PITTSBORO — The coronavirus pandemic has been unforgiving to many, but few industries have been hit harder than entertainment.
In 2020, many big-budget films were delayed; some major movie theater chains such as Regal Cinemas remain closed indefinitely; and Broadway has been “dark” since March 12, with hopes that it may reopen in fall 2021.
But in a year where entertainment fell by the wayside, Chatham County’s own Pittsboro Youth Theater persevered, adapted and never missed a beat, earning a total of nine awards from the online site Chatham Life & Style’s “Best of the Year 2020” live ceremony in December.
“We only missed a couple of days of rehearsal,” said Tammy Matthews, the co-owner of PYT. “We ended up shutting down on a Sunday night and were up and running on Wednesday. We had to immediately turn on our heels because we had four shows that were more than halfway through their rehearsal process.”
With Sweet Bee Theater — PYT’s performance space, which also housed Sweet Bee Caffee, on East Salisbury Street — closed for the year, Matthews and her partner and co-owner, Craig Witter, had to improvise.
The result? PYT’s family of arts organizations would end up putting on more than a dozen productions from March to December through Zoom-recorded video uploads, virtual live streams and drive-in movie-style events.
Witter’s background in media, specifically videography, paired with Matthews’ passion for theater, turned out to be the perfect equation for a sudden shift, backed up by the three awards won for their live-stream production of “A Virtual Christmas Carol.”
“That’s one thing about Tammy: you don’t use the word ‘can’t.’ It’s more like ‘how can we?’” said Witter, who’s also the technical director for PYT. “I knew how a lot of things worked, but the skillset, working together in a completely new output of media, required that we learn some lessons.”
In addition to learning how to run theater groups virtually, Matthews and Witter had to find ways to keep the kids upbeat during a time of uncertainty and real-world isolation, often aiming to reinvent their rehearsals to create a fun and personal environment.
It’s this dedication both to their students and the arts that earned them the Outstanding Contribution to the Arts award from Chatham Life & Style.
Of the nine awards given to PYT, four were for “columbinus,” a pre-pandemic, in-person production put on by PYT’s Social Justice Theater of the Carolinas based on the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Colorado.
The idea to work on the project stemmed from the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, in 2018.
“We were all at that point very familiar with the idea of school shootings, so emotions were running high and we just wanted to do something. So we did,” said 18-year-old Jaqui Anthenien, winner of an Outstanding Breakout Performance award for her role in the play. “Even if we could change just one mind, if we could show one person that something has to be done, then we would have won.”
The other production that garnered attention was “Heal 2020,” a timely musical centered around the stresses of the coronavirus pandemic and how music can help comfort us during difficult times.
“Heal 2020” was performed as a drive-in play in the parking lot at Haw River Christian Academy as the first in-person production since “columbinus.” With actors having to deal with the outdoors, occasional heavy rain and vehicles’ hoods staring at them rather than people’s faces, it was far from the traditional theater experience.
“It was pretty weird to be outside,” said 15-year-old Catherine Hall, winner of an Outstanding Breakout Performance award for her role. “It kind of added another intimidating factor to it, and a little more nervousness, but I think it also inspired us to try harder.”
Outside of the awards, PYT was also the recipient of a North Carolina CARES for Arts grant from the N.C. Arts Council and Chatham Arts Council last month, which covered a full month of expenses, something for which Witter said he was grateful.
In total, PYT consists of seven different operations — including the youth theater group, the Chatham Community Players adult acting troupe, the Social Justice Theater, a music school, an art gallery, Sweet Bee Theater and Sweet Bee Caffe coffee shop — all housed in a “Center for the Arts” in downtown Pittsboro.
Because of COVID-related financial struggles, Witter said it’s unlikely that the coffee shop and art gallery will reopen. But he’s proud that, so far, they haven’t missed a single bill payment.
“We got the little grant and lots of people have given us donations to help and they’re small, but when you regularly get 10 or so of those per month, all of a sudden they add up,” said Witter. “It was just nice to have help.”
In 2021, PYT aims to hold in-person plays again, especially for its musicals. Whether that will be inside Sweet Bee Theater, at an outdoor amphitheater or through another drive-in style performance is still up in the air.
Coming off the success of “A Virtual Christmas Carol,” live streaming other spring productions is a strong possibility.
After winning two awards from Chatham Life & Style in 2019, PYT more than quadrupled that in 2020, clearly signaling that the hard work and ability to pivot paid off.
“We figured, in Sweet Bee Theater, two of the most outstanding performances in the Triangle?” Witter pondered. “I’m talking (Durham Performing Arts Center), Playmakers’ (Repertory Company) and Raleigh Little Theatre, so to win two last year astounded us. And we knew they were great performances like, man, if only people had any idea. Well, now, apparently people are getting the idea. Isn’t that cool?”
PITTSBORO YOUTH THEATER’S AWARDS
Outstanding Youth Program
Outstanding Breakout Performance
Outstanding Contribution to the Arts
No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here