In mid-March, Riverside Center for the Performing Arts was riding an incredible high.
The regional theater was closing a record-breaking run of the feel-good classic “Grease.” It opened on Jan. 8 and ran through March 15, carrying the highest grossing sales and attendance of any production in Riverside’s nearly 24-year history.
Flash forward to today. A once-thriving theater’s stage is dark, its infectious buzz has been nearly silenced and there’s a show in the queue that is ready whenever the world is.
“Right before the governor’s orders to shut down, we had one final rehearsal and brought the cast in to see just how beautiful of a set it is,” said Patrick A’Hearn, producing artistic director at Riverside. “It’s one of the most captivating we’ve had, anchored by a 24-foot rotating revolving stage. We wanted to show them what was waiting for them, and our audiences, whenever we can return.”
The show A’Hearn speaks of is “Bright Star,” a bluegrass-infused story set in the 1920s and 1940s. “Bright Star” zooms in on unique connections, raw emotions, love and redemption, complemented by a Grammy-nominated score by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell.
“There is an underlying feeling of hope and optimism with this one,” said A’Hearn. “It will certainly strike the right chord once we’re able to have it up and running.”
As with so many businesses locally and well beyond, the big question remains when and how things will return to “normal” for Riverside. The state of Virginia has mandated that non-essential businesses stay closed until May 8 and there is a stay-at-home order in effect through June 10.
The current pause has led Riverside to postpone two of its future shows, “Murder for Two” (scheduled to open on May 27) and “Ghost: The Musical.” Through the end of 2020, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (Sept. 9 through Nov. 1) and “Meet Me in St. Louis” (Nov. 11 through Dec. 27) remain on the calendar for now.
“On one end, we feel very fortunate to have a set, cast, crew, orchestra and show in place before this crisis went into full effect,” said A’Hearn. “For many theaters, the shutdown happened and there wasn’t necessarily another cast or full-fledged plan ready to go for whenever things were lifted.”
Until those orders are ultimately lifted—both of which could very well be extended—A’Hearn says the cast of “Bright Star” is staying well-engaged. In addition to independent script read-throughs and regular check-ins, cast members like leading actress Adrianne Hick (playing Alice Murphy) are keeping their voices in check with periodic sing-throughs, as well.
While some local theaters and organizations are presenting abridged versions of performances online, full-on livestreams or onstage recordings aren’t in the works for Riverside.
Instead, the cast of “Bright Star” has remotely recorded a musical number that will be unveiled in the coming days. Also, the theater plans to showcase various cabaret-style videos from “Bright Star” performers and other veterans across its social media platforms on a regular basis.
In the meantime, a March Madness-style tournament of Riverside shows throughout its history is taking place on Facebook and a slew of video content remains on its website.
As for the performing arts center itself, staffing remains limited to a handful of folks, including a box office attendant who is addressing ticket-related inquiries.
“The best possible way to support us during these times is to purchase a gift certificate,” said A’Hearn. “It will make a great gift for yourself or someone you love, so you can enjoy a future Riverside performance.”
Some good news emerged for Riverside during this past weekend: Its Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan application was approved, meaning a staff of approximately 30 can receive payroll for the time being.
Beyond the recent financial boost, Riverside is focusing on what the theater environment may look like in various phases of the future.
Among the immediate questions A’Hearn notes are, “How can we ensure our cast feels safe onstage with one another?” “What will it be like for them looking into an audience, all who have masks covering their laughs and smiles?” And finally, “at what capacity will we be allowed to operate at, so we can stay profitable?”
Amid a time of uncertainty and questions galore, Riverside remains committed to generating a memorable and safe experience.
“However things land, we will ensure our audiences are and feel safe,” he said. “Everyone has been in this together—our cast, tech director, production manager, wardrobe supervisor, scenic painters, board ... really, everyone has been so amazing. We will get through this and will do all we can to keep Riverside alive.”