The pandemic has taught us many things: a lack of human interaction (and hugs) can trigger depression, around 35 percent of jobs can be performed fully at home, and many people not only desire but need the arts in order to live a full, balanced, and happy life.
That last point might sound melodramatic, but try to think about the amount of art that was consumed in the past year and a half plus. Not only the number of TV shows and movies watched while everyone was trapped indoors, but the virtual, outdoor, or recorded performances that were produced. The outside-of-the-box projects that were thought up in order to satiate that demand for performance and the need to perform.
It is fair to say that pre-pandemic we took the arts for granted. We expected those means of diversion, immersion, and pure amusement to always be available. And we experienced what it felt like to be without. So now what? I believe that now, more than ever, we need to support the arts, local artists, and theaters to ensure that the arts remain, forever, a constant in our culture.
That being said, I would like to shine a light on the unsung (or far less frequently sung) heroes of the theater world: our community nonprofit theater companies. Many of these organizations shuttered up and shut down for good. But the ones that did survive need patronage to stay open.
Fredericksburg Theatre Ensemble (FTE) in Fredericksburg, Virginia, my hometown, is one such theater. To learn about the group’s journey through COVID, I was able to sit and talk with member Kylie Clark.
Kendall: What is your role at FTE?
Kylie: My job description would be hard to pin down. I’m sort of an “artist-in-residence” for design elements and effects. For example, on Nevermore, I shot and edited the promotional materials, helped with set design and construction, fabricated the props, and created the shadowplays. For other shows, I’ve ventured into sound design and pneumatic special effects. Generally speaking, I like a challenge.
How did you learn about FTE?
My first experience was seeing a raunchy play about Santa’s reindeer in a small room above the local Liberty Lanes bowling alley. It wasn’t much more than some talented actors doing monologues in an undecorated space, but even then it was clear that there was passion and value in the work they were doing, both for those involved and the patrons who attended.
When did you become involved with FTE?
I became involved when I worked on Voices in the Dark in 2016. I soon learned that there were many opportunities to explore new prop-making and special effects techniques that were not always available for experimentation in a professional environment. I’ve explored pneumatics, shadow puppetry, hand puppet fabrication, and sound design with FTE in a relatively short period of time. Most of the core members of FTE have been employed in a professional theater at some point, which gives us a common understanding of how a community production could better strive towards professional quality.
Was FTE affected by COVID?
House of Yes was shut down in 2020 just prior to performance and became the show that re-opened the theater in 2021. It was remarkable that the original actors were still available and excited to finish the process.
How are patrons responding to new COVID precautions as FTE reopens?
It’s striking and encouraging to see our entire audience wearing masks as requested. It gives me hope that the love of the art form is capable of overcoming the inconvenience of the necessary precautions.
As an artist, has the pandemic changed your view on theater and its importance in the community?
I find that the pandemic has highlighted the importance of community. Where once we had quantity, I feel we’re now more attuned to quality. When we choose to venture into a shared space, the value of that time has increased dramatically (pun intended?).
For those in the Fredericksburg area, FTE’s current production is Nevermore: The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe, a relatively unknown musical written, composed, and directed by Jonathan Christenson. The show begins with Edgar as a child and moves through his parents’ death, being separated from his siblings, being adopted, his years as a student, and on. The piece weaves Poe’s words through these moments in his life and draws parallels between his works and his experiences.
Edgar’s memories are reenacted by a group of Players, each playing multiple characters, who narrate, sing, dance, and perform puppetry. The cast includes local artists: Tim Lee, Devon Clark, Andy Braden, Justin Yates, Priya Paranthaman, Heather Mcintosh, and Brianne Cook.
FTE’s Nevermore is a deep dive into Edgar as an individual and how he evolved to become the king of macabre. The show marries perfectly with the dark and dreary theme of this time of year, while still being a completely unique production and experience.
And that is one of the many beauties of smaller, community-based theaters. They have broader license to explore unknown works, experiment with alternative methods, and not cater to the mainstream demands and expectations that a larger for-profit theater cannot always afford to ignore.
Like many smaller theater companies, FTE makes theater more accessible and affordable for local residents while also creating opportunities for local artists to refine their craft and work on a less demanding schedule.
When Director Chris Stewart was asked what he hoped for Fredericksburg Theatre Ensemble’s future, he responded, “I’d love to see our small community organization blossom into a small professional endeavor whose proceeds benefit local charities. We have the talent and understanding to put together a fantastic professional organization, but we need more ways to promote ourselves within our community (and beyond).”
And that’s a constant with local community theater groups. They live and breathe the community. They enhance the community. They are the community. Support live theater. And support your local community artists!
Nevermore: The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe plays through October 31, 2021, at Fredericksburg Theatre Ensemble, located at 810 Caroline St. 4th Floor in Fredericksburg, VA. For tickets ($20), go online. And for information on past and future performances go to their main page.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 30 minutes, with one 15-minutes intermission.
COVID Safety Policy: Patrons are required all to wear masks while inside the theater, regardless of vaccination status. In accordance with CDC guidelines, the theater also requires proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test prior to entering the theater space.
Cast: Edgar-Time Leece, Player 1-Devon Clark, Player 2-Andy Braden, Player 3-Justin Yates, Player 4-Priya Paranthaman, Player 5-Heather McIntosh, Player 6-Brianne Cook
Crew: Director-Chris Stewart, Stage Manager-Scott Allan, Music Director-Jake Ramirez, Choreographer-Courtney Fox, Lighting Designer-Sam Fulton, Costume Designer-Chris Stewart, Set Design-Steven Thompson, Prop Master-Kylie Clark, Light Operator-Sam Fulton, Sound Operator-Scott Allan, Set Construction-Steven Thompson, Special Thanks-Josh Watson, Eric Kluxen