BATAVIA – "A deafening silence has fallen over the stage – it's the first time in 45 years that our theater has gone dark," said JP Quirk, board president of the Albright Community Theatre in Batavia.
"The lack of sound, joy, laughter and tears even … it hits you right in the heart that art has stopped happening," he said of the hiatus caused by the pandemic, adding that this year's season will be shifted to 2021, with a fresh show to launch the lineup.
But the unexpected window of downtime has meant the South Elgin actor-director and his fellow volunteers who operate ACT have gotten creative in different ways as they prepare for the eventual reopening.
A brand new project is converting what was a large storage and makeshift rehearsal space into a designated black box theater.
"It's a simpler space where you can do more stylized shows," Quirk said. "Black boxes are more intimate … you do shows in a black box space that tend to be more poignant."
Folding chairs will allow the seating to be configured to accommodate conventional to in-the-round shows.
"The audience feels like they are included in the environment instead of being behind that fourth wall – to be more invested in the actor and story being told," Quirk said of the black box concept.
He said the space will be suited to letting an actor who writes plays do a workshop [or] a table reading and light staging with an audience.
"It [also] will allow for new directors [and actors] to come in," Quirk said.
The Albright was working with a special needs theater troupe for youth scheduled to perform this year on the main stage. In the coming 47th season, the performers will be able to use the black box space for rehearsals.
"We can’t wait for them to shine in in 2021," Quirk said in announcing the new collaboration.
The removal of no longer useful set furnishings coupled with a streamlined storage system have helped to open up the creative space.
"[These days,] we can find something relatively inexpensive on Facebook Marketplace and then resell it," he said. "We don't have to store it."
Volunteers last year constructed a new box office and worked on dressing rooms. Underway are plans to raise the sound and lighting booth in the main auditorium for improved operation and the addition of a spotlight. The lobby has been repainted and a new curtain will be among the upgrades awaiting the return of audiences.
On another front, Quirk said much credit goes to Erin Cauley of South Elgin, formerly of St. Charles, who has been sorting through decades of materials, theater programs, photos and scripts to create an up-to-date archive.
"We always have big plans – right now we've been granted that time," said Cauley, board secretary and performer.
"We did a lot of cleaning and … purging and filing of things," she said. "We found lots of really great articles [we'll] hang in the lobby."
She updated the website, where people can now click to check out past casts and photos.
"It's been fun, especially seeing pictures of [founding member] Jeannine Collins in shows way back then," Cauley said.
Collins has been with the troupe since the beginning, and in December, the auditorium was christened the Jeannine Collins Main Stage.
Cauley said they have reached out through Facebook seeking additional photos for the archives.
"Hopefully, [it's] something people will enjoy looking at," she said of the website and lobby displays. "It's fun to see how the space has evolved and what kinds of creative things people have come up with to do [with the] stage."
The goal is that come February, when the first show of the season opens, guests will be able to walk into a brand new, updated space, Quirk said.
And he revealed what that first production will be, a show they have titled "So Glad We Had This Time … Apart."
ACT was able to purchase the rights to sketches from "The Carol Burnett Show."
"We wanted to open our season with something really funny and simple and easy," Quirk said.
A plus is that ACT maintains the rights and can perform more of the large collection at a later date, perhaps a weekend of sketches in the black box, he said.
After renovations are complete, Quirk said ACT will be able to simply focus on doing what every small community theater wants to do – "to put up the best shows we can and entertain."
ACT is on the third floor of the Batavia Government Center, and Quirk expressed gratitude to the city for its longtime support, adding, "We will leave the light on [and] do our best to come back stronger than ever."
To learn more about ACT, the coming season and how to support its work, visit albrighttheatre.com.