U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin, called Plaza Theatre Co. an important and impressive Cleburne institution Tuesday as he stood on the empty stage addressing a small group of Plaza officials, board directors and supporters.

“I’m visualizing what this is like full, filled with children and families,” Williams said. “And we’re going to get that back. Because I don’t believe this is the new normal for us. We’re going to get back to normal.”

Plaza, during normal times, employs more than 20 full and part-time staff, Plaza Artistic Director JaceSon Barrus said. The theater presents roughly 12 plays per year staging more than 200 performances. 

“We look forward to the day when we may be able to get back to that,” Barrus said. “But, for the time being, we’re not able to.”

For now, however, Plaza remains shuttered as it has, with one attempt to reopen, since March 14.

“We were in the middle of our production of “Little House on the Prairie” when the [COVID-19] shutdown came and, boom! We shut down,” Barrus said. “We’ve been able to produce full-length shows inside our theater since because of the pandemic.

“And, as you can imagine, that’s had somewhat of an affect on us. At one point we applied for and received a [Paycheck Protection Program loan] and were able to retain our staff for a couple of months. But after a couple of months it became obvious the shutdown was going to continue and we had to lay them off.”

Such stories are unfortunately too common among live theaters and music venues across America in the wake of COVID-19, Williams said. Which is why he along with U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vermont, recently coauthored the Save Our Stages Act, a bill that, if passed, will offer grants administered through the Small Business Administration for independent theaters and music venues.

“We’ve carved out $10 billion in funding,” Williams said. “It’s bipartisan legislation, which is important. You can’t say bipartisan too much in Washington these days but we’ve got a bunch of signatures from both sides of the aisle on this.”

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R—Texas,  and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D—Minnesota, recently introduced a similar bill in the Senate.

“We just have to get it on the floor in the next spending package that we put together,” Williams said. “We’re back in session Sept. 14. This bill should be a no brainer. But, it’s an election year and everything is so political right now. But, like I said, this has had support on both sides and isn’t something partisan or controversial.”

Williams met with officials and supporters and toured Plaza Theatre on Tuesday during which Barrus and others filled the congressman in on the many roles Plaza plays.

The inability to hold shows inside the theater hasn’t completely stopped Plaza in its tracks, Barrus said.

“We’re adaptable folk,” Barrus said. “So, after the March shutdown, we moved our operation to our parking lot where we set up a temporary stage and invited folks to drive in in their cars and we broadcast over their car radios. We did over 10 performances that way, which was considered so innovative that we actually made the national news.”

Plaza members also took to online performances and broadcasts in the interim.

“We’re a community theater,” Barrus said. “We’re big believers in being part of the community. We love this community, love our place in it and love being part of all the different, wonderful things going on here.”

In addition to Plaza Theatre at Dudley Hall, nearby Plaza Main Street Theatre stages children’s plays and other productions while Plaza Academy offers theater, dance and music classes.

“Education was the plan for Plaza from the beginning,” Plaza Education Director Tina Barrus said. “We have had the privilege of teaching hundreds of students in the past 14 years. At the time of the shutdown we had over 300 students enrolled in our academy. Between our academy and [Plaza Main Street] our students have participated in over 55 shows.”

Those students, Barrus said, come from throughout Johnson County and the Metroplex.

“Our Harmony Connection Program focuses on bringing theater to special needs students,” Barrus said. “They get to do their own productions. We offer scholarships for at-risk students and do everything we can to help families going through a rough time.”

The shutdown forced cancellation of summer camps this year as well as the cancellation or postponement of nine children’s productions.

“To help our students stay active we took our classes online,” Barrus said. “We worked with a Broadway performer who did three online master classes for our advanced students. We also produced a weekly online musical revue, which gave students the opportunity to perform from their own home. The creativity of these students has been an absolute delight for us to watch as their teachers but also for our audience.”

Long-time Plaza fan Dr. Steve Mullen told Williams that Plaza Academy offers much beyond theater arts.

“They set the standard not only in theater and dance but they also teach the students values, integrity and how to incorporate those,” Mullen said.

That, Tina Barrus said, is the hope.

“Helping students find themselves and become an active and positive part of the world is for me an absolute joy,” Barrus said. “We believe in giving students a home and a community and the academy is one of our favorite things we do at Plaza.”

Heather Archer Wilson, whose daughter attends Plaza Academy, told Williams told Williams that the academy excels in achieving those goals.

“Through my observation I saw a deep, deep commitment to the students of the academy,” Wilson said. “It’s clearly evident that they genuinely care and are dedicated to the well being of the children of this community. Plaza’s played an integral role in the development of my daughter. I’ve seen her grow in her love of theater but also in her personal confidence and who she is.”

Mullen spoke of the benefits Plaza brings both through tourism and entertainment experience. 

Local actor and former educator Jay Lewis agreed.

“Oscar Wilde sums it up very neatly with his quote,” Lewis said. “‘I regard theater as the greatest of all art forms. The most immediate way in which a human being can share with another a sense of what it is to be a human being.’”

Plaza Operations Director Aaron Siler spoke of the shared experience of theater and relayed stories from several patrons on what Plaza means to them.

“Our patrons have been great in their support through this and I believe they will be back once we’re able to reopen,” Siler said. “But the big question is the Save Our Stages Act because it will take some money for us to get open again the way we were.”

Williams said that while most know him as a congressman and former baseball player, he’s also had a lifelong love of theater.

“We lived in Kansas City until I was 8 and every Saturday my mother and dad would take me to the Starlight Theatre,” Williams said. “Later, after we moved to Fort Worth, my dad became president of Casa Manana.”

Williams, who joked he didn’t inherit any of his parent’s talents, said his father often sang in Casa shows and that his mother was a musician.  Through his parents Williams said he met actress Ruta Lee and singer Robert Goulet.

Williams applauded Plaza’s staff for thinking outside the box while their otherwise shut down.

“I love the shows in the parking lot idea,” Williams said. “That’s what entrepreneurship is all about. We find a way. In you industry they say the show must go on, and that’s what you’ve been doing.”

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