WILMINGTON — The state’s official nonprofit theater company, Thalian Association Community Theater (TACT), has announced its 2022-2023 season. It will include two Wilmington premieres and, hopefully, no Covid outbreaks — something cast and crew have had to contend with since bringing live theater back to Thalian Hall’s main stage last summer.
Despite precautions artistic director Chandler Davis and executive director Susan Habas put in place to keep actors and crew safe during rehearsals, TACT had to move their third show of the current season, “Company,” to the end of summer. “We had a breakout,” Davis said.
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Three of 16 people involved were infected during the omicron spike in January, delaying the show’s February curtain call.
As rehearsals begin again for “Company” this spring, TACT also will hold auditions for next season’s roster: “Something Rotten,” “A Christmas Story: The Musical,” “The Philadelphia Story,” “Cinderella,” and “The Wedding Singer.” The first and last show of the lineup will be Wilmington debuts.
“I’m always thinking about what has not been done recently,” Davis said, “or what could be a Wilmington premiere. And, you know, my next kind of thing was just producing a feel-good season. We want to do theater that makes people smile, especially since there has been a lot of uncertainty lately.”
There are four musicals and play in the lineup. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella” will bring a fairy tale to life, which Davis is looking forward to creating.
“It’s a chance for us to do something fantastical and experiment with our designs a little more,” she said.
“The Wedding Singer,” based on the Adam Sandler movie, comes packed with comedy backed by an ‘80s jukebox of sound.
“‘Something Rotten!’ cracked me up when I saw it on Broadway,” Davis said. “And Thalian likes to start out strong with a big musical every year.”
The show first debuted on Broadway in 2015, and was nominated for 10 Tonys and won one for Best Featured Actor in a Musical for Christian Bole’s role as Shakespeare. It follows the story of Nick and Nigel Bottom — brothers who are struggling to get their theater troupe off the ground, mainly because they have to compete with their wildly popular contemporary, William Shakespeare.
The one play of the season without music and dance numbers will come with “The Philadelphia Story,” a show that was also a classic Hollywood film. It tackles a socialite’s hijinks surrounding her love life involving three men.
“I love Katharine Hepburn,” Davis said, referring to the 1940 film. “But I included it because it’s just as important to keep plays on the main stage, too. Musicals are the big moneymakers, but we have a lot of great talent in Wilmington, and not all of them have opportunities to perform on the main stage.”
The holidays will bring the reprisal of “A Christmas Story: The Musical” — based on the 1983 film often seen during its 24-hour rerun on cable channels each Christmas Day. Thalian last did the show in 2017.
Choosing a hit for the holidays is part of the company’s strategy to have a financially viable season. A show can cost upward of $40,000 to $60,000 to produce. According to GuideStar, the TACT spends almost $300,000 in theater productions annually. While most shows bring in 70% box office sales, averaging $6,000 profit, Habas said holiday shows increase to 80% box office sales. Plus, the group adds more performance dates.
“Those shows can put us in the $25,000 profit range,” she said. “So the holiday shows really are what makes it for us. But we can also very easily lose up to 25 grand on a show — which happens all the time. It doesn’t take too many of those to eat up your operating capital.”
Like every industry, Covid has driven up prices to put on a production, with lumber cost increases and supply-chain issues, especially relevant when it comes to building sets, constructing costumes and hiring creative crews. Habas and Davis concur it’s about 25% more to launch a production than it was pre-Covid — even when considering what can be recycled from former musicals and plays.
“It’s also affected the licensing companies and shipping warehouses,” Davis said. Rights to produce shows have doubled. “And it takes twice as long to get scripts and music,” she added.
To offset costs, the 2022-2023 season will see an increase in ticket prices by $2. The team also is focusing more on fundraising and sponsorships, as well as season packages. At the end of the day, if TACT breaks even, Davis said she is happy that each production can pay for itself.
“My number one job is to produce theater for people to participate in,” she clarified, “to provide a creative outlet for community members in town.”
TACT is the oldest theater company operating in North Carolina, founded in 1788. It works in youth theater as well, and announced its 2022-2023 season includes a rendition of Disney’s “Descendents,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Schoolhouse Rock,” and “Tuck Everlasting.”
All musicals and plays TACT produces are filmed, which goes back to New Hanover County Schools for students to see, as well as youth organizations such as the Brigade Boys and Girls Club.
Like most nonprofits affected by the pandemic, TACT shows stopped completely in March 2020 and remained shuttered for 16 months. Habas said the nonprofit subsisted on grants, including federal funds, such as $277,947 received from the Small Business Administration’s Shuttered Venues Grant.
TACT launched its first musical back with “Beehive” last July, which Davis said did really well during its one-weekend run. Two months later, when “Driving Miss Daisy” went up, it was impacted by the delta variant and in effect drew in lower audience attendance, Habas said.
“We have really had to adjust — and I hate this word — but ‘pivot,’ according to what’s happening with Covid in the community,” Habas said.
Both Davis and Habas are hopeful for smoother operations in the coming year, both in launching productions and seeing steady audiences. Participation was at a high when Covid-19 numbers decreased and mask mandates were lax.
The company will evolve with standards set by the governor’s office, the North Carolina Health and Human Services Department, as well as the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control. Gov. Roy Cooper announced over a week ago that masks should be dropped by Mar. 7 indoors and remain optional in schools and local governments.
“We have been wearing masks in rehearsal during this season, until we get into tech week,” Davis explained. “It’s hard to sing in a mask, it’s hard to dance in a mask. We’re just looking forward to the whole process being easier and still keeping people safe to come back in coming months.”
TACT requires those who audition and are cast in each show to be vaccinated or provide a medical reason not to be. Those who aren’t inoculated take a Covid test once a week throughout the six-week-or-more rehearsal process and the show’s run.
Auditions and roles are being posted now on TACT’s social media for the current season. Posts will come in May for the new season, which kicks off in September.
TACT also will produce one summer show, “Dogfight,” directed by Cathy Street. It follows the story of a group of Marines who are to be shipped off to Vietnam in the early ‘70s. They make a bet to pick the least attractive girl to take out for an evening — one soldier chooses a waitress and ends up connecting with his date. Davis said the show explores trauma and mental health. She planned to do it before Covid, but said it feels very relevant to the here and now.
“I just miss doing those smaller, intimate shows that maybe aren’t gonna pull 800 people,” she said. The production will be hosted in the Hannah Block Community Arts Center and USO building, which the Thalian Association manages for the City of Wilmington.
“Though we’re a retired USO, we try to do things that relate to the armed services and thought this was a good tie-in,” Davis added.
2022-2023 season tickets to the Thalian Association productions open in May. Tickets to the rest of its 2021-2022 season are on sale now, including April’s “Little Shop of Horrors,” May’s “Sleuth” and August’s “Company.” It also is producing the rest of its youth theater productions: “Children of Eden Jr.” in March and “Junie B’s Essential” in April and May.
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