Community Players to offer online performances

What is a community theater group to do when there’s no stage available and it’s unsafe to gather an audience or cast because of a global pandemic?

As they say in the circus world, the show must go on.

“Our patrons and audiences have been wonderful,” said Sharon Benchoff, lighting designer and current president of Community Players of Salisbury.

“They are contributing their ticket purchases and annual donations to Players by not requesting refunds for cancelled shows. Because our audience members are so important to us, I wanted them to play a role in our decision-making,” she said.

Benchoff is scheduled to direct “Jesus Christ Superstar” in June 2021.

Struggling to find ways to keep in touch, Benchoff created a survey that was sent to a few hundred supporters to secure their feedback on how to safely re-open and what kind of events they would be interested in seeing. She also sent a survey to 80 performers to find out what Players could do to make them feel comfortable in rehearsals.

“First and foremost,” she said, “we will follow all of the regulations implemented by Gov. Hogan to keep everyone safe. I’m excited about what we have coming in the near future. Some of my generation, for example, may recall going to a drive-in theater every weekend during warm weather. Well, it’s coming back.”

In September, Community Players will offer safe live performances. Weekends on the Lawn will offer reader’s theater performances broadcast on FM radio via a transmitter that was purchased to enable audiences to listen via their car radios.

“We will have no more than two actors on stage – at least 8 feet apart, but without masks,” said Benchoff. “There are imaginative and entertaining scripts specifically designed for this. They will go back to wearing masks as they leave the stage.”

“Thanks to the efforts of dedicated and talented folks, we are doing some interesting things,” said Darrell Mullins, immediate past president of Players and SU Professor of Communications. Mullins is heading up a subcommittee that’s searching for ways to get Players’ current season on stage. “We have also begun a regular series of Trivia Tuesdays twice a month, in which teams of four sit at large tables (for social distancing) and compete in trivia based on such categories as ‘Broadway,’ ‘Movies,’ ‘Television,’ and ‘Actors/Actresses.’ There is a nominal fee to participate. Area businesses have generously donated gift cards for the winning team. I’ve gone twice now and it’s been a lot of fun.”

Pandemic wreaks havoc

When the Covid-19 pandemic began to emerge in the United States in mid-March and social restrictions set in, the Salisbury Community Players was on track to perform its April show, “Senior Follies.” Rehearsals had been underway for some time and performers were polishing their roles.

Worse, when stay-at-home orders were issued, there was no way to project how long the show might be on pause. It could have been weeks or months. Six months later, there’s still no end in sight. Although some restrictions have been lifted, gatherings of people are strictly limited in scope until the pandemic has been quelled.

“It is definitely hard to suspend upcoming shows,” said Shelbie Thompson, head of the production committee for Players and a lead performer in several musicals. “I remember talking with some of the cast as we tried to imagine options for the future of the show, not knowing how long this would last.”

It’s more than an investment by performers in terms of engagement, memorizing lines, putting together costumes and sets, and hours of rehearsal time. It’s hard to put so much of yourself into an activity only to have the rug snatched out from under you

Canceled shows

“Cancelling a scheduled production is tough both logistically and emotionally,” said Sharon Benchoff, current president of Players. “We spend thousands of dollars on obtaining rights to perform musicals – months before the scheduled performances. The theatrical companies that hold the rights have been extremely helpful with meeting our needs through refunds, rescheduling and cancelling performances.”

In addition to safety considerations for both cast and audiences, Players are reliant on community venues for their performances. When Wor-Wic Community College closed for the duration of the spring semester back in March, Players had no choice but to suspend performances of “Senior Follies.”

Dr. Kel Nagel, who was to have directed the Players’ June performance of “Kiss Me Kate,” is chairman of Players’ long-term planning committee. Out of that committee, two subcommittees have emerged to deal with fallout from suspension of performances in the current season and look beyond traditional indoor live theater to keep audiences engaged and performers active.

“It was a huge disappointment to have to cancel ‘Kiss Me Kate,’ said Nagel. “While we were not yet in production, I had been meeting with our choreographer and music director. We had a preliminary set design and had begun to look at costumes and backdrops.”

Nagel hopes to get board approval to do “Kiss Me Kate” sometime during the 2021-22 season. Mullins confirmed that this is a priority for Players.

“The disappointment was even worse for Jerry Gietka and his cast and production team,” said Nagel in reference to “Senior Follies.”

Creative engagement

Community Players has also used social media to keep audiences engaged.

“When Internet communication was the only option, we wanted to engage in a conversation with our audiences and members,” said Thompson, “so we asked people to share their favorite memories of Community Players of Salisbury, the first show they remember seeing or the first show they were a part of. Those posts generated good conversations and I hope they also brought a smile to people’s faces as well.”

Some of the new activities may become part of the “new normal” for Players.

“We are hoping to continue our Trivia Night event when things go back to ‘normal’,” she said.

Looking ahead

“I follow a lot of community and small regional theater groups,” Thompson said. “I think everyone is trying to figure out what they can do based on their state restrictions and the willingness of their actors and team to perform. This pandemic has obviously been devastating for live theater productions, big and small, but we do know the show must go on.”

“Theater people are a very close-knit group,” said Benchoff. “All of us are finding it difficult not spending time with each other and creating. It is what we love to do.”

Trivia Tuesday and Weekends on the Lawn

Weekends on the Lawn

Where: 5109 Nutters Cross Road, Salisbury

Admission: $5 per person for each performance

*“Love Letters” by A.R. Gurney, directed by Matt Bogdan

Friday, Sept. 11, at 7 p.m. and Saturday, Sept. 12, 2 p.m.

Rain date Sunday, Sept. 13, 2 p.m.

*“Hate Mail” by Bill Corbett and Kira Obolensky, directed by Pete Cuesta

Friday, Sept. 18, at 7 p.m. and Saturday, Sept. 19, 2 p.m.

Rain date Sunday, Sept. 20, 2 p.m.

*“Film to Broadway” choral concert directed by Rusty Mumford

Friday, Sept. 25, 7 p.m. and Saturday, Sept. 26, 2 p.m.

Rail date Sunday, Sept. 27, 2 p.m.

*“Love, Loss and What I Wore” by Delia Ephron, Ilene Beckerman and Nora Ephron, directed by Robin Finley

Friday, Oct. 2, 7 p.m. and Saturday, Oct. 3, 2 p.m.

Rain date Sunday, Oct. 4, 2 p.m.

Trivia Tuesdays

What: Theater-themed trivia competitions for teams of four

When: First and third Tuesday of the month

Where: Community Players of Salisbury, 5109 Nutters Cross Road, Salisbury

Admission: $5 per person

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