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Vowing to persevere, theaters in Howard County and Laurel are suffering from coronavirus pandemic closures

Maureen Rogers, president of the Laurel Mill Playhouse's board of directors, said the theater plans to reopen when allowed.
Maureen Rogers, president of the Laurel Mill Playhouse's board of directors, said the theater plans to reopen when allowed. (Staff photo by Brian Krista)

To be or not to be, that is the question that has faced many theaters in Howard County and Laurel these past few months in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. While restaurants, retail stores, gyms, parks and houses of worship are allowed to reopen now that Maryland is in Phase 2, theaters remain dark, with many uncertain how they will reopen when they are given the green light.

“Things are pretty quiet here,” said Jeremy Goldman, president of Silhouette Stages’ board of directors. “I’ve been doing theater since I was 8 or 9 years old, through high school, college. I’ve never seen anything like this.”

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Silhouette Stages’ production of “Calendar Girls” was one week from production in Columbia when the coronavirus pandemic closed its doors.

“We had the set built. The cast was ready to go. The costumes were ready,” Goldman said. “That was pretty devastating.”

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Now, the set is in storage and the cast is holding virtual rehearsals in preparation for a run in March 2022. The final show of the season — “Catch Me If You Can” — originally scheduled for May, was pushed back to October, with rehearsals to begin in August. After much thought, and with much disappointment, the decision was made to cancel the remaining season completely.

“What are the odds that theaters are going to open?” Goldman said. “Slayton House theater is not a large facility. Even with a partial audience, how do you keep social distancing? We have to come up with new safety protocols.”

There were health concerns, too, about rehearsals, as the musical has “high energy with lots of dancing,” Goldman said.

“There are risks involved with singing,” Goldman said. “We were thinking of the cast, the musicians.”

Jeremy Goldman, Lindsey Landry and Matt Wetzel in a scene from the fall 2016 production of "Young Frankenstein." Goldman, president of Silhouette Stages’ board of directors, said Silhouette Stages has canceled the remainder of its season.
Jeremy Goldman, Lindsey Landry and Matt Wetzel in a scene from the fall 2016 production of "Young Frankenstein." Goldman, president of Silhouette Stages’ board of directors, said Silhouette Stages has canceled the remainder of its season. (Mort Shuman / Submitted photo)

The group is fortunate, Goldman said, that it does not have to pay a mortgage as it rents the stage at Slayton House. There are no salaries to be paid, either, as everyone is a volunteer. Its biggest expense is purchasing the rights to shows.

“This has been pretty devastating for the performing arts,” Goldman said. “We are one of the lucky ones. We will survive.”

Many of the ticket holders for “Calendar Girls” opted to donate their tickets back to the theater instead of asking for a refund, Goldman said, which provided a “little income” from that show, so it was not a complete loss.

“The big question is, what will audiences look like?” Goldman said. “Our next show is in March 2021. Hopefully by that point, we’ll be in a better situation.”

During this down time, the board is looking at ways to improve as an organization, Goldman said.

“We are an open organization. We are open to everyone,” Goldman said. “It is so interesting to reflect on things to do better.”

At Laurel Mill Playhouse, Maureen Rogers, president of the board of directors, is assuring the theater’s patrons and volunteers that “this is just an intermission.”

“We are not closing up. We will continue,” Rogers said. “We are preparing.”

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Like Silhouette Stages, the cast and crew at Laurel Mill Playhouse were rehearsing for its production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” when the pandemic brought it to a halt.

“Things turned so quickly,” Rogers said. “Everything just kind of stopped.”

Typically, Laurel Mill Playhouse does 10 to 11 shows a year, including an Agatha Christie mystery and a holiday show.

“I have hopes,” Rogers said. “We did two shows — one in January, one in February. I am really hoping for at least three or four by the end of the year.”

The playhouse owns its facility, so its mortgage still needs to be paid. Patrons have been generous with donations, Rogers said, but the group will have to keep an eye on its finances. Instead of paying for the rights of certain shows, the group will likely use public domain shows for its next few seasons.

“There are plenty of things out there we can do without paying for the rights. Shakespeare we can do,” Rogers said. “Our main sources of income are ticket sales and donations.”

Both Laurel Mill and Silhouette Stages were the recipients of donations raised by the Pandemic Players of Baltimore, a group that formed in mid-March shortly after the pandemic closed down the state. Using an online platform, the group streamed free live weekly theatrical productions, with donations collected for various local theaters.

“We looked at theaters most in need, those with mortgages, bills,” said Stephen Deininger, executive director of Pandemic Players. “We had about eight productions when all was said and done and raised about $10,000, all for local groups. We never took a penny.”

“We were one of the first ones they did, and we were so thankful,” Rogers said. “They really helped us.”

When the go-ahead is given, Rogers is worried about social distancing. The 100-year-plus theater on Laurel’s Main Street seats 50 and social distancing will be “a little difficult,” she said.

“We might rope off the first few rows,” Rogers said. “We’ve bought masks, glove, hand sanitizer. At this point, we’re not sure what the rules will be ... to be able to open.”

The health and safety of both the audience and cast comes first, Rogers said.

“Prince George’s County has been horribly hit. There are so many cases,” Rogers said. “We want to be sure when we do open it is according to [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines so that not only our patrons feel confident, but our actors, too.”

Deb Randall, owner of Venus Theatre in Laurel, is not sure when she will feel confident enough to open her theater’s doors.

“Venus is such a small space. It is too scary for me,” Randall said. “I just can’t put the public at risk.”

Instead, Randall is focusing on a new project. Inspired by the ancient Greeks who performed outdoors, Randall is working on a proposal for an outdoor amphitheater at the end of C Street in Laurel she wants to call the Little Patuxent Amphitheatre and the Tricia-Karl Stage — named after a friend who was murdered.

“It would make use of a space that is not being used; it could be an incredible asset to the town,” Randall said. “People are itching to get outside. We should embrace that and create a positive place for it.”

Randall envisions container gardens with edible herbs along C Street, with a pedestrian entrance, food trucks and picnicking on the grounds of the amphitheater. Randall has presented the project to friends and members of the nonprofit Laurel for the Patuxent, a group concerned with the environment and quality of life. She has talked with some city officials, who suggested the project be built at the end of Avondale, which she believes has too many vehicles.

“This is an idea I am living with,” Randall said. “I’m a workaholic.”

At the end of 2019, Venus Theater celebrated its 70th production since opening on C Street in 2006. Faithful patrons of the theater, which showcases works by women, have been sending donations, anxious for the theater to reopen.

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“I’m holding the space,” Randall said. “It depends on the virus. When we know how to treat it and have a vaccine, it’s gotta be a safe space.”

Randall has been using old costumes to make masks and personal protective equipment gowns, which she gives to front-line workers and mails to the Navajo Nation.

“Our whole world is going through a shift,” Randall said. “People are dying. To me, this is a very scary time.”

Deb Randall, owner of Venus Theatre, leads the audience in a move before her performance act at a past Riverfest. Randall hopes to create an outdoor amphitheater.
Deb Randall, owner of Venus Theatre, leads the audience in a move before her performance act at a past Riverfest. Randall hopes to create an outdoor amphitheater. (Photo by Nate Pesce)

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