Performers, drama aficionados, and community members who endured a year of darkened theaters are rejoicing (in cautious optimism) in the upcoming reopening of the Methow Valley’s treasured stage at The Merc Playhouse.
When the global pandemic began to feel real, back in March 2020, we drew in a collective breath: of anticipation, of uncertainty, of wonder. And then a year later—for a while at least—we released it.
In October, The Merc Playhouse will honor the pandemic-era experiences of valley residents and visitors through its first indoor live performance in nearly two years in an original, Reader’s Theater-style production called “CoronAnthology: the year we held our breath.”
Directed by local actor and theatre coach Phil Quevillon, “CoronAnthology” is scheduled to be performed at The Merc on Oct 14-17, 2021, and will feature the stories, thoughts, and learnings of those whose submissions were selected for the show.
The Merc’s December production will be “a gift to the community,” says Executive Director Missi Smith. “It’s a Reader’s Theater-style performance with The Merc staff and board. It’s going to be really fun; there will be some new faces up there—board members who have never appeared onstage before. It’s going to be a great way to finish out the year.”
2022 will bring—finally—the long-awaited and long-rehearsed “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” through the Tom Zbysewski Children’s Theater: a production that was in dress rehearsal the week before statewide pandemic shutdowns in March 2020. “The set is still painted on the wall,” says Smith. “That’s partly why we’re doing Reader’s Theater productions this fall; we’re not going to paint over that beautiful set and then repaint it in the winter!”
Other benefits of Reader’s Theater during the pandemic are the ability to rehearse in smaller groups and more limited contact between actors. Additionally, with no set, prop, or costume budget (Reader’s Theater actors typically wear simple black outfits with a few accent pieces, often from their own closets), Reader’s Theater shows are far less expensive to produce than full-scale plays.
Cost isn’t a primary consideration for The Merc administration, but after 18 months of no ticket revenue, it’s certainly a factor for this community-supported theater. “We’ve been ok, we can weather the storm,” Smith says. “We haven’t had to turn to donors to keep the lights on.”
But were it not for various state and federal COVID relief measures such as the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) from the Small Business Association, and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, and assistance from ArtsWA, the small non-profit theater might be in jeopardy. “Washington State is a great place for the arts in a pandemic,” Smith says. “These grants kept us afloat.”
Meanwhile, donations—representing a wide range of residents who value theater—were directed toward infrastructure improvements, Smith says. “We have new seats and our new box office and tech booth are underway. Our donors are helping us make the theater more comfortable and more functional.”
Not only are the new seats free of rips, stains, and broken springs, but they are also designed to be installed in variety of arrangements, allowing for smaller-pod seating than traditional long theater rows. Other COVID modifications include running shows longer to allow for smaller audience sizes and online ticketing. The Merc will follow state COVID guidelines when it reopens to audiences.
In addition to upgrading the theater, Merc staff and board have been busy considering the best use of the adjoining lot. “We’ve been working on a feasibility study for that space,” Smith says. “We’re working with Margo Peterson-Aspholm of Prentiss Balance Wickline Architects to investigate, research, dream and plot the future.”
Other plans for the immediate future include continuing The Merc’s involvement in the Methow Valley School District’s free after-school enrichment program, hosting Liberty Bell High School’s Poetry Out Loud competition, and renting the space to other organizations and individuals for music, comedy, and other events. “We’re really looking forward to welcoming people back,” Smith says.
After the 2020 summer being socially isolating due to the pandemic and the 2021 summer being isolating due to smoke, community members are craving connections, Smith says. The Merc’s reopening will mitigate some of these feelings of isolation by bringing audiences together. Theater creates community, and at The Merc it is the community that sustains the theater.
“The Merc is a community hub,” Smith says. “It’s as much a community meeting space as it is a performing arts space. Performing arts bring up topics that we love to explore, and we love to consider these topics with others. We create emotional connections through shared experiences, and they enrich our lives. We’ve all felt this void, and we’re ready to reclaim this space to connect.”
DATE: Thurs-Sat, Oct. 14-16, 7pm and Sun, Oct 17, 2pm. LOCATION: The Merc Playhouse in Twisp. CONTACT: 509.997.7529, email@example.com