Story By Derek Herscovici and Michelle Key

After experimenting with different forms of theater during the summer, the actors are ready for the curtains to rise again

It was supposed to be the biggest show of the year. Months had gone into planning the Auburn Area Community Theater’s (AACT) show before the coronavirus pandemic made sitting inside a theater impossible. 

But rather than shut down for the summer, the AACT took their performance outside to the Kreher Preserve and Nature Center to a “Musical Walk in the Woods.” Similar to a walking ghost tour, AACT volunteers led groups of guests at different intervals through a guided musical experience unlike anything Auburn has ever experienced. 

In between hearing Auburn University professor David Carter sing “Some Enchanted Evening” and Auburn University theater students performing songs from “Wicked,” guests were treated to Broadway trivia, stories of Rogers & Hammerstein and more. 

“Every 10 minutes another group took off, and you could buy a ticket to be one of the 10 and limit it that way, or you could buy the whole slot and have your own family and nobody else,” said AACT Art Director Andrea Holliday. “It was a lot of fun and I think, because it was outdoors, it was well-structured and the facility itself [worked well for the event], it was lovely.” 

The event went so well, Holliday envisions a similar type of ‘walking theater’ in the fall. 

The theater puts on five different shows in one calendar season: a teen show in March that is ages 13 and up, two adult shows in May and August, a children’s performance in October for ages 5-12 and a major performance in November. 

The AACT has found plenty of ways to continue engaging audiences this socially distanced summer. One online-specific show, “Super Happy Awesome News,” was written for younger audiences based on input from teenagers in the pandemic and was filmed in segments, then edited together. 

The safety of the volunteers during the pandemic is critical because they have so many roles in the community and no one is paid for their work. 

Though she helped found the Auburn Area Community Theater in 2003 and has served in a wide variety of roles before becoming art director, Holliday still works full-time as an engineer with the East Alabama Medical Center. For everyone involved, it’s a labor of love. 

“My saying is, ‘In community theater, you can do a good job, or you can have a great time, but you have to do at least one.’ I think we found that right balance to do a really good job and support each other and have a good time and put on a damn good show — people say that to us every time they come, somebody goes ‘well I didn’t think community theater was this good!’”

The Auburn Area Community Theater has already scheduled a show to run from Nov. 19 through Nov. 22, a variation of Dickens’ classic “A Christmas Carol” that incorporates healthy pandemic guidelines to make it safe for both performers and audiences. 

A “play-within-a-play,” a cast of four men and four women will play voice actors in a 1940s radio broadcast where they play multiple roles, create sound effects live onstage and more in service of creating “A Christmas Carol” for the imaginary ‘listeners’ over the airwaves. 

With microphones and set props spaced a safe distance apart, the play itself fits well into these pandemic-dominated times, said Holliday. If the city required a kind of barrier between the actors and the audience, they could create a kind of window that looks into the radio station and incorporate it as part of the set.

“I’ve written a whole policy that I was asked to send a COVID plan to the city for them to review; I think this plan will lend itself very well to being safe and comfortable,” said Holliday. “I’m finding out that being safe and following the rules is not the same thing as making people comfortable. People don’t want to be told what to do, either, so we need a little bit of freedom for people to choose how to behave.” 

Opelika Theatre Company 

Opelika Theatre Company was founded in August 2015 when a small group of friends got together and decided it was time for Opelika to have a community theatre program. 

Since that time, the group has grown into a thriving organization that produces three full shows every year plus hosts murder mystery dinner events in between the shows. 

“All community theatres start somewhere,” said Founder and Executive Director Marty Moore “We are five years old and we are growing. With Opelika coming into all of their eclectic art and quirky downtown atmosphere, Opelika Theatre Company is a perfect fit for this community.”

The coronavirus pandemic temporarily halted a planned ‘Christmas in July’ fundraising event and the troupe’s spring performance of ‘The Addams Family’, but the show must go on, and it will. Opening night is now scheduled for Oct. 16 at 7 p.m. with additional evening performances being held on Oct. 17, Oct. 23 and Oct. 24. There will be two matinee performances at 2 p.m. on Oct. 17 and Oct. 24. 

During the summer, OTC, as it is known by around town, kept busy with Zoom rehearsals. Members of the group planned and orchestrated a ‘Summer Showcase’ in August which allowed local talent to show-off in a socially distanced and safe atmosphere. The event was held outdoors at the Opelika Sportsplex Amphitheater and patrons were encouraged to bring lawn chairs or blankets to sit on as they scattered across the grounds in front of the stage. Food trucks offering delicious dinner options were on hand. 

While preparing for the event, all participants had the opportunity to receive two 30 minute online coaching sessions. The songs, monologues and dances were submitted by the individual performances and approved by OTC’s creative team led by Abby Freeman. Performers ranged in age from nine to mid-50s. 

The event was a fundraiser for OTC to help make up for losses in ticket sales due to the pandemic. 

“We are super grateful for our sponsors and to the city and Mayor Gary Fuller for donating the [use of the] Sportsplex,” Freeman said. 

With more than 100 people in attendance the event raised more than $1,000 through donations. 

“The Opelika Theatre Company had some incredibly talented kids out performing for the socially distanced crowd and we enjoyed being a part of it,” said Todd Rauch in a Facebook post. “If you aren’t familiar with that the Opelika Theater Company does, they typically perform at the Southside Center for the Arts building on Glenn Ave. Check them out and plan to attend a show in the future!”

Looking towards the future, OTC will be involved in several Christmas events and is planning three productions for 2021. 

“We need people at the meeting to get involved, who can sew, who can paint – they don’t have to act,” Moore said. “We just need people who want to laugh, do any kind of volunteer work and be a part of a community project,” Moore said.

Photos Contributed By Auburn Area Community Theatre and Opelika Community Theatre