Matthews Playhouse of the Performing Arts was supposed to be celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, but COVID-19 has prompted the community theater organization to adapt to a world in which people are encouraged to isolate from others.
The thought crossed Matthews Playhouse founder June Bayless’s mind that the pandemic would be the death knell for theater and affect all of entertainment.
“That thought occurred to me, but we’re resilient,” Bayless said. “Theater and storytelling have been around since the very beginning of time. We will find a way to persevere.”
Bayless and her team at Matthews Playhouse are doing everything they can to get those stories told.
After an initial period of shock, her team researched what professional companies and other groups were doing.
“Unable to provide in-person theater entertainment, we began questioning how we could remain engaged and relevant in the community during this crisis,” said Marie-Michele Darcy, program manager. “We wanted to continue to engage the community, provide some entertainment and also try to assist with efforts locally with COVID relief.”
The organization started by increasing its presence on social media by streaming weekly entertainment. They’ve called numbers for virtual bingo, walked supporters through a murder mystery and even held a couple of “Masked Singer”-inspired programs featuring popular performers.
Matthews Playhouse was able to monetize some events, opting to donate a portion of the proceeds to organizations like the Matthews HELP Center, Union County Crisis Assistance and Common Heart.
Darcy said Matthews Playhouse has adopted the mantra of “We are better together.” They’ve manifested this idea through a 25 Days of Thankfulness social media campaign, which was the brainchild of board member Debbie Messner.
The campaign has allowed the nonprofit to thank a lot of the people in the community that keep community theater alive.
“I do think the 25 Days Of Thankfulness is both an acknowledgment of and affirmation of the local community, its spirit of involvement and those who support Matthews Playhouse and its mission,” Darcy said.
Matthews Playhouse is planning a couple of virtual shows next month, including a free performance of “A Virtual Christmas Carol” on Dec. 4. It will offer a performance of “It’s a Wonderful Life Virtual Radio Show” that can be watched anytime Dec. 18 through Jan. 3 for a fee of $10 per family.
Bayless has been coordinating a play festival for 2021 that will feature Black writers. She also would like to hold a musical production with orchestra and live actors over two weekends at Stumptown Park.
While she’s always thinking about Matthews Playhouse, Bayless said the work has been more exhausting since the pandemic because they are always learning something new.
Organizations are like hers are not considered essential, yet the first thing most people do when they’re stuck at home is log on to Netflix.
“We’re your escape,” Bayless said. “We’re the ones that help you emotionally get through this.”
She hopes that when the pandemic subsides people return to the theater for shows, classes and summer camps.