Bluffton’s community theatre has been off stage for nearly a year. Renovations to the town hall on Bridge Street forced the curtain to close on May River Theatre in the middle of the 2017 season, necessitating some tough decisions for the theatre while awaiting a return to Charles E. Ulmer Theatre (aka Ulmer Auditorium).
“When we were informed of the renovations, we tried to find an alternative theater in town, without luck,” said MRT President Jennifer Green, “so we made the difficult decision to cancel the rest of the season, close the curtain and shut off the lights until we could move back ‘home’ when work is complete.”
The town uses the space for council meetings, court sessions and other gatherings. When it reopens next year, the theater will have a separate space for props adjacent to the auditorium and a new entrance.
“Although rent will be an additional expense, having full use of the auditorium is a plus,” said Green. “It will allow us to build sets and rehearse without having to insure everything is hidden behind the curtain each evening.”
For the past 16 years, since the late Jody and Ed Dupuis established May River Theatre in 2002, the company has had an arrangement with Bluffton to also use the auditorium for free while making improvements as time and finances allowed. The space seated 186 people with a few wheelchair spaces. The theatre is taking this opportunity to centralize its light and sound booth at the back of the room.
The town hall hasn’t always been home to council meetings or musicals. In a press release reminding residents that the town’s business would be temporarily conducted elsewhere, Town Manager Marc Orlando pointed out that the familiar facility has had a considerable amount of use and history since it was built.
“It is important the business of the Town remains in the heart of the town by giving new life to a building which has already contributed to the community as a school, a daycare, a theater, a gathering place and Town Hall,” said Town Manager Marc Orlando in an early press release.
As a non-profit organization, MRT has always run on a lean budget, Green said, supported primarily with program ad revenues, single-show and season ticket sales, donations and fundraisers.
“We’re without our usual revenue stream and, in fact, we gave refunds to season ticket holders and advertisers when we canceled our shows,” Green said.
After refunding payments, the theatre’s board of directors kept busy culling its resources and keeping ahead of the ongoing expenses, including closing the box office. Excess props, furniture and costumes were sold or given away so that the company could consolidate its rented storage lockers.
Since the curtain first opened, more than 50,000 people have attended May River Theatre’s 64 productions, from musicals like “Chicago” to straight comedies such as “The Dixie Swim Club” and serious dramas like “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Several hundred directors, crew and cast members from local communities have volunteered their time and talents during that period.
This is the first time the theatre’s “gone dark,” as they say on the Great White Way – otherwise known as Broadway. It came close to curtailing its performances or shutting down in 2009.
The falling economy had such a negative impact that the “three-legged stool” Ed Dupuis and company counted on for the theatre’s income was nearly legless.
“Our contributions are off 50 percent, our advertising revenues are off 50 percent and ticket sales for this current production are off 50-70 percent,” Dupuis said at the time. “It’s our situation this year and I’m sure it’s as a result of the economy. We don’t blame anybody, we’re a part of what’s happening.”
The theatre received a much-appreciated grant from the Accommodations Tax Advisory Committee that time because the theatre does contribute to Bluffton’s cultural atmosphere but those funds are few and far between.
The MRT web site lists the shows staged in Ulmer Auditorium, ranging from “Cabaret” and “Chicago” to “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Most of the productions are musicals which draw in larger crowds than most non-musicals, and royalty fees – the costs of renting the show – are just the beginning of the expenses.
One of the outreach programs the theatre has conducted in the past is offering the final dress rehearsal night to local charities and organizations such as the American Red Cross and the Society of Bluffton Artists. Those groups sell their own tickets to the production and keep all of the profits from the show.
How the theatre company manages to carry of some of its shows in the auditorium space is sometimes a bit of a miracle. The theatre has staged such large musicals as “Chicago” and “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” which have large sets.
When volunteers first join, they find themselves quickly enmeshed in the workings, especially if they are part of the crew.
Rita Conrad, who first joined about five years ago, works mostly in costumes.
“The first show I was involved in was “The Producers” and it was an enormous show to put on that stage, and they pulled it off with great success,” Conrad said.
“The Dupuis’ created such a family atmosphere because they were hands-on and set a tone for the Bluffton community. What they established, they established so well in the community that it makes it possible for the subsequent participants to continue with that. That’s what we’re trying to do, maintain that legacy.”
When the doors reopen in 2019, town business, public meetings, court hearings as well as the theatre will return to an amped-up facility. The $4.3M renovations will provide more parking, an additional 4,582 square feet of meeting space and streamlined entrances in a structure that was described in the initial proposal as having “good bones.” Employees and town residents will also enjoy improved air quality, lighting and technology efficiency.
In the meantime, actors and crew from MRT will join with actors and crew from Main Street Youth Theatre to work on a production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” to be staged at Hilton Head Prep’s Main Street Theatre.
“This show is very exciting and both groups have a history of quality productions,” Green said. “It will also be the first time local theaters have collaborated on a production so there is a lot of possibility. The creative team is top notch and I think the patrons will be blown away!”
Cinda Seamon, president of the board of MSYT, said “We are thrilled and excited to have May River folks on board for the fall production. We are looking forward to working with them, and I believe this show will benefit from their talent and expertise.”
“If things go as planned, we look forward to reopening next spring with a fresh set of shows,” Green said.
As the Facebook entry noted for the theatre’s 16th birthday, “If you would like to help MRT there are still many ways and many people needed. Please contact us and we’ll find the best way for you to help!”
For more information and volunteer opportunities, visit mayrivertheatre.org.
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.