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At the Playhouse, pandemic is the mother of innovation

Asked how she’s been managing the Flat Rock Playhouse these days, Lisa K. Bryant, the theater’s producing artistic director, opens with: “Well, when I'm not curled up in the fetal position … ”

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A comic actor in some of her past roles, Bryant turns serious when she describes the season that wasn’t, thanks to the worldwide pandemic that shut down live performances everywhere, and what the Playhouse has done to survive. A skeleton staff has kept the door cracked and the lights on, if dimly.
“We furloughed about two thirds of our staff—our full-time staff—and then, of course, canceled our season and so folks that were slated to come in were then unable to,” Bryant says. “I mean, the numbers (of apprentices, performers and support staff) get well up into the hundreds. We were able, only since March and April, to bring two people back into the fold in a full-time capacity: our Director of Education and our resident lighting designer/videographer and editing expert.”
This week, the Playhouse “stages” a performance for the first time when it streams the Nat Zegree Virtual Cabaret at 7:30 Thursday and Friday nights and singers and actors are starting to rehearse the popular holiday show, “A Flat Rock Playhouse Christmas,” which this year will be filmed and made available for patrons to watch at home.
“We will need those folks … to really, really come through this year to help ensure that we've got a crack at weathering the 2021 season,” Bryant says of the box office for the show.
Because the Playhouse is a union theater, health requirements are strictly enforced.
“We have very strong stipulations from the Actors’ Equity Association, that we have to work with if we wish to stay a professional theater,” Bryant says. Regulations include specific standards for the HVAC system, extensive COVID-19 testing on union actors, as well as the Playhouse staff that actors interact with.
“Those are the two things that come immediately to mind that come with some pretty deep financial impact above and beyond what's already very, very expensive about producing live theater,” she says. “We are not anywhere near out of the woods.”
Patrons have helped the Playhouse stay afloat even without performances and ticket sales.
“Donations have continued to come in pretty steadily and, as I said, ahead of previous years,” she says. “We're optimistic and we're creative and we are resourceful. … We want nothing more than to be normal as quickly as possible. That said, we are taking the opportunity, having been shut down, to explore and investigate other things that we've been wanting to do, or now maybe have an ability to do that.”
Those activities include expanding their educational initiatives and trying out new sorts of material, like stage readings that are more Zoom-friendly than other events. “So there are some things that are kind of creatively stimulating, ironically, about being in a lockdown,” she said.
Among the creative and innovative performances is this week’s fundraising show starring Nat Zegree, in an intimate, fun production featuring the zany piano virtuoso. “If Jerry Lee Lewis and Mozart Amadeus had a baby, it is Nat Zegree,” Bryant said.
The virtual fundraiser runs roughly one hour. Contribution tiers range from $100 to $250 with offerings for a live meet and greet ($150) and a dinner available for pickup catered by Dining Innovation before the Oct. 8 showing ($250).
Bryant said the Playhouse had met its fundraising goal for the event already, adding “it's not too late for folks to join in and see his remarkable genius at work.”
Also upcoming is the fourth annual A Flat Rock Playhouse Christmas, which Bryant said they will be “rehearsing and filming, over the next couple of weeks.”
“It's really popular — our third highest selling show for the last three seasons, which is quite a feat. … And knowing that it's been very popular in person and knowing that, you know, it's becoming a family tradition at the holidays, we wanted to make sure that we were still able to provide that outlet.”
The show will be filmed and virtually accessible between Nov. 26 and Dec. 26. Tickets will be on sale at the end of this month.