Monday, May 10th, 2021

Shopper Client Stories


Local community theaters find new ways to keep the performing arts alive and well

by Rob Lauer

Sean Thompson and Lois Diggs in the Little Theatre of Norfolk’s production of Peter and the Starcatcher, presented this past January.

Sean Thompson and Lois Diggs in the Little Theatre of Norfolk’s production of Peter and the Starcatcher, presented this past January.

There is nothing quite like the energy one feels in the air as an audience takes their seats to await the start of a live performance. Whether it's a Broadway production, a play at a local high school or community theatre, a rock concert, or even the circus- gathering in a public space with others to watch a live performance inspires its own unique adrenaline rush.
That rush is more intense backstage. Technicians, stagehands, and performers prepare to take their places as the curtain rises and the show begins.
Because of COVID, all of this has temporarily ceased. Even Broadway- the world's mecca for live theatre- closed down this past winter for the first time in its 130-year history. Across the country, the thousands of locally-operated community theatres- non-profit organizations staffed and operated by volunteers- have also been forced to deal with the fallout of the pandemic. For the legions of volunteers who make community theatre possible, this has resulted in a literal lifestyle change. Actors, directors, choreographers, musicians, technicians, and designers typically volunteer 20 or more hours a week for two or three months at a time to bring a production to the stage. But these dedicated souls have dealt with the loss of one creative outlet by creating others. Nowhere is this more evident than in the community theatres across Hampton Roads.

"The performing arts
can play an important role
in bringing us all together."
                                       - Kay Burcher

"We had just opened our fourth show of the season when we got the notification from the governor that everything had to shut down," Kay Burcher, President of the Little Theatre of Virginia Beach, recalls. "We couldn't do our spring show or our summer show- which is usually our big cash maker. We had already announced our 2020- 21 shows in January but decided to put them on hold for a year. In the meantime, we decided to present a recorded show, Threads, written by local playwright Addie Corman and starring Ann Heywood. We posted one scene at a time on our website and on Facebook. People could watch the scenes for free- our hope being that they would make a donation."

"We will also be doing an online murder mystery as a ticketed Zoom event," Kay continues. "Come December, we hope to produce the radio play version of It's a Wonderful Life at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Because the museum is a larger venue than our theatre, we can seat more people there while maintaining social distancing."

In Norfolk, the Generic Theater has creatively embraced the use of digital technology and online social media. Not only did the Generic stream its production of A Chorus Line as a ticketed event on Vimeo this past summer, but the show was produced entirely online- from auditions through rehearsals to opening. "Actors submitted video auditions in late March," Director Shon M. Stacey explains. "After we cast the show, everyone rehearsed digitally on their own, and finally, we put it all together. Those who bought a ticket to the streaming on Vimeo could watch the show as many times as they wanted for 24 hours."

With the success of A Chorus Line, the Generic has planned a series of online events for the next six months.

"In September, we did Sing-a-long Sundays," Shon continues. "Anyone could join us via Zoom and perform a song. Toward the end of October, we'll stream Generic Ghost Stories. We'll start with kid-friendly stories in the early part of the evening, but once the kiddies are safely tucked in bed, we will get to stories that will have the grownups calling for their mommies and daddies. We're planning other events for November and December, with all of them leading up to streaming our production of the two-person musical The Last Five Years in January."

The Little Theatre of Norfolk is also expanding its online presence as a way of keeping performers and audiences connected and engaged in its work

"Since we closed in March, following the governor's orders, we have been offering virtual content," says Erin Matteson, who handles the theatre's marketing and publicity. "We've introduced an online Script Club. It's like a book club, but we read plays instead of scripts. The club meets weekly over Zoom."

"Ghostlight is LTN's first podcast," Erin continues. "It is available on popular streaming platforms like Spotify. Each podcast features a guest speaker talking about a particular aspect of theatre, such as stage combat. There's also a community segment where local talent may perform original music, comedy, or poetry."

In late October, the Little Theatre of Norfolk will host on Zoom the first in a series of monthly workshops. Actors will present a reading of the play #WhileBlack, followed by an online discussion.

"So far, our online content is free," Erin confirms. "The best way to follow us is on Facebook and on our website."

The Little Theatre of Norfolk also continues to plan for the future.

"Our play reading committee and artistic director are revamping our next season," Erin explains. "They are looking at public domain works and plays with small casts of one to eight actors. The plays considered would need the flexibility to be performed virtually via streaming instead of live, depending on safety precaution requirements."

Producing those productions ultimately depends on funding. While actors and stage crews donate their time and talents, it nevertheless costs tens of thousands of dollars annually for a community theatre to produce just a couple of shows.

"Seventy percent of our annual budget comes from ticket sales," Erin explains. "Because we have not been able to present shows this year and sell tickets, we are now relying on donations and grants."

Donations to the Little Theatre of Virginia Beach have been down by a third this year.

"We hope that will change," Kay Burcher says. "With people having been isolated for so long, the performing arts can play an important role in bringing us all together. Even if safety protocols prevent us from gathering in person, watching a play online, and knowing that others are also watching it at the same time strengthens our connections to each other. We need those connections now more than ever."