Theaters Enter Season with Plenty of Drama

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – “The show must go on” is the rallying cry that embodies the spirit of theater. 

With that in mind, some local community theaters are back in production mode despite the pandemic.

All live-event venues in Ohio were forced to close in March to comply with the governor’s orders. While virtual shows have since become the norm, the return of live theater will begin before the end of this year and gain steam in 2021.

The Youngstown Playhouse decided in June to remain dark through the end of the year. But it has put together a full season of live productions for calendar year 2021 – COVID willing.

It will begin in May with “The Color Purple” and end in December 2021 with “Elf, the Musical.”

The Playhouse’s year will also include “Marjorie Prime” in July in the Moyer Room; the musical “The Producers” in September; and “The Gone Away Place,” adapted from the novel by Youngstown State University professor Christopher Barzak, in October.

The Playhouse obtained federal Paycheck Protection Program funding that allowed it to keep its staff working for a few months, but it has since run out, and all permanent employees are on furlough, says John Cox, president of the board of directors.

But while the theater has been quiet, the board has been busy.

“Calling off the season early was a strategy,” Cox says. “We wanted to use the down time to revamp and restructure the business end.”

The Playhouse has seen its fortunes rise in recent years, with blockbuster shows such as last year’s “Dreamgirls,” which had a total attendance of 3,200. For the 2019-20 season, the theater netted over $130,000 in ticket sales plus $122,000 in donations.

 “Everything has been getting better and better the last few years and I want to take it to another level by streamlining operations and fixing what we weren’t doing properly,” Cox says. “We’re using this time to grow internally.”

Toward that end, the board hired Kayla Boye as development director on a temporary basis, although the position might be extended.

“We had a grant to [fund the position] until December but it’s growing beyond that,” Cox says. “I’m pleased with how it’s been going.”

The board has also redefined job definitions as it implements changes and is considering hiring a part-time financial manager to handle all bookkeeping.

Cox said the Playhouse will do fewer shows each year. “We’ve been doing too many,” he says. The Playhouse had nine adult and youth theater productions scheduled for the 2019-20 season.

The Playhouse has enough cash to get through February while staying dark. “We had put money aside as a nest egg,” Cox says. “We’re going to be OK.”

A community support drive will begin this week, with brochures and letters going out to theatergoers.

The Playhouse is also considering an outdoor musical revue or concert in the coming months as a fundraiser, Cox says.

It’s also mulling a virtual production of “Frankie and Johnny.”  “We’re trying to figure out the royalties, and if it would be worth it,” Cox says.

The Playhouse is also using the down time for physical improvements. Work will begin soon to remortar the exterior cinder block walls, apply fresh stucco to the front facade, and paint the entire outside of the structure.

Due to the pandemic, all theaters are limited to 15% of their venue’s seating capacity. It’s a deal-breaker for just about all, because those numbers make it impossible to cover expenses.

But it raises the possibility of a small theater renting a bigger auditorium.

The Playhouse can hold about 400 on its main level and at least a hundred more in its balcony, making it the area’s largest house and also a rental option – and that is exactly what will happen.

Rust Belt Theater Co. will move its annual holiday musical, “How the Drag Queen Stole Christmas,” to the Youngstown Playhouse for eight weekend performances in December.

“Even with 15% of capacity we still have a little more [capacity] than they could normally do,” Cox says.

The shows will be at 8 p.m. Dec. 4, 5, 11, 12, 18 and 19, with additional midnight shows Dec. 12 and 19.

Rust Belt does not have to worry about obtaining purchasing performance rights for plays because the theater only performs works it has written and composed.

Robert Dennick Joki, director and founder of Rust Belt, wrote “Drag Queen” and almost every other show in the troupe’s repertoire.

These include “Living Dead: the Musical.” Rehearsals are already under way for a production of the raucous Halloween show, which is being directed by Josh Fleming.

Tentative plans call for filming a performance of “Living Dead” and releasing it in some format to the public, Fleming says.

In a similar position is Stage Left Players in Lisbon.

Artistic director Kandace Cleland had to close the smallish venue in March but she returned to action on Sept. 13 with a youth production of her original musical, “Hey, Little Red!” Cleland wrote and owns the rights to the show, which was filmed and then screened in the parking lot of United Local High School in Hanoverton.

A large LED screen was brought in for the drive-in event, which was broadcast so attendees can listen on their car radios.

The idea came up in July when Cleland was teaching her show at a musical theater summer camp for youths. “One of my staff said ‘why don’t we do it like a drive-in with a big LED screen,’ ” she says. “He was joking but I said, ‘Wait, I know someone who has an LED screen.’ ”

The young cast filmed their scenes from their homes with cell phones and Cleland and her technical staff put it together.

Cleland plans to tape performances of other shows she has written and owns. “It’s a huge survival mechanism for us,” she says.

Stage Left is having no problem weathering the shutdown. An earlier virtual production of the topical comedy “10 Ways to Survive Life in a Quarantine” raised $2,230.

The theater also received an Ohio arts grant that is helping with expenses.

“It costs about $1,047 a month to maintain our building, although we got it down to $1,000 [by trimming expenses],” Cleland says.

More saving came from moving its large collection of props and costumes from a rented storage unit to a supporter’s home.

Cleland also is preparing a virtual production of “Sherwood: The Adventures of Robin Hood” that would use large puppets and actors for certain scenes where social distancing would be a problem. It will be offered Nov. 6-8 and 13-15, at 7 p.m. each night.

“Our motto is, ‘Online until onstage,’ ” Cleland says.

Other virtual productions written by Cleland and musical director Jodine Pilmer slated for the fall include “Wake Up, Aurora,” Oct. 24 at 7 p.m.; and four holiday musicals (“Jingle My Bell I and II,” “Christmas at Mamaw Jo’s Stop-N-Go” and “It’s Christmas, Carol!”), which will be available via video links beginning Nov. 20.

The Hopewell Theatre in Youngstown is planning to do a virtual production this fall, but has not yet settled on a title, says Regina Rees, president of the board of directors.

Financially, the 70-seat theater “is hanging in there,” she says.

“There is no air conditioning running, so big savings there,” Rees says. “We’re using this time to clean the place up, fix it up and get rid of excess stuff.”

A socially-distanced yard sale of furniture, props and other items the theater no longer needs is being planned as a fundraiser. A date has not yet been set.

“We were once the Victorian Players, and we have Victorian sofas, a lot of antique chairs and tables, odds and ends, probably some costumes and bric a brac,” Rees says.

The Hopewell is also using this down time to move forward on its handicapped accessibility project.

“There will be a new entrance with a chair lift,” Rees says. “After that we have to put in an accessible restroom.”

Salem Community Theatre is not doing any virtual shows, but it is working toward a live production of an original comedy being written by board member Dan Haueter.

“This would be a fundraiser,” says Karen Losito, director of the theater. “It’s in discussion. Even if we can put 50 people in our auditorium, that would at least pay for some utility bills this winter.”

Salem launched a GoFundMe account when the shutdown started. “We did very well,” Losito says. “Our insurance bills are costly for this building. Thanks to the wonderful people who donated, we could pay the electric and gas bills. But like everyone else, we are waiting it out and praying we can make enough to get through this.”

Trumbull New Theatre in Niles also had success with a GoFundMe account, said director Melanie Lucas.

The theater canceled its September production of “Clue” and is exploring options for presenting “Wait Until Dark” in November by renting a larger venue – possible the Robins Theatre in Warren.

“It’s still up in the air,” Lucas says.

Trumbull New Theatre is also considering a virtual show after November “but we don’t believe it will reach a lot of our regular audience, which has many senior citizens,” Lucas said.

The Millennial Theatre Co. was set to launch its season in the Robins Theatre, which reopened in January after a complete renovation.

But that will have to wait until next year because the theater decided in May to scrap its 2020 season.

Pictured: Stage Left Players got creative during the pandemic. It has been screening filmed versions of youth theater productions on a giant LED screen, with guests sitting in their cars and listening on their radio.