Intermission is over.
Appomattox-based Wolfbane Productions is opening its first live indoor show since the COVID-19 pandemic closed the theater’s doors last March.
With many health guidelines and restrictions still in place, live theater still looks different from pre-pandemic days, with reduced capacity at indoor venues, social distancing and mask requirements.
But staff and artists at Wolfbane are seizing the opportunity of small crowd sizes to create an immersive audience experience they would not have been able to provide under normal circumstances for a long-anticipated production of Ken Ludwig’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express.”
“It’s our ‘little season that could,’” said Ken Arpino, executive director of Wolfbane Productions, of the 2021 season’s first show.
Although “Murder on the Orient Express” was selected as Wolfbane’s audience choice production for 2020, artistic producer and Wolfbane founder Dustin Williams said before the pandemic, he had been hesitant to put it on, primarily because a traditional audience of 250 individuals seated on risers would not be conducive to the ideal experience for such a story.
Now that Wolfbane has to operate at a quarter of indoor capacity for live events, however, Williams realized he finally had the chance to deliver the popular show.
“As we started talking about rolling out, we’re like, ‘We can only have a handful of people in here! What are we going to do with that?’” Williams said. “And then it came back into my head. I was like, well, the reason I said no to audience choice is because I wanted to do it when we only had a handful of people, and we thought that would be something we would never be able to do in our lifetime, a show for just a small, tiny little audience. I was like, ‘This is the one time in our life that we’ll be able to do that.’”
Attendees will be welcomed as passengers aboard the Orient Express as the theater seats are transformed into train cars for an immersive murder-mystery experience.
Seats are available in pairs, little “pods” that comply with social distancing guidelines. Plexiglass or some form of shield will be placed between the stage and the seats closest to the front for the protection of both actors and audience members, Williams said.
Sixty seats will be available per night for the performances running Thursdays through Sundays from tonight till closing May 2, Arpino said.
In an effort to keep COVID-19 spread as low as possible, Wolfbane cast local actors instead of bringing out-of-towners in from places such as New York. They also double-cast certain roles to minimize the number of individuals in the ensemble. Crew members are pulling double-duty on the technical side of production, Williams said.
While actors are also still cautious and mindful of the ongoing pandemic — one saying at first they were critical of theaters trying to re-open potentially too early — the actors in the company of 10 for “Murder on the Orient Express” are excited to finally be back on stage. The pandemic closed down their passion, making the last year a strain for many.
Hubbard Farr, the production’s Detective Hercule Poirot with a long history at Wolfbane, had mixed emotions about getting back to live performances: excitement and nerves from feeling out of practice, plus skepticism at the prospect of opening theaters again in the face of a serious virus before being put at ease by the safety plan developed by Wolfbane’s leadership.
“I think the whole country is waiting,” Farr said of the theater industry. “They’re dying for something that resembles normalcy, or anything to get them out of their house. I think theater’s probably going to have a big boom, bigger than it probably has seen in a long time.”
Farr said the cast and crew sought to create an intimate, immersive experience for audiences while keeping with health guidelines, making everyone involved have to get creative at a whole new level.
“I’m just happy to take this little baby step to get back toward some kind of normalcy,” said Beverly Owens, a Lynchburg-based actor playing Princess Dragamiroff.
While she was likewise hesitant at first, Owens said her worries were allayed after understanding the re-opening plan.
“I definitely breathed a little easier once we finally got there and found out exactly how rehearsals were going to run, exactly how the backstage would be, and then, once the performances started, how that would go. I felt a lot more comfortable after finding out how much research and preparation they put into everything before they even decided to have auditions,” she said.
Losing theater for a year was a mourning process, Owens said. While the shutdown offered some opportunities to focus on personal projects or explore other interests and passions, it was difficult to get along without performing, a fundamental part of who actors are.
Designing sets in a pandemic presented a new challenge for Williams. He described the process as a form of Tetris.
“Normally, you just kind of design the set, and you’re like, ‘I get to make this set, and it will be like this, and this will be great!’ But this show, the set started with going through and moving seats throughout the theater. Measuring and doing the math of, how many can this seat? Where can this be? What can we have?” Williams said.
Going forward in its season of live performances, Wolfbane has plans for outdoor shows when possible. The upcoming production of “Steel Magnolias” is ready for indoor or outdoor scenarios, and this fall’s “Young Frankenstein” was designed to take place outside no matter what.
This year, staff are monitoring more than just weather forecasts for outdoor shows.
“Normally when we’re doing outdoor theater, we watch the weather apps,” Arpino said. “We watch [White House Chief Medical Advisor
Dr. Anthony] Fauci, and the reports on how the vaccine is rolling out, stuff like that. It’s like the new weather for us, which we never thought would be the case. Not only are you watching weather and all that stuff for your season; you’re watching the COVID numbers, and watching the chart, and thinking about your audience’s safety.”
The Wolfbane team will take weekly COVID-19 tests, Williams said, in addition to masking and practicing social distancing as more in-person work commences.
Attendees will be required to comply with COVID-19 guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when they come for a show, including mandatory mask-wearing and temperature checks.
“Especially for the first show back in the season, we are not tone deaf to what’s happening,” Arpino said. “We just wanted our patrons to know that we’ve thought about them in this process, and that they’re going to be taken care of when they come to this space.”
Over the past year, Wolfbane remained active with digital initiatives, growing its Patreon platform. Those efforts will continue, even as live events are able to commence, Williams said.
“We named ourselves Wolfbane Productions at the beginning because we had hoped to be more than just live theater and get into digital, because all of us have a little bit of background in that, so it’s been fun to dip our toes in that and make something different for a year,” he said.
Coming up on Patreon, Williams said he is creating a mini-documentary video showing the behind-the-scenes process of putting on a live performance during a pandemic.
Reflecting back on the past year without live theater — a bleak, jarring disruption — Arpino said the pandemic’s shutdown of arts and entertainment gave him a new appreciation for the work he loves, a reminder not to take for granted the community that theater creates.
“We keep talking about, if we had known that’s the last show you’ll have for — how long — at least a year, to appreciate that,” he said. “We ended that, and we were like, ‘On to Mardi Gras!’ and then ‘Steel Magnolias!’ It was just, like, on to the next. Then it’s like, ‘Oh, wait. Stop and appreciate that, and really think about what you’re doing.’”
The communication that takes place between artists and audiences is likewise something Arpino said the pandemic made him aware of.
“Not having anything like that for a year has been really different,” he said. “It’s something I didn’t realize how much that mattered. I knew it mattered, because it’s what I love to do. It’s what I do for a living, but how much that conversation between the artists and the audience does uplift you, and you feel part of something. I think to appreciate that more when it comes back is something I’m learning.”
Williams and Arpino focus on the opportunities becoming available as optimism for slow, safe theater re-opening grows.
“This limited audience, the spacing, and the style of the show allows for a whole different experience,” Williams said of “Murder on the Orient Express.” “Not typical theater, but it will still be live theater.”