McPherson College theatre is changing a 40-year tradition.
“This year is not about upholding traditions. This year is all about adaptation,” Jd. Bowman, professor of theatre at McPherson College, said. “What does theatre look like in the era of self-quarantine and safety precautions?”
For more than 40 years, McPherson College theatre has treated its season tickets holders to a themed dinner in conjunction with the varied productions. Known as “First Nighters,” the program has been the sole fundraiser for the theatre department. The COVID-19 pandemic will change all that this year.
“We would love to offer our season ticket holders dining options for each show, but there is no way I’m taking that risk this year,” Bowman said. “Our patrons are too important to us.”
In recent years, First Nighters has seen an increase in members from 164 in 2017-2018 to just over 200 last year. Those season ticket holders count for roughly half of the theatre department budget when producing shows. Without that fundraiser, along with the restrictions of public gatherings, the program has needed to scale back its typical five to six productions to just four productions this season.
“This year, we’re producing two digital productions and (hopefully) two in-person productions in the spring,” Professor Jen Pollard, who is the technical director for McPherson College theatre, said. “It is so important for us to keep creating and developing new ways to tell our stories. This year has been a great reminder that we all need to work together. That doesn’t change if you are masked six feet apart or talking across computer screens.”
The first two productions of the season are Brian Friel’s “Molly Sweeney” scheduled for November and “Dutchman” by Amiri Baraka offered in January. Instead of presenting these as traditional productions, Bowman says the students will learn about acting for the camera and audiences will be able to log on to watch the work from their homes. The theatre season information and details about logging on to see the productions will be announced on www.mcpherson.edu/theatre/.
“We chose ‘Molly Sweeney’ because it features only three actors and they are never on stage in the same scene,” explained Bowman. “It will be easy for us to social distance while filming these rehearsals.”
“Molly Sweeney” is the Irish story about a blind woman whose husband pushes her to have a risky operation to gain sight. The college last produced this play in 1997.
“Dutchman” is a 1960s play about race with only two characters: one black man and one white woman. The department selected it because of its small production qualities and its important topical theme. “It was almost eerie that we picked to produce this play last February, and everything that has happened since has only made this play more relevant, not less,” Pollard said.
In the spring, the department hopes to be able to offer more traditional in-person shows. Plans are to produce the area premieres of “Native Gardens,” a comedy about neighborhood lawn judgements and “Puffs,” a comic retelling of the Harry Potter books series told from the perspective of the Hufflepuffs.
“I will miss our dinner theatre component,” Bowman said, “because it gave such a neat opportunity for our community to connect with our students. This season, we are able to still offer theatre but connect with our audience in a new way. Theatre will still have the opportunity to bring us together and hopefully transform our societal thought.”
“Think of how many times over the past few months that you have turned to the arts: to distract, to laugh, to cry, to be somewhere else, if even for a short time,” Pollard said. “It is vital we keep theatre going at this time.”
If you would like more information on any of the productions at McPherson College, you can visit www.mcpherson.edu/theatre or call the box office at 620-242-0444.