Lisa Joyce, executive director of Pentacle Theatre, holds a set piece from the 2020 production of "Murder on the Orient Express" while cleaning out the downtown office on Nov. 24 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)
Lisa Joyce looked wistfully at a gold-painted winged cherub.
The piece had graced the top of the set for a Pentacle Theatre production of “Murder on the Orient Express” in early 2020 - one of the last shows before live entertainment was banned across the state.
The week before Thanksgiving, the cherub was sitting on the boardroom table in the theater’s downtown office, next to the mannequin head of the Ghost of Christmas Present. Joyce was there packing up old posters and programs, preparing to move out of the downtown ticket office and rehearsal space Pentacle Theatre has rented for 14 years.
“We don’t have any ticket sales. It doesn’t make sense to try to keep open an office,” Joyce said.
The theater, which has put on musicals, comedy and drama since 1954, will survive the pandemic, she said. The nonprofit owns its stage in west Salem outright, so they’re not in danger of losing the theater.
But nearly all the theater’s staff have been laid off to cut costs. Ticket revenue, which would be close to $500,000 in a normal year, was about $83,000 in 2020, Joyce said. Donations and grants are up from a normal $60,000 to more than $200,000, in part because of federal and state aid, but Pentacle is still expecting a budget shortfall.
For the unpaid actors and directors who have often spent years involved in local shows, having their hobby suddenly taken away has been a challenge. Few are certain of live theater’s future in Salem once it’s safe to perform again before audiences.
“We know we’re going to come back. We just don’t know what it’s going to look like and we know it’s probably going to take years to get back to full on productions, especially musicals,” said Jennifer Meyers, a longtime actor, director and all-around volunteer with Pentacle.
The Pentacle is designed for intimate shows. The audience count is small and surrounds the stage on three sides, and “chokepoints” like the narrow walkways to and from the auditorium make distancing difficult.
Pentacle has posted a series of “Behind the Mask” videos on its website discussing the theater’s history and operations. The board is discussing virtual performances, said Brett Hochstetler, board secretary, but that presents a financial challenge. Broadcast rights for copyrighted works can be expensive, and putting on a virtual production that’s low cost but can attract paid ticket sales is difficult.
Hochstetler, a longtime actor with the theater, participated in a Roseburg community theater effort where actors recorded individual scenes from their homes.
But he said the best part of theater for the actors is the live interaction, working with castmates on stage to provoke a reaction from the audience.
“The best thing I can talk about is having an audience in the palm of your hand where you can lead them emotionally,” Hochstetler said. “It’s just hard to read emotions the same way.”
That artistic outlet has been missing for many in the theater community, who have adjusted to mostly free evenings after years spending their time after work at rehearsals or backstage laying out costumes.
“You feel this whole community experience and that’s missing. For people, that’s their whole creative outlet,” said Heather Toller, an actor and former board member who’s been involved with the Pentacle since 2005.
Toller, who is in her 40s, said 2020 is the first time since middle school where she hasn’t been involved in a theater production in some capacity.
“Even more than being on stage I just miss the people and miss the process, miss having rehearsals,” she said.
The downtown business office for the Pentacle Theatre has shut down in an effort to save money after 14 years on Liberty Street Northeast (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)
Joyce said after decades as a volunteer-run organization, Pentacle in recent years had expanded to hiring more professional staff, with five employees including a technical director and a salesperson. Now, they’re down to Joyce, a part-time bookkepper, and the technical director, who’s also doing facility maintenance.
She hopes the theater can put on a regular season in 2022, and stage at least some productions in 2021, especially once nicer weather returns and outdoor events may be possible.
Joyce said the theater plans to find a new rehearsal space once it can be afforded. The downtown location’s basement rooms aren’t ideal for a post-Covid world, she said, and it was common in prior years for colds to spread among the cast as they worked in close quarters.
Several appeals for donations, as well as federal and state aid, have helped keep the organization afloat, and many longtime fans have stepped up to help, she said.
“I’ve had people making donations who haven’t given in 15 years who just have such a deep relationship with the theater as a season ticket holder. It’s been really touching, and they’ve been writing little notes to me about what they miss about the theater,” she said.
Donations are accepted via the Pentacle website.
Meyers knows it will be a long time before a traditional production can resume. She’s hopeful the return from Covid will lead to more creativity in the local theater community as Pentacle and other venues look to smaller productions or activities like workshops.
“When we come back, people are going to be much more versatile,” she said.
She said once it’s safe to again crowd a bunch of people singing loudly in a small room, she’d like to see the Pentacle tackle a classic musical like “Hello, Dolly” or “The Sound of Music.”
“I want a big production. I want something that has lots of people and lots of dancing and great costumes. If we’ve been away from it for so long, I want to go back big,” she said.
Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.
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