‘Every penny counted’: Local theaters struggled to survive COVID-19, and now they’re planning to reopen

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

When local and community theaters went dark under the pandemic lockdown, it was far from certain they would survive.

Even as two local theaters, the Middletown Lyric Theater and the Lebanon Theatre Company, decided to open for 2021, it wasn’t with any reassurance the pandemic was ending or that the financial hardships they endured were resolved.

“There was no real hope, just a leap of faith,” laughed Charley Shafor, managing artistic director of the Lyric.

Both Shafor and Ted Hannis, spokesman for the Lebanon Theatre Company, credit recent fundraisers for their ability to reopen.

“We’d exhausted our financial resources,” Shafor said. “We’d spent our endowment money, so we went round and round and decided we needed X amount of dollars by such and such date or we could close for good. We had a big fundraiser at the Sorg (Opera House in Middletown) and we got some donations that we didn’t solicit. In the meantime, we watched everything did. We turned the heat off. Every penny counted.”

Hannis credits Kim Long and Shelly Decker, Treasurers for Market 640, a Lebanon boutique, with keeping the LTC alive.

“They threw us a fundraiser and raised way more money than we expected,” he said. “(Kim and Shelly) were just interested community members. They were at the Chamber of Commerce meeting, and they heard all my gloom and doom about mortgage payments.”

The two theaters aren’t reopening in the same manner. While the Lyric is reopening in-person productions with restrictions, the LTC’s spring shows are entirely virtual. LTC’s next show is “Blondie,” a two-person play based on the classic comic strip. As the premiere date gets closer, a link to view the production will appear on the LTC Web site.

“We got approval to reopen live in January, but we’re not ready yet,” Hannis said. “The theater isn’t set up for it, and our cast is still reluctant until vaccinations increase. Our audience is middle-aged and a little older, and a lot of them are hesitant to come out until the percentage of positive cases declines. Our community has shown us such great support that we can afford to be careful.”

According to Shafor, opening virtual wasn’t a consideration for the Lyric due to the small number of people willing to watch a play via livestream.

“There was a brief conversation but we quickly concluded we couldn’t justify it financially,” he said.

Like the LTC, the Lyric selected shows with small casts. Their spring shows are “Grace & Glorie” in March and “The Lifespan of a Fact” in April.

“There are a lot of small shows to choose from,” Shafor said. “Unfortunately, a lot of them are dramas, and the last thing we want to do right now is bring people down. So, we looked for things that were thought-provoking but also on the edge of laughter. ‘The Lifespan of a Fact’ is like that and also very topical.”

The Lyric will seat 15 percent of their 100-seat seating capacity, with a 14-16-foot distance between any cast and audience member at any one time. Everyone will be required to wear masks unless actively eating and drinking. Shafor noted a particular irony of socially distanced theater.

“Because the seats are wide and the aisles are big, with only 15 percent, it’s actually a pretty luxurious experience,” he chuckled.

Although virtual for now, the LTC hopes to be doing live shows by the summer.

“We’ll have plexiglass barriers between groups,” Hannis said. “As long as you live in the same household, you can sit together. Everyone will have to wear masks. There won’t be an intermission or social gathering in the lobby. We’ve taken out every other row so the stage won’t be blocked. We’ll have hand sanitizer and a machine that sprays surfaces. I know people are eager to get out and see a real show. Virtual shows are fine, but they’re like Zoom shows. They don’t raise a lot of funds. We still have bills to pay.”

Shafor is similarly optimistic about the future.

“We’re pretty proud of yourselves,” he said. “And that there are enough people out there who still want to see live theater. We’re not getting everyone back. We have an aged audience, but many of them sent in donations.”