Every summer, Woolfe Street Playhouse's Village Repertory Company presents a fun, easy summer show: Red, White and Cash, featuring the music of Johnny Cash. Needless to say, things have looked a little different on Woolfe Street this year, with the coronavirus pandemic and associated safety precautions preventing the theater company from operating as normal.
Until recently, Gov. Henry McMaster's COVID-19 regulations didn't allow for large gatherings in theater spaces. Now, though, theaters are allowed to operate at a reduced capacity and Village Rep has figured out a way to do that safely — and in the same spirit as those past easy, breezy summer shows.
Summer Comfort, premiering at Woolfe Street on Aug. 14, is a musical show about the lives of John Denver and Linda Ronstadt, featuring their hits of the '70s and '80s. Think "Take Me Home, Country Roads" and "When Will I Be Loved."
"We thought, 'How can we do this in a way that's socially distanced, keep the size down and also do the music a service?'" said Village Rep's artistic director Keely Enright. She was fortunate enough to find seven performers who can both act and play instruments, from guitars to the keyboard. The performers will be set up on stage, at least 6 feet apart from one another, situated on picnic benches as if they were performing around a campfire.
"I grew up at a time where your family and cousins who could play the guitar would sing popular songs that you love [around the campfire]," said Enright. While she admits that most people may not lug a keyboard out to a campsite, this show makes it work.
Village Rep is offering six semi-private, in-theater performance dates for the show: Aug. 14, 15, 21, 28 and 29 at 7:30 p.m. and Aug. 23 at 6 p.m. The theater is limiting audience capacity to just 40 patrons, with the space separated into four separate quadrants. Guests are encouraged to gather a group of 10 family members and friends and book a quadrant ($250) together. Woolfe Street's square footage allows for a lot of separation among the quadrants and further safety precautions will keep guests safe, including requiring everyone to keep their masks on throughout the show.
Enright acknowledges that a socially distant, mask-on theater performance is not an ideal setup — but it's a necessary one. "We are not in a city-owned building," said Enright. "Our landlord is not interested in forgiving rent, so for us to stay inside the playhouse we have to come up with a way to go forward. It's real serious at this point."
In addition to the six performances on Woolfe Street, Enright and Village Rep have come up with another way to bring theater to the community (and make some money while doing so). Village Rep hits the road with Summer Comfort this month, heading to a community center or social club near you. Seriously, if you want seven Village Rep performers to pop up in your (big) backyard, Enright is all in. "Anywhere we can bring the show to you, an outdoor concert-style, we're willing to do that," she said. "The cast is really fired up."
There's a flat rental fee for booking the show, and your venue would require electricity and enough space, but other than that, the show doesn't need much to operate. "We've had some good interest so far," said Enright, who had just started sending out feelers about the road show earlier this month. "We do know that people are desperate to have live entertainment. We're not solving anybody's problems, and we're not trying to. We're just trying to take a breath."
While drive-in movie theaters have seen a recent surge in interest in this new era of socially distant entertainment, live theater is harder to come by, likely because the logistics are a lot more complicated. Lovers of the arts, though, are making it work across the country.
You can find an "al fresco" show from Theatre Across Borders in Colorado Springs, which features a one-mile hike and a trailside performance. South Bend Civic Theatre is performing Emma in an outdoor amphitheatre, likely a refreshing experience for those starved of the live arts for so many months. And now, Charleston has its own outdoor theater offering in the form of a fun musical, peformed by seven very talented local performers, wherever you can provide a safe, outdoor space.
And, the comfort derived from Summer Comfort isn't just for the audience. "The most profound thing for me, the first night of rehearsal was the first time things had felt normal," said Enright. "Nothing was normal, but to be in the process of rehearsal and to listen to people sing and say lines — it was so emotional for all of us. We thought, 'If we never open, this has been emotional therapy.'"
Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call the playhouse at (843) 856-1579 to reserve tickets for an in-theater performance or to book your own show.