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Season Goes ‘Dark’

Little Theatre Cancels Remaining 2020 Performances

Lucille Ball Little Theatre of Jamestown board president James Foley sits on stage with an empty auditorium behind him. The theatre voted this week to cancel the remainder of its 2019-20 season. P-J photo by Cameron Hurst

During the performance run of a musical or play, the day in which that production is not taking place is referred to as “dark day” by actors, directors and crew members alike.

On Broadway, “dark day” is usually on Monday. At community theaters across the country, many of which hold performances over the weekend, that’s Monday through Thursday.

But for actors and volunteers of the Lucille Ball Little Theatre of Jamestown — specifically, the cast and crew of “Clue: On Stage” whose run was frozen in time in mid-March — the side effects of the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 have forced the organization into a figurative “darkness” for, as of Friday, the last 137 days.

And that number, unfortunately, will continue to inflate: the theater’s board of directors voted this week to cancel the remainder of its 2019-20 season.

“We had been hanging on to hope,” board president James Foley told The Post-Journal of the decision to cancel the productions, “Meshuggah-Nuns!” “Young Frankenstein,” and “Elf: The Musical.”

The set of the Lucille Ball Little Theatre’s production of “Clue: On Stage” remains frozen in time backstage after its second weekend was postponed due to the outbreak of COVID-19. P-J photo by Cameron Hurst

“This thing changes so rapidly that who knows what tomorrow holds and what next week holds, so we’ve been trying to hang on to the hope of doing those,” Foley added. “We had been getting to the point where we didn’t want to cancel them before the time where we would normally be auditioning and casting for a show. But, we just couldn’t do it.”

“We went over the financials and possible scenarios, and there is not one where we can sell enough seats to reopen this year,” board member Aubrey Russell said. “We have our hopes set on reopening in 2021.”

The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent decisions surrounding it stunt what had been a renewed period of growth for the organization, which has served as the community’s primary outlet for local thespians since 1936 and has bore the name of its most famous alumna since 1991. Over the last three years, its 18 E. Second St. home received $265,000 from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative that went toward a new fly system, a new light and soundboard, new curtains, air conditioning and new LED lights all in the stage area.

“We had great momentum and were very excited at the way things were shaping up for the theater,” Foley said. “We had a lot of big plans and a lot of successes that we were happy with. Still, we’re able to move forward with a lot of the structural things as far as the theater is concerned in management and running it. It’s the actual production of shows that has just been grounded to a halt.”

“We had six different directors lined up for six different shows,” Russell added. “We had never had that before. We were excited about that to have such diversity in production crews and we’ve had new people in the sound booth back here running lights and sound that have never done it before and new tech directors. … Just a lot of new actors. There was so much new stuff coming in and that was the momentum we were excited about.”

The Lucille Ball Little Theatre of Jamestown box office has been dormant since March 16 after the second weekend of “Clue: On Stage” was postponed due to the outbreak of COVID-19. P-J photo by Cameron Hurst

The pause also includes one of the theater’s flagship sub-organizations, the Jr. Guilders — a youth organization for area children between the ages of 5 and 16 founded in 1983 by artistic director Helen Merrill and musical director Lucille Miller.

Russell’s wife Lindsay, an alumnus of the organization who now serves on the theater’s board as chair of the playreading committee, now volunteers as one of two choreographers for the organization with Holly Jones Weston.

“When all the schools closed, we decided at that point we had to cancel Guilders for the foreseeable future, too,” she said, noting that the staff has discussed virtual programming for the approximately 40 kids involved whose production of “Frozen” in December.

“If we could open up that outlet to the community safely within the parameters, it would definitely be something we would look into doing,” she added. “The theater is such an important outlet for kids in the community and especially during times like these. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without my theater background. I don’t want the kids growing up at this time to miss out on that important stuff.”

In the interim, however, the theater itself has committed itself to virtual programming — a virtual production of “She Kills Monsters: Virtual Realms” will stream live on Aug. 4 at 7 p.m. The cost for viewing is $10 for the general public, but included in a previously purchased season ticket and can be purchased at https://tinyurl.com/SheKillsMonstersLBLTJ.

That, however, has not come without its challenges.

“We’re making a shift to some online, streamable productions,” Foley said. “Concord Theatrical, MTI, they have put out lists of shows that are streamable that you can do in that format. The lists are growing. The problem with that is the costs. They’re not cheap. Those companies they have to make their money, too.”

“We’re looking at, for a musical — a non-name brand musical that is socially distanced online — about $1,000 just to get the rights and the ability to stream,” he said. “When you look at what the cost is to market and you look at having to spend more on marketing than we ever have before, we have to get people in. You’re looking at $1,500 on a low end and it could go up from there which is crazy.”

Pairing that cost with the building’s $4,000 bare-minimum monthly utility costs during this dormant period — not including the fluctuation to come as winter creeps around the corner — has led the theater to produce virtual appeals on social media as well as a remote telethon on Facebook.

“Some funds are definitely coming in. … There are some people who have responded to those pleas and we greatly appreciate all the help from the community,” Foley said. “We’ve even had several who have donated more than one time. But, it is generally below where our annual campaign levels are at … We’re at about two-thirds of what our annual campaign generally brings in and that’s with all the stuff combined that we’ve generally done.”

“That Facebook fundraiser we were able to generate so much, but even that was only one month worth of bills,” Lindsay Russell said. “It’s mind-blowing how expensive it is to keep a big beautiful building like this alive in the middle of all this.”

“We understand have been very cognizant of the issues facing the community, too, in our ask,” added Aubrey Russell. “There are record levels of unemployment and people are uncertain about what the future brings and all of those things not just in terms of raising funds but when we do look to reopen, how do we bring people into this building?

“This is going to have ramifications beyond just getting through this,” he added. “It’s going to impact us for years to come.”

Still, Foley and the Russells have found small sources of optimism throughout the duration of the pandemic in various places, no more so than during a late night looking through meeting minutes of the theater’s board during World War II.

“There was a concern that they wouldn’t be able to put together a season because there were no guys,” Russell added. “They stayed and they kept through it and they had a season. They sold war bonds, they watched their season ticket holders go from 3,000 to 400 … but they stayed open.

“We were reading that and we were hopeful in that there have been some times in the past that have been very difficult and the theater has persevered and seen it through,” Foley said.”And as unprecedented as this situation is, we’re very hopeful the measures that we’re taking and the importance of this theater and the hearts of the community will see it through. … We just need help … and we need people who care to give what they can. We know it’s difficult. We’re doing everything we possibly can do to ensure that we can return this theater to what it was and better. …

“We’re here. … We’re still here and we want to be here for years and years to come.”

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