beginning has been let’s set it up like business as normal, then as we start seeing changes occur, we’ll respond accordingly.”

Broadway productions in New York City won’t be opening up for many months, he said, so the national climate for touring productions is slowing down, regardless of the venue. “How can a touring show even be put together so that they can be rehearsing, building sets, casting or recasting,” not to mention, Hoffman said, on buses and in hotels together.

But, he said, “Locally, we’re going to see theater companies be able to be creative and do things that the national touring companies won’t be able to do. So I would say, if we can’t provide Broadway, look for other options, as we’ve got some great partners in the community.”

Hoffman said if anything, the pandemic has shown that the arts really are a vital role in many people’s lives, and brings them together. “ …our pulse has been that people in our region are ready to get back to attending arts events, museums … And that’s what the arts are all about — bringing people together, in happy and adverse times. We really want that to happen.”

Blog posts and other interactive events can be found at nortoncenter.com, or on the Norton Center for the Arts Facebook page.


Tough year, but moving forward 


Kentucky’s oldest outdoor theater said it will begin its season on July 31. At first, they thought they’d be able to delay the season by two weeks, said Robby Henson, artistic director for Pioneer Playhouse.  “But based on Gov. Andy Beshear’s guidelines, we made the tough decision to shorten our season even more.”

Heather Henson, managing director, said it breaks their hearts to have to offer an “abbreviated summer schedule,” but it was the only choice to make. “Our patrons are like family to us. We didn’t want to put anyone at risk.”

The Hensons said for anyone who has already purchased tickets, refunds are available. However they can also use them for the first offering, “Maybe Baby, It’s You;” they can roll them over to the 2021 season; or they can donate 2020 tickets and patron’s passes back to the playhouse.

“This is an incredibly tough year for us,” Robby Henson said. “For theaters everywhere.” He said donating tickets will help the non-profit playhouse continue to bring a unique theater experience to the state, as they move into the future.

The comedy weekend, which closes the season, is planned for Aug. 21-22, and will feature Lee Cruse and his KY All-Stars Comedy Tour.

The playhouse’s barbecue dinner is still offered before each production, with limited seating.

As for what was planned of the 2020 season, Heather Henson said, “It was a terrific group of plays .. But we’ll put those on hold till next year.”

To purchase tickets, make exchanges or refunds, or to donate tickets, email pioneerplayhouse@att.net, or write to Pioneer Playhouse, 840 Stanford Road, Danville, KY 40422.