When Windham Center Stage Theater had to hit the pause button due to COVID-19 pandemic, the cast list for The Great American Trailer Park had just been announced. More than a year later, rehearsals are in full swing for an October opening with nearly the entire original cast intact.
In the cast of seven, only one of the roles had to be re-cast due to conflicts with the new timeline. “The fact that everyone was willing to put it on pause for a year and still follow through was amazing,” said Director Jon Bolduc. There were times, he added, that they weren’t sure they’d be able to do the show at all.
The theater shut down just a couple of days after the cast announcement, Bolduc said. “We were very excited to get started, and then we got that big road bump and we’ve just been playing it by ear ever since trying to figure out when it would be safe to start up again.” Though the wait was a challenge, Bolduc said, there have been a few positives as well. “We’ve had a little bit more time to prepare, had more time to thoughtfully be considering the best way to safely bring people to the stage. If we hadn’t had this much time in between we wouldn’t have had time to think about it,” he said.
Eliza Watson, who plays agoraphobic housewife Jeannie, said there are still some uncertainties in how things can happen, and the manageable cast size makes those easier to handle. “We’re all getting to know each other pretty well, and there’s a feeling that we’re all in this together whatever happens,” she said.
Music Director Rachel Scala said that they’re working on a proposal for safety precautions, such as separating the performers from the audience with plexiglass, requiring the audience to be masked, and limiting the size of the audience. A smaller show would typically draw a smaller audience, particularly since it’s not a “family” show, she said, and a limited audience makes things feel safer for everyone.
Having a small audience also creates a more intimate setting for the actors, Scala said. There’s a lot of “breaking the 4th wall” in this show, she said, with characters talking directly to the audience. “I think it offers an opportunity for our cast members to really connect with our audience in a way that they wouldn’t necessarily with a big crowd or in a larger cast,” she said.
Bolduc said he is happy it’s a smaller production because logistics are easier to handle. “I think if we were doing a really big show with a lot of actors on stage it would be a lot harder to put in some of the safety measures that we need,” he said.
The Great American Trailer Park is a lighthearted show with mature themes, centering around the arrival of a new tenant, Pippi, a stripper on the run from her ex-boyfriend, which causes mayhem in the park. “It’s going to be really funny,” said Melissa Allen, who plays the role of Pippi. Allen has been performing at WCST since she was a child, she said. Returning to live theater with WCST “feels like coming back home, and I get to see the family again,” she said.
The show is “completely irreverent” Watson says, with lots of bad language and bad behavior. After not going to live theater during Covid, she said, “This show is a bit of a kick in the pants. This will wake you right up!”
Josie French, who plays the manager of the trailer park Betty, who is one of the trio of storytellers, said The Great American Trailer Park is a perfect show to start with because of its crazy characters, silly costumes, and over the top humor. “The songs are ridiculously silly and that’s what we need right now,” she said.
“After such a serious, hard COVID experience for a lot of people, [the show is] so much fun,” Bolduc said. “Every cast member shows up 100 % ready to try to put on an amazing show for everyone that wants to come,” he said.
“It’s been a really tough year and a half for the world and comedy is the best medicine,” Scala said. “I think this show, if nothing else, will make people laugh.”
Windham Center Stage Theater is taking all appropriate precautions to be safe for everyone involved – cast, crew and audience. “With every aspect, Mary and I stop and pause and ask is this safe? Is this in compliance?” said co-producer Darnell Stuart. Some things, like concessions, must be handled much differently than in the past. Not only do they have to comply with CDC requirements, but the town has their own regulations they need to consider as well, she said.
Some of the challenges to having a prolonged break included the need to replace some of the crew, as well as maintaining energy and excitement as they waited. “I think the biggest challenge is the changes that are happening still,” said co-producer and co-chair of the WCST board. Mary Haibon. Those include uncertainty around the size of audience that will be allowed, as well as physical distance and masking requirements.
“We want everyone to know that we are doing everything we can, because we want them to come back and enjoy this show,” Stuart said.
“I really do hope that people will feel free and be excited to get back out and see a live performance,” Allen said. As opening weekend quickly approaches, “We’re all excited, we’re all working really hard. We want to make it a really good show,” she said.
The Great American Trailer Park opens Oct. 15 and runs Friday and Saturday evenings at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday afternoons at 2 p.m. through Oct. 24. Tickets can be purchased online at www.windhamtheater.org. <