By Jim Reiter
Colonial Players, the all-volunteer community theater that has been entertaining Annapolis for more than 70 years, welcomed a live audience this weekend for the first time since COVID-19 shut down operations more than a year ago.
The reopening is limited, with only 30 to 45 of the theater’s 180 seats being sold for Maytag Virgin, by local playwright Audrey Cefaly, which will run for two more weekends. The normal in-the-round stage has been reconfigured to ensure distancing between the two-person cast and the audience, masking will be enforced, and a host of changes were made to the East Street building’s heating and air conditioning system to improve ventilation and safety.
Colonial Players is offering streaming for Maytag Virgin and will continue the option for subsequent productions, but, says President Steve Tobin, “There is something about the ‘feedback-loop’ that occurs between performer and audience member [in person] that cannot be reproduced by a camera.”
Tobin says the theater’s leaders began thinking about how to reopen almost as soon as the shutdown began. The theater sent questionnaires to its members, volunteers, and subscribers to gauge their thoughts on how and when to reopen the doors. “We participated in countless roundtables, workshops, and discussion groups at the local and national levels to see what needed to be done to keep everyone safe at the theater—audience, performers, crew, ushers, box office, and volunteers.”
The fact that Colonial Players owns its building on East Street, as well as a separate rehearsal and storage space, gave the company flexibility in making improvements, says
Wes Bedsworth, operations and technical director. But owning comes at a price, too.
“The expenses of owning don’t stop just because performances and income stop,” Bedsworth says. “Electricity, gas, water, fire alarm monitoring, insurance, taxes—none of those went down.”
Utilizing grant funding offered to arts organizations during the pandemic, Colonial considered the improvements made to its air filtration system a long-term investment. “The new system creates an ion flow that kills all viruses, not just coronavirus,” Bedsworth says. A professional cleaning company comes in before each performance weekend to perform an anti-viral fog treatment.
Edd Miller, who directs Maytag Virgin, says, “It’s been a challenge to prepare a cast when you don’t know the opening date. It was only going to be streamed, then it was to open in February, then in March … we were adjusting as we went. The advantage was we had time to dig deeper into the nuances of the play and the characters’ back stories.”
Restrictions meant no more than five people at a rehearsal, all masked, with the two-person cast wearing clear plastic shields. “It’s hard to direct or act intimate moments without seeing each other’s faces,” says Miller. And while the new stage configuration means new artistic challenges, “it does guarantee that the unmasked cast and the masked audience are separated safely.”
“Theater is a collaborative form and the audience is a part of that collaboration,” says Miller. “A laugh, or even silence during a tender moment, is equally meaningful. We’re all looking forward to the energy and feedback an audience will bring.”
Ben Carr, who co-stars in Maytag Virgin with Laura Gayvert, says, “The energy that an audience brings to a show has the ability to completely transform a production. Plays are written to be performed live and there is no substitute for the real thing.”
“Many theaters have made wonderful strides using virtual platforms, but there is something about the shared space and experience of both the performers and the audience that is extraordinary,” says Gayvert. Maytag Virgin, she added, “is a beautiful, funny, heart-breaking, life-affirming play about trusting the person next to you, about survival. I can’t imagine a better show with which to begin again.”
Jim Reiter was lucky enough to catch an early performance of Maytag Virgin and reviews it in the return of our Playgoer Column, PAGE TK.
An update on other theaters:
2nd Star Productions and Bowie Community Theater both await word from the City of Bowie on when the Bowie Playhouse will open and under what restrictions.
Annapolis Shakespeare Company plans to welcome audiences back this summer for Servant of Two Masters in the Reynolds Tavern courtyard, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Historic London Town’s Gresham Estate. Cabaret and main stage offerings are available on demand, and a monthly jazz night is open to audiences at the West Street location.
Annapolis Summer Garden Theater has canceled this summer’s season.
Children’s Theater of Annapolis opened to a limited audience the first weekend of March; next is Disney’s Frozen Jr. in June.
Compass Rose Theater’s activities are canceled until further notice.
Twin Beach Players plans to return to in-person performances in October with a production of Frankenstein. Virtual productions continue for the summer teen show and the 16th Annual Kids Playwriting Festival.