Playhouse In The Park Returns To A Different Stage Amid The Pandemic
After months of an empty stage, a community theatre in Murray is nearing the end of a season full of changes and challenges.
Last Thursday, Playhouse in the Park opened their first showing of ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.’ Patrons wearing masks carried lawn chairs and fanned out six feet apart in front of Murray’s Rotary Amphitheater.
After months of the community theatre's shutdown, show-goers said they were glad to be back. Regular patrons Robin and Terry Holmes said they’ve always enjoyed community theatre and that it keeps the community together. Lindsey Harlan is a Playhouse In The Park volunteer and said the theatre is a “great center of art” in town. She didn’t work on ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,’ but said she was excited to watch as a spectator.
“A lot of people pour their heart and soul into it. And it’s really fun to see the talent and the drive and the different personalities that come together to make Playhouse work,” Harlan said.
But earlier this year when the pandemic began its spread across the U.S., Playhouse In The Park’s return to the stage wasn’t so certain. Director Lisa Cope said she spent many restless nights thinking about the theatre’s future.
“Many weeks I didn’t sleep very much because I would just lay awake every night and think, ‘I don’t think we’re going to make it.’ You can tell I get really emotional still about that,” she said while wiping tears from her face.
Cope said the theatre was able to survive because of community support. She said they received permission to perform in mid-August -- but there were guidelines. Instead of performing in the Playhouse In The Park’s “black box theatre,” they moved outdoors to the Rotary Amphitheater. The casts had to be smaller and the sets minimized. Most shows this season had two to five performers, but ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ is their largest in the amphitheater series, featuring 12 cast members.
Cope said one of things that’s been challenging for directors is distancing the performers. Cast members rehearse in masks and wear them right up until they go onstage--but they don’t perform in them. Cope said the performers in ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ are all onstage at different times.
“I have a friend who runs a theater up in Lincoln, Nebraska and he said, ‘Our business plan is to put as many people as we can into a room and then we breathe all over each other.’ So now we have to rethink that,” she said.
Cope said the amphitheater stage is roughly 20 feet from where the closest patrons are seated, and with social distancing the venue can hold up to 75 show-goers.
“We’ve tried to be smart and be safe and to do it the right way because we feel like this probably is the new normal for a while,” she said.
There’s also the financial issue. Cope said this season Playhouse In The Park had “zero budget.” She said they had to get creative to bring the shows to the stage. Costumes and props were recycled and reworked. Cope said many of the props for ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,’ including a tree and some gravestones, were sourced from a past ‘Addam’s Family’ show. She said everyone involved with the community theatre except for herself is a volunteer.
Justin Cunnigham works with sound, set creation and props and has also co-directed. He said he got involved with Playhouse In The Park because he wanted to expose his 8-year-old daughter to the arts.
“So this gives an outlet for me to introduce my daughter to things she may not see otherwise,” he said.
Cunningham said Playhouse In The Park is a community that supports each other.
“I actually lost my mom a few months ago and this was a way for me to kind of pour myself into something and have that creative outlet to deal with my emotions. But more than that it was the support of the people here, that group of volunteers, who are more like family.”
Cunningham said changing venues created new challenges. While they would only need one lightboard at the black box theatre, they’re operating three at the amphitheater.
“There are a lot of unexpected changes as the show kind of builds up,” he said. “And it’s definitely been an adventure trying to make those things happen in a whole new place with maybe non-conventional methods.”
Cunningham said the pandemic has caused them to try new things -- like moving their children’s summer camp virtual -- andform new relationships -- like partnering with Murray Rotary Club to use the amphitheater. He said the future of the theatre may look different but he’s excited and hopes to offer theater to more people at a time.
Cunningham also had a final message for anyone interested in joining the “family.”
“There’s a place for everyone at Playhouse.”
Scottlynn Ballard contributed to this story.
Playhouse In The Park is an underwriter for WKMS. News staff reporters Liam Niemeyer and Dalton York are volunteers at the theatre.