The Show Must Go On: But How?

COVER PHOTO: 2017 American Music Theater Original Show called Vegas Legends

This story originally appeared in the Winter 2021 Thriving Magazine. Read the entire Thriving Magazine online here.

Theatre and the performing arts is not only a key economic driver for Lancaster County, but it also provides spaces to escape, to laugh, to think, and to be inspired. COVID-19 has hammered this industry over the last year—shutting it down multiple times and disrupting schedules, budgets, jobs, and plans.

Our local theatre industry in Lancaster County has proven resilient —even in the face of what, at times, felt like insurmountable adversity. This article spotlights how some of these organizations are adapting, changing, and transforming.

It also—most importantly—provides information on how you can make a difference in supporting theatre. Now more than ever it is crucial to support and sustain these venues in one of the most critically challenging moments in the industry.

Inside the PRIMA theater space

Finding The (Spot)light In A Dark Year: How Theatres Adapted During The COVID-19 Crisis

“One author said ‘History is the study of surprises,’ and we are all certainly living amidst history-making times,” said Mitch Nugent, PRIMA Theatre’s Executive Artistic Producer and Founder. “At PRIMA it is in our DNA to be resourceful and relentlessly determined, so the team has looked at this long season of roadblocks with the outlook that each challenge is an opportunity to reflect, refine our efforts, and activate in more meaningful ways than we could have ever imagined.”

PRIMA Theatre has a mission to invigorate lives through fresh theatrical experiences, and 2020 put that idea to the ultimate test.

“We began by bringing the power of the arts to people where they’re at and where it’s safe,” added Mitch. “It started with a massive release of virtual content that continues to thrive. Then we began doing private concerts and singing for quarantined people, safely.” Later, PRIMA produced a drive-in concert and musical parade that celebrated local stories of bravery showcased through COVID and the Black Lives Matters movement. “It was all capped off by one of the most moving experiences I’ve ever had the honor of being a part of — bringing trolley-traveling contemporary carolers to neighborhoods, roving around shuttered senior living communities, and outside a 7-year old’s home, who just conquered cancer, serenading a ‘Happy Birthday’ when she couldn’t have a party due to the pandemic.” Mitch took on the hard times to serve Lancaster in ways that were not originally planned previous to COVID. “Whether it’s business or non-profit work — each of us have can harness the power of these wild times, and choose to spread joy.”

Not only did PRIMA focus on unique ways to engage audiences, the theatre also was keen on raising funds for out-of-work performers.

A production at PRIMA theatre

“With the help of this generous community, we were able to come to the aid of local performing artists who’ve been, for years, inspiring all of us. A friend reminded me that the decisions we make in this crucial time, we want to be able to look back in five years and be proud of how we engaged for the greater good. That’s where the life is.”

It was a painful year—but for PRIMA, one that proved incredibly purposeful.

“I’m grateful to have this platform to share some beauty through these times,” said Mitch. “When else in our lifetimes do we get to pause, connect deeply with those who’ve supported us, and consider a new and brighter future?”

Other theatres had to pivot during this time as well. In a world of unknowns, the performing arts had to shift—and shift quickly under a rapidly worsening situation.

“When initially staring down the barrel of this pandemic, it was very clear to our leadership team that significant and swift changes would be an absolute necessity in order to ensure the survival of this theatre,” said Brandon Martin, Director of Operations at American Music Theatre. “With a business such as ours—where all revenue streams are directly tied to gathering in large numbers—the idea of ‘pivoting’ is much easier said than done; especially without the existing infrastructure, or available capital, required to transition into the virtual entertainment realm.”

Needtobreathe, 2019 (photo credit DK Brower) at American Music Theater

Not only was the team at American Music Theatre focused on keeping productions accessible, they also strived to communicate with their robust audience and network.

“Our primary focus has been maintaining communication and engagement with our patrons,” said Brandon. “We’ve done our very best to be an open book to those who have supported us through the years. We’ve taken on a more personal tone in our outreach efforts and have made every attempt to still share our brand of entertainment, albeit impersonally, through virtual video series, at-home performances, and video tours of our space.”

It was a full team effort to undertake the outreach.

“Many of our artists, performers, and production personnel have graciously volunteered their time in continuing to create content that helps us stay connected with our audience, and each other,” added Brandon. “It’s really been a wonderful and humbling experience.”

Marc Robin, Executive Artistic Producer at the Fulton Theatre, also felt the immense strain of the year and saw the incredible need throughout Lancaster.

“The first thing we did was figure out what our community needed,” said Marc. “When the pandemic hit and shut everybody down there was a large level of anxiety and it became obvious that the first thing that had to be done was what was best for our community. We shifted almost instantly and our costume and scene shops started producing PPE equipment including face masks and shields to donate to local non-profits.”

In The Heights production at the Fulton Theatre

Next, it was on to figuring out a strategy for the Fulton Theatre’s sustainability.

“Since we couldn’t invite the audience into the theatre we decided to bring the theatre to them,” added Marc. “We started producing content for our social media and created unique ‘living room concert’ moments, and launched into ‘Joey’s Java Talk,’ a talk show series about the arts, to keep people engaged. When we discovered we weren’t going to come back online when we originally hoped we decided to continue with the video format until the time we can once again gather as a community in our Theatre.”

One theatre that garners visitors from around the Nation was in the same predicament. Sight & Sound Theatre had to figure out next steps, especially since tourism is hugely relied on as part of attendance. But hardship can spark innovation.

“Some of the hardest challenges can inspire the creation of something new,” said Sara Murphy, VP of Brand Development at Sight & Sound Theatres. “While both of our theaters, Lancaster, PA and Branson, MO, were closed due to COVID-19, we were able to refocus our time on developing and launching a new streaming platform: Sight & Sound TV. It was a milestone moment for us; for over 45 years audiences have been coming to us, now, we are going to them.”

A photo from the Queen Esther show at Sight & Sound Theatres

This proved to be wildly successful as a form of showcasing content.

“We had viewers watching from over 100 countries,” said Sara. “While 2020 has been really hard on us and the theater industry, it also offered us a unique opportunity to expand our mission and reach a global virtual audience with Bible stage productions.”

Activating Audiences For Support: Ways You Can Support These Venues Right Now

Since some capability for in-person performances is still in the future, here are some of the ways you can currently support these venues as they continue to navigate a difficult landscape this year.

“There are also ways to support PRIMA with much flexibility,” said Mitch. “What about a unique sponsorship package? Or getting your employees tickets for when shows happen once again? There are a lot of options.”

“Businesses and individuals can continue supporting us by coming to visit Sight & Sound Theatres during the 2021 season, and by spreading the word that we are open and safe to visit during this time,” said Sara. “For those not ready to visit in person yet, sharing the opportunity to enjoy the shows on Sight & Sound TV is a great alternative.”

“Sharing social posts, following our channels, and helping to share what the future holds for AMT are so very appreciated,” added Brandon. “Quite frankly, gift cards to American Music Theatre are a wonderful way to support our business right now. They’re useable for tickets to any show we present here, as well as concessions and gift shop purchases, and they never expire, so they’ll hold their value until this pandemic is behind us!”

Beauty and the Beast production at the Fulton Theatre

“Every dime, every dollar helps ensure that the Fulton reopens with the same Broadway quality that our audiences have come to expect,” said Marc. “We are grateful for every contribution we have received, for every community member who has reached out, and for every future donation. It takes a village to keep the arts thriving and Lancaster should be proud of the arts community they have built, and it won’t be long until that community is thriving again.”

But there is also a bigger picture Marc wanted to emphasize as we look towards 2021 success and sustainability.

“We also want to encourage everyone to help out Lancaster’s downtown organizations, restaurants and shops,” Marc added. “The Fulton’s annual impact on downtown Lancaster was over $16 million but facing this temporary shutdown we have no impact now because we are closed. We need everyone to understand that we are part of a big downtown puzzle and as an arts organization our job is not to just create art for our community, but it is to gather the community so they will shop in our stores, eat in our restaurants, and stay in our hotels.”

Please keep continuing to check out the websites and social media platforms of these organizations to keep up-to-date on opportunities to support, reopening plans, and more.

Foreigner, 2019 (photo credit DK Brower) at American Music Theater

Waiting In The Wings: What’s Next For Theatre In Lancaster County

There is a lot ahead for the industry, and it’s important that the community continues to support it as we navigate forward.

In-person performances may feel distant in the future, but PRIMA is prepared with a variety of creative ways to produce safe productions. “Our 2021 schedule has productions that can exist in-the-theatre, outdoors, or streaming — all exciting, unifying, and provocative work that meets the moment of this era,” said Mitch. “Many of us are recognizing that the models and methods and stability that once existed — it was perhaps a bit of a mirage in the first place. How little control we all really have. And yet the awe-inspiring news is, we all get to work together to gather the sparks, especially the unheard voices around us, and create a new tomorrow.”

“At the Fulton, we are planning a variety of initiatives,” said Marc. “We launched the new Fulton HD streaming platform, started a new Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibility (IDEA) committee to keep that important conversation moving forward, and putting action behind it, in the theatre world, and we have some new ideas for showcasing performances in 2021. Our biggest hope on the horizon is the return of live theatre. That would be the best gift we could possibly receive.”

What Christmas Means To Me, from the Fulton Theatre

“I think, through this time, we’ve all learned so much about our businesses, our venues, our patrons, and ourselves,” said Brandon. “The upside to the amount of schedule-juggling we’ve done at American Music Theatre over the past 9 months is that we’re looking at a 2021 Events Calendar that is shaping up to be our strongest yet. More than ever before, we have performers who are excited to perform and audiences who are excited to see them, and we can’t wait to be a part of it!”

“For us, we are looking forward to QUEEN ESTHER back on stage,” said Sara.“ “We will also be broadcasting a live performance of JESUS from Branson on Sight & Sound TV during Easter weekend.”

There are many other venues in Lancaster County, from the Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre, to the Lancaster Marionette Theatre, to Ephrata Performing Arts Center, to other performing arts venues (like The Ware Center) to keep in mind as we move forward in support.

The industry continues to transform, even in the midst of hardship. It is up to all of us to keep it going, to support it how we can, and to recognize that, not only is it important to our County (and beyond) for economic reasons, but it’s so critical to the wellness of our community and the vibrancy of Lancaster County.

First Date The Musical at PRIMA

One of the best ways to engage with each venue is to continue exploring their websites and following them on social media. Here is a handy guide for just some of the venues!

PRIMA Theatre

Fulton Theatre

American Music Theatre

Sight & Sound Theatres

Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre