Unknown future for live performances at Woodford Theatre
Not being able to perform “Children of a Lesser God” in front of an audience at Woodford Theatre “breaks my heart,” said Artistic Director Vanessa Becker Weig. The production was scheduled to open Friday, March 20, when everything came to a screeching halt with Falling Springs Arts and Recreation Center being closed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. “Children of a Lesser God” was going to be a very special experience for the deaf community and Woodford Theatre audiences, Weig said. Because cast members, including deaf actors, are not available for future dates, “postponing it was not going to be a possibility,” she added. The cast had been rehearsing for about nine weeks and was only one week from opening night when Falling Springs was closed to the public, Weig said. She and Education Director Jeni Benavides are working on providing online learning opportunities for its young actors this summer, but in-class programs and a planned Summer Academy beginning July 1 both seem unlikely because of the current circumstances related to the pandemic, Weig said. “We are finding education is going to kind of take a forefront here because it’s a little – I don’t want to say easier because none of this is easy, but we can accommodate some of our educational programming a little better virtually than … our main stage programming. So we’re trying to figure all of that out,” she explained. While its theater has been closed to audiences, Woodford Theatre has maintained a very active social media campaign seeking donations, while also producing a virtual talent show featuring its young artists and upcoming 10-minute Playtime online shows spotlighting its adult actors, Weig said. A yet-to-be-titled Mother’s Day presentation on Sunday, May 10, will feature two 10-minute virtual plays with singing, she said. “I keep trying to remind myself that this is just testing our creativity,” said Weig. Patrick Lee Lucas applauds Woodford Theatre for sharing performance art with online opportunities for audiences and actors like him. He also knows the transformative power of a live onstage performance and worries that some venues may close because of the financial consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said. “It’s important for us as a society and as a culture to have these kinds of (creative) outlets, particularly for our young people so that they have the opportunity to work with others and carry those skills with them into a world that we just don’t know what it’s going to look like yet,” said Lucas, a professor at the University of Kentucky, who said he will support community theater in Central Kentucky – both creatively and financially. In Weig’s conversations on social media platforms with other theater directors in Kentucky and elsewhere, they agree live theater will change when stage productions are permitted to begin again, she said. That may mean having performances with fewer people permitted in a theater space, she added. “We are for sure in survival mode,” said Weig of community theater. The nonprofit Woodford Theatre relies on ticket sales to pay operating expenses, but now must rely on donations, Weig said. She said most patrons donated the cost of their tickets to “Children of a Lesser God” instead of asking for refunds. Fortunately, Woodford Theatre operates in a community where people are strong supporters of the arts, Weig said. “If we’re not able to start … our main stage season … in September or October,” she said, “… financially, it’s going to be problematic. So we’ll have to again get creative in our thinking.” Woodford Theatre’s six employees, including Weig, are now mostly working at home and following social distancing guidelines when in their offices. “We have a small staff,” she said, “and we’d like to be able to keep everyone employed if we can.” It makes her “really sad” when she goes into the theater space these days because she doesn’t see the normal hustle and bustle, she said. Not knowing when Woodford Theatre and other theaters will reopen to audiences or how their live performances will be staged in the months to come and how the nonprofits will pay their bills is scary for actor Melissa Rae Wilkeson, who lives in Versailles. Without ticket sales at least in the near-term, “I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s worrisome,” she said. Many of her friends are “theater people” so she misses seeing them. And “it’s hard” for extroverts like them, said Wilkeson, because they are hungry for human contact and the energy of live theater – between audience and actor. “And you don’t get that online,” she concluded.