In March 2020, when COVID-19 hit the United States hard, Katy Brown was actively searching for an alternative way to bring their spring season at Barter Theatre to life.
Brown, the artistic director of Barter Theatre, looked at amphitheaters, fairgrounds and parking lots as potential venues, but was not too sold on the idea. Located in Abingdon, Virginia, Brown had an epiphany by late April that she wanted to use the Moonlite Drive-In to stage their productions during the pandemic. She had come across the Moonlite when she visited as an intern for Barter.
“I was looking for venues every weekend in a row,” said Brown. “I was sure that the Moonlite was what I wanted to use by late April, the month of May was about convincing people that I wasn't crazy. We had so many businesses, community members and government officials, everybody kind of got on board during the month of May. We were building out there by the beginning of June.”
Yet Barter was unaware of the obstacles they would face in restoring the Moonlite. The original owners of the Moonlite were hesitant to let the theatre renovate and use their property. There was no electricity, it was overgrown and the drive-in speakers looked as if they had been busted open with a bat and someone stole the wiring out of them. The community, hired workers and furloughed theatre staff banded together to work on bringing their productions to life that summer at the Moonlite.
“The box office was just falling down, it was peeling paint everywhere,” Brown said. “The screen was peeling. I really think people thought I was crazy. We repainted, we mowed acres and acres of land, redid some of the lettering.”
Another obstacle was allowing the cast to interact while also taking the proper safety precautions due to the pandemic. Brown assembled what she called a “Quaran-team” for the cast to live intentionally together and be safe. They were not allowed to get within 27 feet of anybody else and had to do their own laundry and make-up.
“We have Barter housing and they all stay in the same building together,” said Brown. “They had to isolate for the first two weeks and be tested until we were sure everyone was clear, and then they could be close to each other.”
Terrance Jackson was a member of the Quaran-team over the summer as an actor in the Barter Players and a creative content specialist for the theatre. He mentioned that living among his castmates improved chemistry on-stage and made it easier to get along.
“I think it made us closer, especially when a lot of our plays deal so much with family,” Jackson said. “I think that by us literally being creating a bubble and us really being a family that helped that helped us onstage because we were all really, really close because we were the only people that we could be close to. I loved my castmates and our company in general and I think it made a big difference.”
The rehearsal process also looked different than pre-COVID-19. Stage manager Dan Parsons had to disinfect props several times before it could be used by an actor. The whole sanitation team would clean the theatre between rehearsals.
“If they need a prop in rehearsal it has a very special drop off point, and then it has to be wiped down and disinfected with a special kind of disinfectant,” said Brown. “Then the stage manager comes and wipes it down again and he transports it to where it will be close to the actors. There are so many pieces to how we do this.”
As a performer, Jackson and the whole company had to adapt to being outside in the elements for the entirety of the show. For many, this was their first time performing that way. Not much, except for thunderstorms, stopped performances from happening since they had a covered stage.
“If it rained we generally kept going,” Brown said. “If it got really heavy, our video crew would get too wet and we had to dress them and head to toe in little umbrellas over their cameras. Really the only times that we had to stop as if there was lightning within a ten mile radius; we only had to call two shows.”
Sets were stored in storage containers in front of the stage. After the final bow each night, they would put away props and set pieces to avoid damage from the elements. The crew was in the containers to switch camera feeds and do the sound because no one is allowed to get close to the actors.
Their summer shows in 2020 consisted of “Wizard of Oz” and “Beauty and the Beast Jr.” With a totally touchless entry, the Moonlite saw 6,000 patrons for “Wizard of Oz”, with some nights seeing higher numbers of attendance than what could fit into Barter’s Main Theatre. According to Brown, people converged to watch shows at the Moonlite from 33 different states, and 43% of the people who came to the Moonlite had either never been to Barter or had not come in a long time.
“The Moonlite is incredible but I think all of us would say we can't wait to be back in Barter Theatre again because you miss hearing people laugh and cry, you miss hearing audience reactions,” Jackson said. “You still get audience reactions at the Moonlite, which is the best like when they honk their horns and flash their lights, but you do miss hearing people talk about being affected by the play.”
Since their initial Summer 2020 performances, Barter has put on more shows including “Mary Poppins Jr.”, “Dracula”, a concert by Eugene Wolf, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, “A Christmas Carol” and “Frosty”. Featured Spring 2021 shows are “The Tempest” and “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”. Barter Theatre plans to continue to use the Moonlite until it is once again safe to gather indoors. Until then, they are thankful to have Moonlite as an outlet for actors to perform and that they have actors committed to being a part of the season while making personal sacrifices.
“I originally had contracted [the Barter Players] to do three shows at the end of summer and then we wanted to do fall and Christmas, and I asked them if they wanted to stay,” Brown said. “All of them said yes; they all stayed in a bubble for six months. They couldn't see loved ones, couldn't hug their boyfriends, they couldn't get close to anybody for six months. It was an intense thing and a lot of them have signed on to come back this spring, which I'm excited about.”
To learn more about upcoming shows by Barter Theatre at the Moonlite Drive-In, visit bartertheatre.com/.