Face masks to theatre masks: Park Players Theatre Company overcomes obstacles of keeping theatre alive during pandemic

A group of characters from “The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940” gather around a set of blueprints of the estate during the second act of the play.

According to members of Plymouth-Canton Education Park’s Park Players Theatre Company, the organization seems to be putting the “drama” in drama club. 

Tensions are high, a huge mystery was revealed, people aren’t saying who they say they are, and yeah, someone’s going to die,” said Zoe Mihalic, Salem High School junior and member of Park Players. 

Of course, this was only in reference to their latest production, “The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940.”

“The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940,” which opened at the Gloria Logan Theatre on November 5, 2021, was Park Players’ first live show since February of 2020 as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. 

The show is a comedic, who-done-it-style mystery that centers around a group of theatre patrons who get together to put on a new musical, accidentally uncovering more clues to the case of the “Stage Door Slasher.” 

Though its cast reported the show to be a success, the current state of the world didn’t make a successful show a walk in the park. 

The COVID-19 pandemic threw many obstacles at Park Players Theatre Company throughout 2020 and into 2021, both during rehearsals and remote learning the prior year.

When lockdown hit the United States in early March of 2020, all theatre arts were heavily impacted, from small school productions to major Broadway musicals.  

According to a survey by the Educational Theatre Association, almost 91% of schools canceled their spring performances and nearly a quarter of drama teachers and theatre directors are operating with budget cuts this school year due to lack of ticket sales.

On a nationwide scale, revenue from live performances in quarter three of the 2019 and 2020 fiscal years dropped from $1.9 billion to under $900 million, according to the COVID-19 Data and Assessment Working Group at the National Endowment for the Arts. They also stated that as of November 2020, 61% of businesses in the entire arts sector still reported negative financial impacts due to the pandemic. 

As for performances at P-CEP, the cancellation of school beginning March 16, 2020, also caused the cancellation of Park Players’ “Anything Goes,” which was planned to open March 20. 

The company was left in approximately $15,000 of debt with the resulting cancellation. 

“At that point in the production, the rights and royalties for the show had already been paid, and our production staff had already put in the work,” said Paul Bird, director of International Thespian Society Troupe #354 and co-director of Park Players. 

Furthermore, the pandemic also made it harder for the company to organize events to raise funds or to ask patrons to donate. 

“People are already scrapping for money. Like, a lot of people lost their jobs during the pandemic,” said Daniel Ayotte, senior member of Park Players and president of Thespian Troupe #354. “So, you know, it’s a lot harder to ask people to donate to a theatre company when they’ve got to put food on the table, you know?”

The Park Players didn’t let lost revenue stop them. 

In the 2020-2021 school year, Park Players Theatre Company put on six radio shows, for which the casts were able to rehearse together in the Gloria Logan Theatre.

“It was a really unique experience for students and provided a new perspective on acting and performing,” said Bird. 

However, due to social distancing guidelines, auditions and casting for these productions was limited only to members of P-CEP’s Thespian Troupe #354, those who had done at least two prior productions and had a sufficient number of tech hours with Park Players. 

The lack of opportunities provided to those not in the Thespian Troupes during the radio shows caused some to feel a disconnect from the company and prevented other prospective Park Players from being involved with the company at all.

“And they were allowed to do the radio shows, while the rest of us were just supposed to sit in the back, you know?” said Grace Laney, a senior whose first show was the canceled “Anything Goes.”

Technicalities behind the Thespian points awarded for 2020 are still up in the air nearly two years later, which has thrown a wrench into many Players’ futures with the troupe. 

“I haven’t even become a Thespian this semester,” said Laney, who was also in December 2021’s “12 Angry Women.” “I won’t until next semester be able to engage in all of the intricacies of creating the shows, creating posters and advertising for the shows and working together just with my fellow people in theatre.” 

 In 2021, these issues are not going unacknowledged. 

“We’re trying to keep everybody involved and get even more people than ever,” Ayotte said, “because the goal of this year is to get more people involved and more people active in theatre.”

The “Musical Comedy Murders of 1940” cast noticed a large increase in volunteerism for the backstage crew in comparison to prior productions. 

“It was a lot easier than it’s ever been because non-Park Players didn’t have the opportunity to do things last year,” said Mihalic, who was a cast member and prop crew head for “Musical Comedy Murders of 1940.”

“We always struggle for finding people to do backstage crew because it’s not, like, the most glamorous of jobs,” said Ayotte, who also worked on carpentry crew. “But for carpentry, we had so many more people show up to volunteer that we’ve had ever before because I think people wanted to get involved right away.” 

Factors still affected backstage work that were out of the Park Players’ control. Lumber prices have recently spiked due to decreased labor, making it harder for theatre companies to get access to wood for their sets. Additionally, with two graduating classes of experienced Thespians gone since the Park Players’ last performances, there was a lack in leadership and training for those just getting involved.

“As a result, there was a steeper learning curve with the crew for this show than would normally be the case,” said Bird. 

Despite the various external factors affecting the program, a particular struggle that stood out was an adjustment back to preparing for a time-sensitive goal. 

“I think the biggest challenge we faced as a group was getting back into the groove, so to speak,” Bird said. “After a year of postponements and extended deadlines, it was a challenge to get back to the idea of things absolutely needing to be done by a specific date.” 

Nevertheless, “Musical Comedy Murders of 1940” managed to open on its originally planned debut date. The cast felt as though it was able to iron out all the kinks just in time for opening night, which had an unexpectedly large turnout according to Ayotte. 

“We had a lot of good running bits in the show that we got to work on together, and as a cast, I think we really did a good job to be the first people to put on a show for, you know, Park Players since the pandemic,” said Ayotte.

The performance provided satisfaction for the actors and crew.

 “It was so great to be able to witness just people having fun on stage again,” Laney said. 

Having a live audience enhanced the experience for the participants.

“Being in a radio show, it’s great and I’m glad we had that opportunity,” said Mihalic, “but there’s nothing like an audience and getting reactions from them, and just doing a lot of Park Players traditions that I’d never gotten to experience before.”