The show doesn’t go on: Community theaters cancel shows and face uncertain future

Dayton Playhouse’s production of “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” which opened March 6, only performed one weekend in response to COVID-19. CONTRIBUTED/ART FABIAN
Dayton Playhouse’s production of “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” which opened March 6, only performed one weekend in response to COVID-19. CONTRIBUTED/ART FABIAN

Community theaters grapple with present, future during pandemic

The Dayton Playhouse can’t catch a break.

One year ago, the organization that has entertained Miami Valley theatergoers for more than 60 years made national headlines for having the rights to Christopher Sergel’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” pulled from them by mega-producer Scott Rudin, who held the rights to his current hit Broadway production of Lee’s iconic tale adapted by Aaron Sorkin.

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In a remarkable move and bearing the brunt of controversy, Rudin ultimately gave the Playhouse permission to stage Sorkin’s excellent adaptation last fall. However, the troupe suffered another blow March 12 when Gov. Mike DeWine gave an executive order banning large gatherings of 100 or more people in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

As the financial and social impact of COVID-19 looms large within the local arts community, the all-volunteer dedication fueling the lifeblood of community theater is of particular importance. Actors, directors, designers, set builders, technicians, musicians, box-office managers, and more are not paid staff. Instead, they willingly serve out of a genuine love of theater, the gratitude it produces onstage and the camaraderie it produces offstage.

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A theatrical ghost light illuminates the Dayton Playhouse stage. The Playhouse has canceled the remainder of its season due to the coronavirus outbreak. CONTRIBUTED/TINA MCPHEARSON
A theatrical ghost light illuminates the Dayton Playhouse stage. The Playhouse has canceled the remainder of its season due to the coronavirus outbreak. CONTRIBUTED/TINA MCPHEARSON

In the case of the Playhouse’s recent production of “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” six weeks of rehearsal evolved into a well-received opening weekend. Because of the pandemic, the second weekend was canceled. The Playhouse has since canceled the rest of its season, including a “Miscast Cabaret” fundraiser and the musical “Jekyll and Hyde.”

“The sad truth is the Dayton Playhouse has developed some experience in the area of canceling productions,” said Board Chair Matt Lindsay, who starred as Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” “That said, it’s never easy. The Dayton Playhouse always has something in production or rehearsal or partner companies using our stage such as Young at Heart Players or Vandalia Youth Theatre, but now we really are dark.

“Some of our volunteers are using the time to deep clean the storage building, costume lofts and workshop. Our (cancellation) of ‘Miscast Cabaret’ represents another financial loss for the organization as well as a lost opportunity to build and strengthen the Dayton Playhouse community.”

“It’s always tough to rehearse a show and not be able to perform it,” said Saul Caplan, who starred as radio personality Sheridan Whiteside in “The Man Who Came to Dinner.”

“We were luckier than a lot of other theaters. We got to do one of our two weekends. We had large responsive audiences and I think we all felt good about what we had done. It’s much worse for the shows that had their plugs pulled before they even opened; all that work and no payoff. You can’t even list the role on your resume. I’ve been through that and it can be devastating. My heart goes out to all my friends who were caught up in this.”

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Director Kathy Mola (far left) and the cast of Dayton Theatre Guild’s production of “Morning’s at Seven.” The production closed before opening night due to the coronavirus outbreak. CONTRIBUTED
Director Kathy Mola (far left) and the cast of Dayton Theatre Guild’s production of “Morning’s at Seven.” The production closed before opening night due to the coronavirus outbreak. CONTRIBUTED

‘Morning’ didn’t rise

The Dayton Theatre Guild’s 75th anniversary season was supposed to continue with “Morning’s at Seven” March 20-April 5 but the production closed before opening night. The decision persuaded the Guild, whose supportive base consists of senior citizens considered at risk during this pandemic, to cancel the remainder of its season, including the local premiere of “The Old Man and The Old Moon.”

“There are so many considerations and facets of this pandemic to take into account,” said director Kathy Mola. “The emotional toll on a group of actors who have worked tirelessly for six weeks to create a beautiful piece of art, an ensemble of characters you want the theater community to experience. The production team who created gorgeous 1920s sets, costumes and props along with sound and lighting design. To have it all ready to go and then pull the plug is heartbreaking, to say the least.

“But as a director and Guild board member, this leaves you no choice but to consider the health and welfare of your cast, crew and patrons. You think about the financial cost to your theater in sets, costumes, etc., already spent and never to be recouped. This time of year is when we kick off our season ticket sales for next season. We are not only losing revenue for ‘Morning’s at Seven’ but our extended revenue to take us into next season. It is all devastating but it is up to all of us to do what we need to do for the foreseeable future.”

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The ‘Waiting’ game

The ripple effect of cancellations and postponements can be felt throughout the area. Beavercreek Community Theatre canceled its production of the contemporary musical “If/Then” in order to produce the postponed Terrence McNally comedy “It’s Only a Play” June 12-21. BCT hopes to stage “If/Then” in a future season.

“Obviously this will hurt us financially as it will so many other theaters and businesses in the community but our utmost concern at this point is the health of our members, cast, crew, patrons, and community in general,” said BCT President Doug Lloyd. “We are saddened as everyone else is that we are in this situation but understand we all have to work together to get through it.”

In the basement of First Lutheran Church in downtown Dayton, Undercroft Players are in a holding pattern. According to Undercroft founder Teresa Connair, the company has suspended rehearsals for its April 23-26 production of “A Thirties Affair” but were able to hold enough rehearsals to secure a good groundwork, block the entire show and do character development.

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“We are waiting to see where things stand once we get to April,” Connair said. “I know everyone is struggling at this time and I think the worst part of it for many is the uncertainty of ‘how long.’ Planning well into the future is what all theater companies have to do. We are all working a year and a half or more in advance in order to plan our next seasons, which involves reserving and sometimes paying for rights to shows a year in advance. So, if we have to work something out with the publishing company to either push the dates, get a credit toward a future production, or get a refund for the rights that’s what we’ll do. … But life is life and in order for us all to continue to enjoy life we must be sensible and safe.”

The 20th anniversary of senior-themed Young at Heart Players is in the works at the Dayton Playhouse this spring with a production of “Waiting in the Wings” but the festivities may be on hold. A final decision will happen by mid-April.

“I founded the group in April 2000,” said Fran Pesch. “For a year, we held theater games and performed for groups. In June 2001, we produced ‘Waiting in the Wings’ at the Dayton Playhouse. We had already begun reaching out to actors about the (upcoming production). Now, it seems as though we will have to cancel in June and possibly in November.

“This crisis is frightening and we have lost control over a lot in our lives. I feel sorry for my grandkids, the high school and college seniors, etc. who missed those rite of passage events that memories are made of. I worry about all those people who are without employment. I don’t believe there will be a lasting negative effect on community theaters. Income will be lost but community theaters will be back as soon as the bans are lifted.”

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A staged reading of “Fall with Me” by Jared Eberlein took top prize at FutureFest 2019. CONTRIBUTED
A staged reading of “Fall with Me” by Jared Eberlein took top prize at FutureFest 2019. CONTRIBUTED

Fate of FutureFest

One of the Dayton Playhouse’s signature events is its FutureFest of new works, a nationally recognized program co-founded by John Riley and Dodie Lockwood encouraging the growth of emerging playwrights from across the country.

Presenting six previously unproduced plays over the course of three days and professionally adjudicated, the festival is best known for producing Beau Willimon’s splendid political drama “Farragut North.” The play took top honors in 2005 and was adapted in Academy Award-nominated fashion by Willimon and George Clooney in 2011 as “The Ides of March.” Willimon would go on to develop and become showrunner of Netflix’s “House of Cards.”

Presently, the Playhouse anticipates celebrating its 30th annual FutureFest July 17-19. In fact, the 12 semi-finalists will be reduced to six finalists next month.

“The Playhouse board of directors will reassess national and state advisories, guidance and orders in mid-April and consider if adjustments to the festival date are warranted,” Lindsay said. “From that time forward we will continuously monitor such information with an eye toward FutureFest. Obviously, under the current rules in Ohio, the festival cannot proceed. We remain hopeful that broad public adherence to the rules will prove a success and will help Ohio emerge from the situation in time for summer.”

As the Playhouse joins others in the arts community navigating unclear terrain in response to COVID-19, Lindsay takes comfort in knowing the troupe is not alone.

“We’re no different from any other organization that is facing this scary time,” he said. “We just don’t know when things start to move back toward normal, what the new normal will be, and what we and the community around us will look like once this is over. It is hard to just sit and wait without answers.”

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