For years, people suggested to Kevin Esmond that the Burlington County Footlighters host performances in its spacious backyard. While there certainly was the room, the logistics seemed difficult. There was noise from a nearby park and traffic to contend with, and it just didn’t seem like a viable option.
Cut to summer 2020. The park’s gone quiet, and fewer people are on the roads with locals opting to stay home due to COVID-19. Given current restrictions on indoor gatherings, now was the perfect time to take the Footlighters operation outside. So members constructed an outdoor stage for socially distanced shows in the theater’s backyard.
The Burlington County Footlighters is a community theater group that draws members from across its county. Esmond, president of the nonprofit, said when he stepped back into the Footlighters’ theater for the first time since March, it was like the venue had been frozen in time, a bit ironic given the set from its last show was “Frozen Jr.”
“The building was like a mausoleum; it was like a time capsule,” Esmond said.
The “Frozen Jr.” run was paused because of COVID shutdowns, and at the time, the question loomed as to when or if the Footlighters would be able to go back to it. When the group realized that wasn’t possible, the question then became when or if it would get to put on any shows.
In the spring, the group’s board met in its backyard to discuss options. Esmond recalled that there was suddenly a lot of uncertainty surrounding the operation. At the time, the nonprofit set a series of deadlines and pushed back show dates.
“We were really scared,” Esmond noted. “We’ve got a mortgage. All of a sudden all of our income went to nothing.”
The dates came and went, and the theater group was still prohibited from meeting indoors. When the stay-at-home order was lifted, it was the Footlighters’ set designer, Jim Frazer, who came up with a solution: He decided to build an outdoor stage right in the theater’s backyard and quickly sought the appropriate permitting from Cinnaminson township.
Esmond described Frazer as a total one-man operation, between getting the approvals and building the stage. By August, he had built a stage large enough to keep several actors socially distanced as they performed.
The group was delighted to discover it could host the annual summer camp program for students ages 8 to 15. Esmond admits he was initially fearful about how the program might go, but he was delighted to see that the young performers were more than eager to keep their masks on and stay 6 feet apart during outdoor rehearsals.
Esmond said after months of being stuck in the house and away from their friends, the young actors were eager to get back to something they were passionate about — even if it came with a slew of restrictions.
In late August, the Footlighters’ held its first performance for an audience since March. Students from the summer camp performed a cabaret show with no more than two performers on a stage at a time to comply with social distancing.
Audience members were required to wear masks and had their temperatures taken before they could enter. From there, they were seated 6 feet apart in every direction, and the theater doors were locked to discourage people from going indoors. Only one attendee at a time was permitted in the theater to use the bathroom.
Once the stage was up and running, the Footlighters started thinking about shows that would allow their actors to remain distanced while on stage. Esmond admits that was no easy task, but the group decided on “The Sure Thing” for its first official show in the backyard.
The show has only six scenes, each with three people at most on stage at any given time. Performers wore masks for the entire show and kept a minimum of 6 feet between each other during their entire time on stage.
Esmond said at the time, he was delighted that performers, crew and audience members were all eager to comply with the guidelines without complaint. But they were also hyper aware that due to COVID and its guidelines, the production could have been shut down at any given time, so all were eager to do their parts and ensure safe performances.
In September, Footlighters staged a performance of “Love Letters,” starring 6ABC news anchor Rick Williams and his wife, Jocelyn Mitchell-Williams. Given they both live in the same household, the couple didn’t need to worry about performers keeping a distance or wearing masks around one another on stage.
The Footlighters have two upcoming productions, one mystery themed and one horror themed. On Friday, Oct. 2, its actors will perform “Herlock Sholmes and the Mysterious Case of the Jersey Devil” with shows through Oct. 10.
At this point, the nonprofit isn’t planning much further than the fall, given the weather will likely become too cold to host outdoor performances. The Footlighters has taken out a loan to help cover mortgage costs, but it’s unclear whether the group will be back to staging performances indoors next spring.
In the meantime, the troupe is grateful to come together in whatever capacity it can. Esmond stressed that members are all volunteers who share the same passion, so if they have to stage productions 6 feet apart in the backyard, wearing masks or observing whatever restrictions they need to put in place, they’ll do that.
“Because we do love it,” Esmond said. “We’re certainly not going to stop.”