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The coronavirus pandemic led to the cancellation of all 2020 shows at Theatre by the Sea in Matunuck last summer and, according to owner Bill Hanney this week, plans for this season remain in jeopardy and contingent on a successful vaccine rollout and reduced social distancing rules.

WAKEFIELD, R.I. — The coronavirus vaccine has a starring role in a two-act play about Theatre by the Sea raising the curtain and turning on the lights to re-open this summer, says theater owner Bill Hanney.

In Act 1, availability of the vaccine to the general public needs to be underway by May, he said, so people feel safe returning to an indoor venue in late spring or early summer.

In a twist of drama, in Act 2 the now-required social distancing rules need to be eased, or opening will be in doubt.

“I cannot operate the theater on half its capacity. I need to be able to open with the potential to fill the 500 seats in the theater,” he told The Independent this week.

Theaters across the country and Rhode Island have had to shut their doors to indoor seating while COVID-19 has raged in the last 11 months. Red ink is splattered all over their budgets as they hope to salvage losses from last summer with re-opened doors and continuous performances this summer, many theater operators have said.

“When we get to the point that there’s enough vaccines out there, then they can choose to come or not,” said Hanney, noting he believes free-flowing vaccines to the general public will allow him to open his doors, most likely in June.

Last April, as COVID-19 and social distancing requirements trampled places with only indoor venues – like Theater by the Sea – especially hard, Hanney canceled the entire 2020 season of shows.

He said at the time it was a difficult decision, drawing a comparison to the many sporting events that also were canceled or rescheduled. “Live theater is the ultimate ‘team sport,’” he said.

“So, although all of our productions have been cast, our sets and costumes have been created, and we are ready to go, it is unclear when the stay-at-home order will be lifted and organizations relying on large numbers of people will be allowed to reopen,” he said when making the announcement.

Hanney also said it was “of utmost importance” that audience members feel comfortable gathering together to experience live theater as it’s meant to be. The same goes for this year, too, he said.

This season, producers would like to open with the ABBA showcase “Mamma Mia!,” but a delayed opening past May might mean a switch to fall for production.

His 2021 lineup also includes the Tony-Award nominated musical, “Million Dollar Quartet,” about 1950s rockers Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley.

Possibly coming is “Funny Girl,” as Theatre By The Sea was named the only U.S. theater in 2020 allowed to produce the show. The same request has been made again, Hanney said.

In addition, it plans to bring to the stage “Footloose,” a rocking movie musical; and “Kinky Boots,” featuring songs by pop icon Cyndi Lauper and book by Broadway legend Harvey Fierstein.

Hanney said often the public sees just a schedule, but behind the curtain is a massive amount of work.

It begins a year before shows appear on his stage. Contracts, casts, building of scenery, organizing the shows and sales of season tickets are done in the months leading up to the 85-year-old barn theater’s opening in the spring, he said.

The work isn’t something that can be done in just a few months’ time, the producer added.

“We put on a show, going from zero through opening night, from scratch. When you think about it, that’s for just three to four weeks’ run, then it’s gone and we’re on to the next,” he said.

Hanney said he takes pride in performances crafted for local showing as well as keeping a landmark in business. Last summer was especially hard, he said.

“I would still go to my theater last summer, no matter that it was closed, and there’s nobody in there. That’s pretty sad,” he said with some resignation. “There was nothing that could be done.”

Suddenly, as if talking to a crowd assembled in that empty theater, he blurted out, “There is one thing I can promise. This theater will reopen again. I have a commitment to this theater; I adore this theater.”

Three months ago, someone whom he would not identify called to ask whether the theater — and more importantly, the land on which it sits — would be for sale.

He said he replied “no.” Instead, he said, he wants to find a way for theater to remain intact when he relinquishes control or ownership.

“We are as off the beaten path as a theater can get,” he said about the theater, located on a back road near the beach in Matunuck.

“This theater has made its mark in the past 85 years,” Hanney said. “All these people in the past have put this theater on the map and my obligation is to keep it on the map.”

Bill Seymour is a freelance writer covering news and personality feature stories in Narragansett, North Kingstown and South Kingstown. He can be reached at independent.southcountylife@gmail.com.

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