Towngate Theatre: Preparing for “The Next Act”

Towngate Theatre staff hold a sign that says, "We Miss You."

While Oglebay Institute’s Towngate Theatre was temporarily closed because of the COVID-19 crisis, those who make the theater a favorite local destination remain hard at work preparing for the reopening.

Renovating and Remodeling the Theater

According to Tim Thompson, OI’s director of performing arts, Dave Henderson, artistic director, and PD Gregg, technical director, have completed several renovation projects around the theater.

“Dave, with help from PD, has spearheaded the remodeling of the women’s dressing room bathroom,” Tim said. “Dave has also retiled the box office floor and has done so much to make the dressing rooms, green room and bathrooms clean, comfortable, and appropriate for our volunteer performers.”

On the technical end, PD has conducted several electrical repairs and upgrades. Areas of the theatre have also been organized, such as props, shoes, hats and costumes.

“The sorting and restacking process has been very extensive,” PD said. “We are planning on cleaning and sorting out the tool room and the sound booth as well.”

Taking the Art Exhibit Virtual

In addition to canceling theater productions and other performing arts event, The Gallery at Towngate was also forced to shut down just days before its latest exhibit, titled “Ways of Seeing–Ways of Speaking,” was unveiled. PD compiled and edited a virtual tour of the art exhibit, which features the work of artists Clare McDonald and Erin Mellott.

Clare collaborated with PD on the final presentation, helping to acquire photographs of the art, suggesting music for the tour and assisting Tim in proofing the final version of the slideshow.

“Six months ago, as we were in the planning stages of the exhibit, we would have been hard-pressed to anticipate the advent of COVID-19 mere days before we opened,” Clare said. “Back then, it would have been hard to believe that no one would be visiting the exhibition in person. But thanks to the valiant efforts of the staff at the Towngate Theatre, and in particular, PD Gregg, we had a virtual tour up in less than 10 days.”

The Gallery has now re-opened and the exhibit run has been extended to give people the opportunity to see the show in person. Viewing hours are 11am-3pm Monday-Saturday. Prints of the artwork are available for purchase.

Tim said plans are in the works for a public reception for the exhibit near the end of June. Stay tuned.

For those who are still uncomfortable visiting the gallery in person, the virtual exhibit is still available for viewing. You can see the “Ways of Seeing–Ways of Speaking” exhibit by clicking here.

“PD did an outstanding job,” Tim said. “He and Dave have definitely been ‘taking care’ of Towngate and the maintenance and improvement of the theatre space.”

Staying in Touch with Actors

In an effort to stay connected to some of the actors during the stay-at-home order, Tim began interacting with Towngate’s two improv troupes–the Left of Centre Players and the Crazy 8s–via Zoom.

Tim said Butch and Vera Maxwell spearheaded the idea and helped him learn how to use the technology. “We are playing improv games and discovering which ones work best on Zoom. We have created a lineup of improv games for a performance with first an invited audience (to give it a trial run) and then later a public audience as soon as we are able.”

He added, “With help from Elle Artman, I have met with Crazy 8s twice so far and we plan to meet on Zoom every Thursday. We want to do a performance outside somewhere, but we are not permitted to at this time. Once we are permitted to do so, we will be doing a show.”

Tim has also been working with Parcel Players actors Adam Marquart and Dailey Ward, reading the Edward Albee play “The Zoo Story.”

“It is set in Central Park, so if we would be permitted to do a play outside, we should be ready. If not, it is a joy just to work on the play with the actors. The preparation and rehearsal process is exciting and fun. For many actors, creating is the best part of the process. Sharing with an audience is the cherry on top.”

Thank you, Unified Bank.

Tim, along with Pete Fernbaugh and Micah Underwood, has been creating several public service announcements to highlight the generous support OI has received from Unified Bank, Towngate’s Main Season Sponsor.

“These PSAs are to remind our audience we are still here, we will be back and Unified is still by our side,” Tim said.

The project will utilize about a dozen local actors. “It gives our actors a little work on camera while we wait for live theater to resume.”

Planning for Summer Theater

Meanwhile, Tim stayed hard at work managing an ever-changing performance schedule. He has maintained regular contact with OI administrators, teachers, artists and directors on a variety of items, including the 2020-21 budget, preparations for re-opening and sanitizing the theatre, cancellations, postponements and rescheduling.

“I have also been working on plans for OI’s 90th anniversary, which is July 29,” he said.

Given the unpredictable nature of the pandemic, Tim also considered a couple of different approaches for Towngate’s summer offerings. He explored the possibility of live-streaming Parcel Players Productions. However, he ultimately decided not to jeopardize the health of the actors, volunteers, staff and their families.

“It was an extremely difficult decision, but we feel it is the best option for everyone’s safety,” he said. “I also feel that theater is meant to be immediate, performed for a live audience. It is not really theater if shown on a live stream. Theater has existed for 2,500 years and survived plagues and closings. Be patient. Theater will be back when it is safe to be back.”

Summer Day Camps Reimagined!

Towngate’s summer day camps have also been affected by the pandemic. Some of the camps were canceled and others were postponed until July.

“I re-scheduled our improvisation, musical theatre and acting camps, which are our most popular camps. We are planning ways to keep our camps creative and fun while maintaining distancing and staying safe. We have some great ideas and our camps may have a different look, but I can assure you they will still prove to be a positive and fun experience.”

He stressed that the OI leadership team has been diligently developing plans, procedures and protocol in compliance with the CDC and federal government guidelines on how to properly and safely conduct the camps.

Theater, Concerts & Movies

“With no definite timeline to re-open for productions and concerts, those events had to be cancelled for summer. However, movies will soon be allowed to be screened with limited seating and proper social distancing, so we are hoping to be able to have our Planet 23 Film Festival, produced by Jeff Madzia, on July 18. But those plans are still pending.”

Tim is hopeful that Towngate can resume its full entertainment season by late summer or fall. “We miss our actors, musicians, volunteers and loyal patrons and can’t wait to be with them again.”

Tim was clear that all plans are subject to the course of the pandemic and the state and federal government’s phased social and economic reopening and guidelines regarding large gatherings.

“This remains a fluid situation, but we can assure our patrons that when we do resume full operations we will be as prepared as possible.”

As it has done since the pandemic first broke, OI will continue to inform the public on the status of programs and events at Towngate Theatre and other Oglebay Institute venues.

“This will probably have to happen week-by-week as we move along into summer,” Tim said. “Our main message is: We are planning and preparing, but we can’t promise or predict what will be permitted to go on. Just think of this as intermission. The next act will begin as soon as possible and will prove to be more entertaining and enlightening than ever!”

The Arts Soothe Our Souls During Trying Times

Tim encourages everyone to stay engaged with the arts, especially during difficult times. “During these trying and difficult times, we need to soothe our souls. The arts do just that by allowing us to express how we feel in a vicarious way. They engage, entertain and enlighten us. They provoke thought in a productive and safe way. Art is a way to escape the harshness of reality. And embrace it.”

He continued, “This pandemic affects us all–every human being. The arts provide ways to connect, communicate and understand what it is to be a human being. It is the mirror to our soul. And during these trying times, a lot of soul searching is going on. So, watch a good movie, listen to your favorite band, view some beautiful art or read a new play. It will soothe your soul.  I wonder how many amazing movies, songs, pieces of art and plays will be created during these trying times. I bet many.”