MTC says ‘the show must go on’

Local theater group finds new, creative ways to stage productions.

Mark Morgan said he’s always subscribed to a certain, well-known theater mantra, and the saying doesn’t ring any less true amid a global pandemic.

“I take the whole ‘Show must go on’ thing pretty seriously,” he said. “Someone says, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ You find a way.”

So that’s what the producing artistic director of the Moorestown Theater Company (MTC) has done. He’s found a way to keep local theater alive amid the shutdowns and within COVID safety guidelines. During the summer, the nonprofit utilized a new and creative approach to theater, and come fall, it will offer classes to keep its performers skills sharp while local school and theater company productions are shut down.

When the pandemic hit back in March, MTC was in the midst of rehearsing for two different productions. Its own performers were rehearsing “Moana,” and MTC also runs the drama club at Our Lady of Good Counsel (OLGC) School on Main Street, where students were rehearsing “High School Musical.” When everything shut down, MTC decided to keep rehearsals for “High School Musical” going via Zoom. 

Ultimately, the company decided not to let students’ efforts go to waste. So  in June, students who still felt comfortable performing met in the OLGC parking lot and performed the musical with face shields. MTC recorded the production for DVD so students could safely share the experience with friends and family. 

Morgan said MTC has held summer camps for the last 14 years, but there was fear that this might be the year it couldn’t host its Summer Stage productions. But when Gov. Phil Murphy gave the green light to summer camps, MTC eagerly put the word out of its opening. 

The company subsequently held three camps this summer, resulting in productions of “The Big One-Oh!,” “Sister Act Jr.” and “Dear Edwina Jr.” Morgan said MTC strictly followed guidelines, with everyone wearing a mask, staff taking the temperature of anyone who walked through the doors and cleaning of all high-touch surfaces multiple times throughout the day. 

Around that same time, MTC was settling into its new home along Moorestown’s central thoroughfare. The nonprofit now occupies the space at 5 Main St., next to BAYADA Home Health Care. Given it couldn’t perform in a typical theater, Morgan asked the owner of the health-care company, Mark Baiada, if MTC could use BAYADA’s parking lot to stage musicals. He eagerly agreed.

So, MTC performed in the adjacent parking lot and recorded the musicals. The productions were subsequently put on MTC’s website, where they’re  available for streaming until the end of the year. The cost of a “ticket” is $12 to view the production.

Morgan said with each effort, MTC’s productions got more refined. The company started with face shields and taped characters’ names to them to help the audience, before moving on to clear facial masks that made it easier to see and hear the performers.

MTC also hosted two productions of “Godspell” with its Rising Stage group,   consisting of performers who are high school seniors and those up to age 29. Because the rights to “Godspell” prohibited MTC from streaming the production, the theater group hosted two viewings in the parking lot. Morgan said he drew out a checkerboard with boxes 6 feet apart so people could bring their lawn chairs and safely watch the performance.

In all the productions, MTC did its best to keep performers spaced out and not touching, which involved some degree of creativity. Morgan said actors were encouraged to think of different ways to signal hugs or affection,  whether with a salute, elbow bump or a blown air kiss. Because the outdoor setting limited set designs, in some productions, actors held up signs to indicate the setting during a scene change. In “Godspell,” actors put on gloves before carrying the actor who played Jesus off the cross. 

As they look to possible fall productions, Morgan said MTC is keeping the  constraints in mind. The company is considering shows that have simple sets, with distancing, spacing, ease of costumes and complexity of set design. 

Typically, MTC holds somewhere between 10 and 12 classes in the fall. This year, however, it offers 50. Morgan said most schools and local theater companies are not holding fall plays, so MTC wanted to fill that void. It is encouraging local performers to use the time they would have spent after school to come work with the company. 

The classes run the gamut, including tap, exercise and acting. All classes will be held at MTC’s Main Street location and participants must wear a mask. 

Morgan said there is more than just the thrill of performing that local actors are currently missing, including the camaraderie that forms between performers throughout a production. So people are missing the social aspect as  well. 

There is also a certain sense of escapism that actors get when they throw themselves into a role. Morgan said now, more than ever, people are searching for that reprieve from reality, and MTC is hoping to provide it.

To view one of MTC’s productions or to sign up for a fall course, visit www.MoorestownTheaterCompany.org