Sitting among wooden replicas of real or imagined people and animals, Bonnie Hargrove (second row), director of USCB’s Center for the Arts, and Deon Furman (third row), assistant director for the center, demonstrate how the center will address social distancing protocol for upcoming performances. COURTESY CENTER FOR THE ARTS

“Excuse me – is this seat taken?”

USCB’s Center for the Arts hopes the answer is yes.

A creative fundraiser launched by the center puts wooden characters in many of its theatre’s seats to enforce social distancing regulations and to earn money for the organization, which has been mostly without revenue since the spring.

“Local artists painted them. Some are donors and some are public figures,” said Bonnie Hargrove, the center’s director. “It’s been a lot of fun, and we’re doing a second wave of them.”

In addition to representations of beloved pets, school mascots and Hollywood stars, Pat and Cassandra Conroy and former Beaufort mayor Billy Keyserling were some of the “guests” – although their smiles looked a bit, well, wooden.

The “Seat People” will help audiences stay safe this fall. On July 30, S.C. Governor Henry McMaster allowed theaters and concert venues to reopen after being shuttered since March, but with a 50% occupancy limit.

In addition to requiring masks, the arts center is enforcing social distancing regulations by placing stickers on “safe seating” and the wooden cut-outs of people and animals in other spaces – keeping real people at least six feet apart.

The “Fill the House” painted figure campaign is the arts center’s light-hearted attempt to supplement its annual donor drive, because the need for donations remains acute. Limited occupancy means fewer seats can be sold, and new hygiene protocols mean added expense for cleaning.

They’re also fun lawn ornaments. In September, 26 wooden characters were on display outside the arts center during the kickoff event for “Art Speaks,” a juried art exhibit of works made by local artists during the pandemic.

Those interested can purchase a Seat Person for $300 or a pair for $500. Hargrove said that when the Seat People are no longer needed, sponsors can take them home.

“And for a small fee, you can rent them over Thanksgiving,” she said. “They won’t eat much and I promise you they won’t talk about politics.”

Carol Weir is the interim senior director of communications for USCB.