Little House on the Prairie

“Little House on the Prairie” was the last performance Plaza Theatre Co. held indoors in March 2020 before the pandemic. The theater will bring it back later this year as they prepare to reopen for the first time next weekend.

Plaza Theatre Co.’s long, unscheduled intermission ends soon.

After more than a year of scant to no activity, the playhouse’s 2021 slate of shows is scheduled to kick off Friday.

Seven productions make up this year’s lineup consisting of several new shows and several held over from last year’s partially canceled season.

“There are a lot of logistics to figure out still,” Plaza Artistic Director JaceSon Barrus said. “But there’s also great excitement in coming back from us and from patrons we’ve heard from.”

Sentiments Plaza Education Director Tina Barrus echoed.

“Very excited to finally be reopening,” Barrus said. “We need it. Our Academy kids and our actors need it and I think our community needs it. We’re all excited to get back to what we do.”

Throughout the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic Plaza’s team creatively forged on via outdoor drive-in movie style productions, smaller cast shows, online content and several attempts albeit quickly canceled at indoor productions. 

All of which made national news and kept Plaza’s name in the public but failed to prevent staff lay offs and the company’s ability to consistently offer indoor shows since March 2020.

Although donations were always appreciated and welcomed, most Plaza undertakings in the time of COVID came free of charge, presented, JaceSon Barrus said, more in attempt of buoying  spirits and giving back to the community that has given so much to Plaza. 

Other undertakings required admission though even those generated nowhere near the revenues Plaza realizes in normal years.

Cautiously optimistic while also eager and excited is how JaceSon Barrus approached Plaza’s pending reopening.

“Obviously we hope to be able to get back to full capacity as soon as possible,” JaceSon Barrus said. “We do not have a date when that will be because we’re still playing that by ear based on how the COVID-19 case numbers go. If those numbers continue to trend down then we hope to return to full seating capacity as soon as we can. But we won’t do that until it’s reasonable and safe to do so.”

Seating, for the beginning of the new season at least, will be limited with social distancing requirements still in place.

“We’ll also be asking audience members to wear masks,” JaceSon Barrus said. “That means, of course, that there will be some people who don’t want to come and we respect and understand that. 

“Our point of view is that it’s the only way we can open where we can protect both our audience and our performers and staff.”

The concession stand will operate on a limited basis initially as well and procedures will remain in place for the actors.

“We deliberately chose titles for this year’s lineup that have smaller sized casts,” JaceSon Barrus said. “So that we can better manage and keep them safe backstage. Actors will have their own spaces and be separated from each other and be required to wear masks when they’re backstage.”

On with the shows

JaceSon Barrus called the limited seating capacity a plus in one respect, mainly in regard to Plaza’s first scheduled show, “Tuck Everlasting.”

“More often than not we produce what we call pre-sold titles,” JaceSon Barrus said. “That is, plays most people are familiar with.

“With ‘Tuck Everlasting’ we deliberately chose a title we know isn’t pre-sold. Because, partially because we knew we were going to have limited seating for a while, we decided to pick a title that we’re passionate about, that we can pour our hearts into. Because, while many have probably not heard of the play, or maybe just heard the title, it’s such a beautiful story with a lovely message.”

“Tuck,” which runs Friday through July 3, started life as a book, which was turned into a movie then, about five years ago, adapted into a Broadway musical.

“A wonderful story,” JaceSon Barrus said. “It’s set in the Atlantic northeast, New Hampshire. It’s about a girl, 11, who has lost her father. She comes across a family when she’s visiting the wood outside her home who have drunk from a spring that gives them immortality. Tuck is the family’s name and everlasting because they can live forever.

“It explores the idea of what it means to live forever versus what it means to have no knowledge of when you’ll die. I know that sounds abstract but it’s quite good and the music is magnificent.”

“Pollyanna” follows.

“Most know the book and certainly the movie with Hayley Mills, which is actually one of my favorite movies,” JaceSon Barrus said.

JaceSon and Tina’s daughter, Tabitha Ybarra penned the new adaptation specifically for Plaza.

“Tabitha did the same very successfully a few years ago when we ran ‘Anne of Green Gables,’” JaceSon Barrus said. “Her version of “Pollyanna” brings a unique take to the original story. It’s narrated by the father who, in the original, had passed away. He observes her throughout the play and there are actually flashback scenes with him.”

JaceSon Barrus said he and all at Plaza thought it important to kick off the new season with two plays exuding upbeat optimism.

“We really wanted to put something beautiful out in the world, especially after the year everyone’s been through,” Jaceson Barrus said.

Shows scheduled in 2020 but then postponed fill out the rest of this year’s slate.

They include: “Titanic,” “Sherwood: The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “Smoke on the Mountain” and “Little House on the Prairie.”

“‘Little House’ is the show we were doing when we had to shut down,” JaceSon Barrus said. “So we’re excited to finally, after two attempts, bring it back and finish that run.”

Also exciting is this year’s Christmas show news.

“We had ‘Elf: The Musical’ scheduled for last Christmas, which would’ve been our first time to stage it,” JaceSon Barrus said. “We were very pleased that they gave us the rights to be able to finally stage it this Christmas season.”

Plaza’s pace, Tina Barrus joked, is about to kick into high gear.

“We’re going from hardly doing anything the past few months to shoving everything into the next three months, but also looking forward to it.”

Plaza Academy, which offers classes in acting, dance and theater arts begins new classes in the fall.

Between now and then three summer camps are planned, which will culminate in performances of “Frozen Kids” and “Sponge Bob Square Pants.”

“Kids can still sign up for the camps,” Tina Barrus said. “The teen camp is ‘Sponge Bob’ and lasts from July 5-16 then they’ll perform the show July 16-24.”

The kid’s camps run July 19-30 with a second mini-camp scheduled Aug. 2-6.

“They’re doing ‘Frozen Kids’ instead of ‘Frozen Junior’ this year,” Tina Barrus said. It sounds weird cause you say you’re doing frozen kids, but it just means it’s a little shorter than ‘Frozen Junior.’”

Tina Barrus and several young Plaza actors will depart for Suglarland June 25 to compete in the Junior Theater Festival’s competition, a competition Plaza actors have participated in and excelled at for several years running.

The festival, which usually takes place in Atlanta, Los Angeles, London and other locales has been more localized this year out of pandemic precaution.

“We’re planning to go back to the one we’ve been going to in Atlanta in January,” Tina Barrus said.

Staying afloat

Last year’s financial hit took a toll, Plaza officials admit. A toll they hope to mitigate through the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program.

The bipartisan bill originally called the Save Our Stages Act was introduced last year by U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin, and others.

The bill provides $15 billion in funding assistance to independent music and entertainment venues adversely affected by the pandemic.

The first tier of the grant application, the tier Plaza is in, includes organizations who lost more than 90 percent of their revenue compared to their 2019 season.

“They opened the application portal and we applied along with over 7,000 other organizations,” JaceSon Barrus said. “We got notification that they began awarding grants at the end of May. So we don’t know if we’ve been approved yet. 

“We intend and will go forward regardless of whether or not we get the grant, but that grant would obviously be very helpful in helping us get back on our feet.”

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