210422ind TBTS

Theatre by the Sea announced this week that, due to lingering restrictions surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, it would not be able to host its planned summer lineup. Above is a photo from 2019 TBTS production, “Singin’ in the Rain.”

Editor's Note: This story has been modified from its original version to include new information released in a press release Wednesday. 

SOUTH KINGSTOWN — The main stage curtain will remain down for the 2021 summer season at Theatre by the Sea, which for a second-consecutive season will postpone producing award-winning plays.

Theater spokeswoman Karen Kessler told The Independent Tuesday that the decision came because of various COVID restrictions and safety requirements set by the state and actors unions.

“We are going to make an attempt to try to welcome audiences,” Kessler said, but “we are considering numerous scenarios” and would not elaborate further on the kinds of scaled-down kinds of entertainment the 85-year-old barn theater could offer.

One option for this theater, as with many others including the nearby Contemporary Theater Company in Wakefield, is to have outdoor productions. She also said that the planned 2021 productions may be pushed to the 2022 season.

COVID Constraints

Theaters across the country and Rhode Island have had to shut their doors to inside seating as COVID-19 raged in the last 13 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.

Theater by the Sea owner Bill Hanney said in January he wanted to open for a 2021 season, but social distancing restrictions and people’s fears of being closely seated to each other needed to ease up.

He saw the COVID-19 vaccine giving hope for that scenario to develop, but it has not occurred as quickly as he wanted.

“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 has told The Independent.

Kessler said, “The problem is we’re not fortune tellers here, so it’s really hard to know when they’re going to start lifting up those regulations and lighting them up a little bit. Can we be three feet apart? That will change things for us.”

Canceled 2020 Season

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

Last year the theater planned to produce the ABBA showcase “Mamma Mia!” The theater plans to offer the show August 18 - September 6. 

He wanted to bring back in 2021  the Tony-Award nominated musical, “Million Dollar Quartet,” about 1950s rockers Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley.

The list also included along “Funny Girl.” Theatre By The Sea was named the only U.S. theater in 2020 allowed to produce the show and the same request was planned again, Hanney said.

In addition, he wanted 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.

Kessler said Tuesday that Theater by the Sea producers "don't know if will be able to get the same four shows for next year. They were planned for 2021, and we're hoping to get them (in 2022), but we don't know yet."

In a previous interview this year as he pondered a 2021 season, Hanney said that 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 ways for theater to remain intact when he eventually relinquishes control or ownership.  

“We are as off the beaten path as a theater can get,” he said about the barn theater on a back road, near the beach, at 364 Cards Pond Road 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.”

Write to Bill Seymour, freelance writer covering news and feature stories, at independent.southcountylife@gmail.com.

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