Arts & Leisure

Pandemic didn’t kill this theater

A SCENE from “Murder Runs in the Family,” staged by the Westminster Community Playhouse.

By Shanya Rod

It’s March 2020 and Westminster Community Playhouse is two weekends into its production of “Murder Runs in the Family.” But two weekends is all it got before production was put to a halt. Before the entire world was put to a halt. COVID-19 hit and changed the trajectory of everything, forcing the theatre to remain closed for their 60th season.

During what would have been a milestone anniversary, members of Westminster Community Playhouse had no choice but to close their doors and shift their attention on to surviving the pandemic.

 “People don’t realize that theatres and entertainment venues were the first to close and the last to open. The emotional toll, the physical toll it took on theaters was just extraordinary,” said Bob Nydegger, vice president and technical director at Westminster Community Playhouse.

Some theatres resorted to unique methods such as holding outdoor shows and virtual performances, but the WCP remained closed to raise funds, perform necessary cleanup of the theater, and plan for a post-pandemic future.

“The morale was bad for all in community theater. It was disheartening and it was very hard to not be involved in live theater for such a long period of time,” said actor and treasurer JD Rinde. “We knew that we would come back, we had good attitudes towards that. It was hard, but on the other hand it’s just the reality of the time. Of course, everybody’s going through that. All of live theater was down – all the professionals, Broadway – so, we were in a big group.”

 Shortly after the state mandated shutdowns, the WCP held an emergency board meeting on Zoom to discuss how to move forward.

 “We did not let the dust settle in our theater. We made the decision to move towards reopening on the very first day because we heard about other theaters like the Attic that shut their doors. We said nope, we’ve been here for almost 60 years, there’s no way we’re shutting our doors. Let’s do everything we can to come up with options. Let’s keep our theater open,” said Nydegger.

 Tucked away in a residential area with its Tudoresque architecture, the 122-seat theater has quite the long-standing history.

 The Playhouse was formerly named Westminster Community Theatre before losing and regaining its nonprofit status in 2015. According to the theater’s website, Westminster Community Theatre was established in 1961 by a group of residents. Without having a venue to perform in, the group used school cafeterias and gymnasiums; they did not find a permanent building until 1972.

 WCP is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that typically makes under $50,000 annually in revenue.

 While other local theatres like the Attic Theatre in Santa Ana shut down permanently, WCP survived the pandemic primarily on donations and grants from the federal and state governments. Theatre officials declined to state how much they received in funds for privacy reasons.

Apart from grants and donations, additional measures were taken to reduce costs around the building, such as turning off the lights, keeping the air off, and getting rid of a refrigerator.

 Funds aside, members attribute their greatest survival tactic to be their positive mindset.

 “People always say ‘What’s the secret? How’d you survive?’ Persistence. Resilience. And just being dedicated to the craft and not giving into all of the pessimism that was going on,” said Nydegger.

THE WESTMINSTER COMMUNITY PLAYHOUSE, formerly the Westminster Community Theatre. (Photo by Nolan Thompson).

The Playhouse is comprised of unpaid volunteers full of passion for community theatre. The artistic outlet of performing arts is everything to the group, but working together motivates them to put in the effort.

 “I love the WCP so much that it’s easy to put in all the volunteer hours. And it’s fun working together with people that all feel the same pride about the theatre,” said actress and board member Laura Lejuwaan. “We are all really invested, having been on stage or behind the scenes. We all want good things for this theatre so that makes the work easy.”

Being such a tight-knit community made it all the more difficult for them to suddenly close the theater and not put on productions for over a year. Brooks-Anne Crumley is a secretary who has been at WCP for over 40 years. The many people she has met along the way, whether it be cast, crew, volunteers, or patrons, are what have inspired her to stick around for so long.

Crumley gives a personal account of how it felt to shut down and adapt to new modes of communication.

“It was scary. Not knowing how long the pandemic would last and of course, financially, how would we survive? WCP is very family oriented and to not see your family for over a year is not easy,” said Crumley. “Thank goodness for Zoom! We had Zoom board meetings which was very productive, considering that we never have done board meetings in that way.”

Undeterred by the closure, members took a proactive approach by maintaining the theatre’s upkeep and doing everything they could to reopen safely. They stocked up on masks and disinfectants and researched COVID protocols they would enforce when it was time to reopen, such as social distancing on stage, having a 50 percent capacity, and requiring audience members to wear masks at all times.

 In preparation for reopening, Board Member Eric Schiffer went hunting for resources and even got Westminster Community Playhouse to join the American Association of Community Theatre.

 “Once we established membership, I found that many webinars on AACT offered information for grants, emergency funding, discussions about streaming rights and royalty models, reopening protocols, and the like,” said Schiffer. “We were able to glean information that helped the WCP to weather the storm towards reopening.”

Members couldn’t have a traditional 60th anniversary celebration during the closure because getting the theatre up and running was their top priority.

A WALL of cast photos from previous productions, located in the boardroom at the Westminster Community Playhouse (Photo by Nolan Thompson).

Lejuwaan, who helped revamp the website, said that they had several workdays where everyone cleaned, organized, and painted the theatre.

 “Opening a theatre back up during COVID is a lot to navigate through. What if somebody gets sick? What if someone doesn’t wear their mask in the audience? How do rehearsals work? You’re trying to navigate and make everyone feel safe and I think, personally speaking, that took so much energy to reopen, that it was maybe not as celebratory,” said Lejuwaan. “But it sure felt good to have our theatre reopen and have people in the audience.”

 In addition to taking care of the theatre itself, the group took the closure as an opportunity to strengthen their own skills and make a strong comeback.

 “You just have to get through it. You plan and rehearse on your own, you try to practice your craft as much as you can by yourself. You wait for that moment to arrive when we can have live theater again,” said Rinde.

 Nydegger mentioned that he took online courses in sound training and lighting during COVID, and Lejuwaan took the time to practice her acting and audition for commercials.

 After it got the greenlight to reopen in August 2021, Westminster Community Playhouse put on the same show it put on pause when the pandemic hit, “Murder Runs in the Family.”

 “Once we felt we could open safely, as a board, we decided to do ‘Murder Runs in the Family’ because its a fun farce play. We didn’t want to open up after COVID with anything really heavy or dark. Also, it was already halfway cast and it meant for a short rehearsal time, so it was easy,” said Lejuwaan.

 Being in-person again was a surreal experience for the family of theatre professionals who greatly missed each other.

 “It was heartwarming, to say the least. To be able to do, on stage, what we are there for and to see our patrons and actors once again. However, it was a bit scary too. We still aren’t out of the woods,” said Crumley.

The Playhouse puts on six shows a year, seven counting their children’s show. Upon reopening, theater officials restructured the entirety of their current season to be lighthearted.

 “When people come back from COVID, they don’t want to see anything depressing, so we tried to make things a comedy. We set up our season for comedy so people could laugh; they don’t want to be depressed,” said Nydegger.

 Based on the high energy they have witnessed both on stage and in the audience, members adamantly believe that the future of the theater is “bright and healthy,” said Rinde.

 “We did really well with our first play, ‘Murder Runs in the Family,’ in August. We attracted probably more people than before the pandemic and I think it’s because a lot of people were just so anxious to get out of the house to go see plays. They were really excited and that helped us a lot. I see that people are coming back in groves,” said Rinde.

 For their 50th season anniversary, Crumley said that the theatre celebrated by bringing back shows it did over the years and trying to get some of their old directors back. Special pins were also made and everyone talked about the anniversary quite a bit, she said.

 Since putting on productions again this year, the theatre hasn’t formally celebrated their 60th season, but is actively acknowledging it both on their website and amongst themselves.

 “Celebrating our 60th anniversary was sorely missed. However, health is a big concern for all and so we closed our doors and zeroed in on listening to the proper way of getting us all out of the pandemic,” said Crumley. “However, I am sure that once we are all back to ‘normal’ we will celebrate a lot, including our 60 plus years of being a community theater.”

 Having been unable to fully complete their 60th season back in 2020, 2021 has become an honorary 60th season for Westminster Community Playhouse.

 “During COVID, I went through every picture I could find and saw the faces, so I am proud to be part of this group that is celebrating their 60th,” said Nydegger. It’s kind of depressing that we couldn’t celebrate yet but we are going to be celebrating this year.”

Leave a Reply