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Inside Theatre Charlotte's Socially Distanced Production Of 'What I Did Last Summer'

Nick de la Canal
Glynis Robbins as Anna Trumbull and Gray Ryan as Charlie Higgins rehearse for Theatre Charlotte's production of "What I Did Last Summer" by A.R. Gurney.

Thursday night is a big night for Charlotte's theater scene. A live show will open to an in-person audience for the first time since March, though the experience will be different for both the actors and audience.

It was difficult to know what to expect at a recent outdoor rehearsal at Theatre Charlotte for the new production of "What I Did Last Summer" by A.R. Gurney. It's a coming-of-age story about a teenage boy who meets a bohemian art teacher while vacationing with his mother and sister in the 1940s.

Director Ron Law has moved rehearsals and performances for the show outside in the theater's parking lot. It's here where he leans back from a folding table and watches carefully as the actors rehearse a family dinner scene.

The mother serves up some cauliflower and chicken croquettes, and the son, Charlie, makes to barf. Law stops the action because the actors seem a little too close for his comfort.

"Could we move the chair and Charlie's stool just a little farther apart?" he asks.

It's a minor adjustment, but one of many Law has made for this play, which will be the city's first to have an in-person audience since March. The actors have been carefully choreographed to stay six feet apart for as much of the performance as possible -- with just a few unavoidable exceptions.  

"There are a couple of moments where they are closer than that," Law says, "but I've made sure they're not face to face, and it's only for a few seconds."

Credit Nick de la Canal / WFAE
From left to right: Chloe Law as Bonny, Sager White as Ted, Morgan Wakefield as Elsie, and Liz Waller as Grace.

The spacing is evident in one scene when the art teacher asks Charlie to come closer so she can examine his hands.

He shows them to her from six feet away.

Other scenes that have been altered include a fist fight. It's now a standoff between two boys with their fists raised, and the show's 14-year-old lead, Gray Ryan, grins when he talks about the change to the play's ending.

"There was originally supposed to be a kiss at the end, which believe it not we had to take out," he says. "Instead, we changed it to a hug, which is a little less emotionally impactful, I guess. But it's the best we could do."

Staying socially distant has been a major adjustment for the six actors, who've all worked together before and are accustomed to getting close physically, both on and off the stage.

Liz Waller, who plays the mother, Grace Higgins, said at times it can feel awkward to stand so far away from her children in the show. But she's glad the cast and crew are taking the health risks seriously, because she worries about her real family back home.

"That was my biggest concern about doing the show," she says. "I have three sons, a husband, and a mother with cancer -- who does not live in Charlotte, but there were times we thought she might have to come up here for medical treatment. So we were worried about, how do we stay sane, and have some semblance of a life, but also stay safe?"

So far, she says she has felt comfortable with the protections in place at the theater.

"Any time we are indoors, we're wearing masks," she says. "We also do temperature checks. There's always hand sanitizer available, and I think we're doing OK."

Credit Nick de la Canal / WFAE
Chloe Law, Ryan Gray, and Sager White rehearse for Theatre Charlotte's production of "What I Did Last Summer."

Audiences, too, will have to adjust for this performance. The theater will require face masks for entry, and the audience will be capped at 50 people per show. Ticket groups will also be seated six feet apart, and no concessions will be offered, although people can bring their own snacks or drinks.

The circumstances are not ideal, but director Law still swells with pride at the prospect of offering up a show to the public for the first time in six months.

"It's great, if you want to know the truth," he says. "The circumstances, not great. But the fact that I have six talented actors willing to do this at this time of year, it's exciting to me."

He says this will be a test to see if audiences feel ready to return to live theater, and actress Glynis Robbins, who plays the art teacher, says she hopes it will show that a safe performance is possible at this point in the pandemic.

"It's a little different, obviously, being outside, and it has its difficulties, but that's the great thing about theater -- we adapt," Robbins says. "We're creative people, so we find a way to make it happen."

Audiences will get to see for themselves when the curtain goes up -- or rather the parking lights turn on -- outside the theater Thursday evening.

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