When Chattanooga Theatre Centre leaders began talking about how and when to reopen, they did a lot of research, looking into how other theaters and venues around the country have done it. It was immediately determined to aim high to ensure that customers would feel safe.
"We did a lot of homework and gathered a lot of information and a lot of different procedures," said Executive Director Rodney Van Valkenburg. "Ultimately, we knew we would land on whoever has the most stringent list. We don't want to try to cut corners."
The result is a list of nearly three dozen rules and regulations posted on the venue's website for everyone who enters the building on Oct. 2, when it reopens for the production of "Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years."
This will include digital playbills, social distancing, masks and limiting the number of people in the restrooms.
It is the story of two sisters, both in the second century of their lives. The Delany sisters — 103-year-old Sadie and 101-year old Bessie — walk us through the last century through the lens of the African American experience. It opens Friday and runs through Sunday, Oct. 18.
The play will be presented in the mainstage theater with general admission seating, although ushers will seat patrons with at least three vacant seats between parties, and capacity will be limited to no more than 30 percent. To see the CTC's 22-point safety protocol, visit TheatreCentre.com/SafetyCTC.
Even the choice of the production was done with safety in mind, according to Director Ric Morris. It was also chosen become of its relevance today.
"First, we needed to find a production that would keep our volunteers safe," he said.
"With just two actors and some creative blocking; mission accomplished," Morris said. "We also wanted, needed to have something that spoke to the turbulent times in America right now. The arts/theater has a way of taking hard topics and making them more palatable to those that would otherwise not be interested in topics such as racism. Don't get me wrong, this play does not beat around the bush. It calls out the years of systemic racism that has existed in this country for over 400 years. What makes me sad and angry is how relevant what the Delany sisters say are for today. This play needed to be done now."
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Morris said theater has an important role to play when people are struggling.
"For me theater, and the arts in general, is the place you go and the thing you do when the world is too much to handle," he said. "Not having that refuge has been very difficult for me emotionally. To be back in rehearsal has helped my spirit and my soul. Even though we are wearing masks and practicing social distancing, just being in the space is therapeutic."
Van Valkenburg said "Each of the three plays were chosen because the actors don't have to interact," he said. "We looked at several plays, but the actors had to kiss or they had a fight.
"The other part is that we didn't want to do a play just to do a play. We wanted them to be relevant."
Written in the 1980s, "Having Our Say" is a two-woman show in which the sisters welcome the audience as a visitor to their comfortable home in Mount Vernon, New York. One is gentle and one is feisty, and like any two people living together for a length of time, they finish one another's sentences.
According to a news release, they dispense joy and wisdom as they tell us the story of a century of change as they lived it. Their story begins in Reconstruction and progresses through the rise of Jim Crow, two world wars, the triumphs of Black culture during the Harlem Renaissance, the civil and women's rights movements, up to the present. Their story is not simply African American history or women's history; it's American history.
Morris said he hopes patrons enjoy the performances and the message of the work.
"I think patrons will be blown away by the actors and how they could learn so many lines in such a short time. I think they might want to consider comparing and contrasting what is being said in the play and what is playing out across our television screen."
It is the CTC's first production since February, and the Tony Award nominee is based on the real-life sisters' bestselling memoir. Future performances in the CTC's revamped lineup are "Lobby Hero" (Nov. 6-22) and "It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play" (Dec. 4-20).
Van Valkenburg said the Chattanooga Theatre Centre hosted a Kofi Mawuko concert on the lawn overlooking the Tennessee River on Sept. 19 and that it was a good first event because it served as practice for the theater and as a way to let fans know how seriously safety was being taken.
"It demonstrated that we can do this," he said.
Van Valkenburg said the COVID-19 pandemic to date has resulted in a $400,000 shortfall over what was budgeted for the year, but because of federal programs, "extra donations, reduced costs, and unfortunate staff furloughs, we were able to break even through August." He said he hopes the three plays "at least break even, but we'd love to make money."
Performances are Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m.
For tickets, call the CTC box office at 423-267-8534 or visit TheatreCentre.com.
Contact Barry Courter at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6354.