For 15 months the San Juan Community Theatre has sat mostly quiet — with the exception of staff, board and a handful of artists. Now the local entertainment venue is preparing to reopen its doors to the public and Executive Artistic Director Nathan Kessler-Jeffrey is anxiously awaiting the audience’s return.
“There’s something very strange and sometimes unnerving about an empty theatre. … But now we’ve got rehearsals, production meetings, set construction, workshops, and many other activities going as the wheels slowly begin to turn,” Kessler-Jeffrey said. “That energy is life-giving for the artists who call this island home. You can hear it in the rehearsals. You can see it on the smiles of the folks building our stage over at the Fairgrounds. It feels like coming alive again.”
As a self-proclaimed “big-time extrovert,” Kessler-Jeffrey explained the thing he’s missed most over the COVID pandemic closure is the people.
“But I also miss the stories. I miss the stories we tell on our stages, I miss the stories of people joining our community, I miss the stories of audiences coming together, I miss the stories of students learning stagecraft and self-confidence,” Kessler-Jeffrey said. “I miss the moments in the theatre where we all experience stories together — where we forget the troubles of our day and experience something incredible together.”
The two most difficult parts of reopening for Kessler-Jeffrey have been the uncertainty and the challenge of returning to production mode. He added that despite the optimistic trajectory of the pandemic both locally and nationally, he worries as it could change at any moment.
“It takes a tremendous amount of effort to cast, rehearse, and stage a performance. We use months of lead time to create the productions that run for 2-3 weekends,” Kessler-Jeffrey said. “So changing restrictions and uncertainty are difficult and anxiety-inducing.”
After sitting mostly vacant for so long, Kessler-Jeffrey explained he has found it difficult to get back into the swing of things. He added that, for himself, he’s double-booked spaces twice so far and they’ve only just started rehearsals for upcoming plays.
“I keep asking myself, ‘My job isn’t that hard, why am I fumbling the easy parts?’” Kessler-Jeffrey stated. “And then I remember that this is still a period of experimentation. We’ve never tried to reopen from a pandemic closure before!”
In regards to reopening safely, Kessler-Jeffrey said he wanted to first and foremost recognize and thank the county for its work during the pandemic. He noted the success in leading the state in vaccination rates and being the only county in Washington to not have a COVID-related death.
“I am so incredibly grateful to live here,” Kessler-Jeffrey said.
SJCT continues to be guided by public health experts, Kessler-Jeffrey explained. Theatre performers, support and attendees will follow guidelines set by local and state officials, he said.
“Probably the most significant precaution we’re taking, above and beyond what is required, is holding our entire summer season outdoors,” Kessler-Jeffrey said. “We’ve been assured many times by public health officials that the risk of COVID transmission is remarkably low in outdoor settings, so even though we could be back in our building, we are choosing to perform outdoors through August.”
With relaxed restrictions expected June 30, Kessler-Jeffrey said the theatre will keep audiences informed of the current guidelines at every performance.
The San Juan Community Theatre is proud to kick off its outdoor summer concert series with Desolation Sound playing at 7 p.m. on June 25 at the San Juan County Fairgrounds. This event is pay what you can.
Desolation Sound is a Friday Harbor-based alternative rock band consisting of Darvis Taylor, Scott Sluis, Tom Henry and Daniel Day.
Kessler-Jeffrey said he’s so excited about the upcoming events, he can’t choose his favorite.
“They’re all going to be SO GOOD,” He said.
At 11:15 a.m. and 2:15 p.m. on July 9, at the San Juan County Fairgrounds, the elementary students who participated in the summer theatre camp will perform in a show titled “Could You Hug a Cactus?” directed by Penelope Haskew and Chiara Power.
“Based on a collection of whimsical poems by Phillip Van Wagoner, this musical revue follows a group of kids as they come together to create a show that’s bursting with poems and creativity,” the website synopsis explains. “One by one, they each share their imaginative creations, until a nervous performer panics and refuses to contribute a poem. Can the cast help their friend shed self-doubt and ignite a creative spark?”
Two of the events Kessler-Jeffrey said he’s especially looking forward to are the Broadway Revue Concert and the Summer Gala: Broadway en Provence featuring Ben Jeffrey. Kessler-Jeffrey is singing in the Broadway Revue Concert and Ben Jeffrey is his brother.
“We had a packed house for Ben’s show in 2019 and I can’t wait to see him again,” Kessler-Jeffrey said.
The Broadway Review Concert is at 7 p.m. on July 1 and 2 and 7:30 p.m. on July 3 at the San Juan County Fairgrounds and features hits from “Les Miserables”; “GREASE”; “Guys & Dolls”; and “A Chorus Line.” The Summer Gala is at 5 p.m. on July 18. This show, unlike the summer series at the fairgrounds, is a ticketed event at Pelindaba. Tickets go on sale July 1. For information about all of the theatre’s upcoming events, visit sjctheatre.org.
“This staff and board are so incredibly grateful for the support of our community this year. While we have utilized the Payroll Protection Plan and received grants from many organizations, it is only the generosity of individual and business donors that has kept us going.”
In the 15 months the theatre went without a ticket sold, it still was able to produce more than 30 filmed performances for its Snapshot Season and offer the Outdoor Summer Season concerts free of charge.
“Our donors made that possible, and to them we offer a sincere and humble ‘Thank You,’” Kessler-Jeffrey said.