The Sunrise Theater had scheduled a sold-out “Riverdance” event in March, but COVID-19 had other ideas.
“We started the temporary shutdown by canceling that event,” says MaryBeth Poplyk, executive director of the Sunrise. “ When the theater reopens, ‘Riverdance’ will be one of the first film events rescheduled. But instead of one sold out film with 360 people in the theater, we will schedule numerous dates and times. This will allow people to social distance and make it safer for everyone.”
Poplyk says that one of the most heart-breaking postponements was the Temple Theatre collaboration of the live stage play of “Steel Magnolias.”
“The two theaters had worked for months to bring professional live theater back to the Sunrise,” she says. “Efforts are underway to reschedule the play to October.”
When the Sunrise closed its doors, no one imagined that the shutdown would last this long.
“Staff immediately went to work on deep cleaning, reorganizing and painting projects they’d wanted to do for a while – all the time thinking it might be weeks, not months before we could reopen,” says Poplyk.
As the closure continued, the theater looked for creative ways to stay engaged and continue entertaining the community.
“Innovation and flexibility have been the key,” says Poplyk.
One way the theater added some humor to the sad situation was posting quotes from the movies on one side of the marquee.
“The first quote posted was, ‘May the force be with you,’” says Poplyk. Since that quote lit up Broad Street in March, community members have gotten involved and submitted their own suggestions.”
When “Open the bay pod doors, HAL” was posted, staff members learned that the contributor, James Reynolds, was actually stationed in Saudi Arabia and watching the marquee quotes via social media. The Sunrise marquee was also featured in articles on Yahoo Life and Vanity Fair after going viral and gaining national attention.
“The other side of the marquee was used to congratulate the graduating class of 2020,” says Poplyk. “The theater worked with the schools on a schedule to make sure everyone had a chance for a photo op with their school name on the marquee. Sandhills Community College even provided a life-size cutout of Dr. Dempsey, who then appeared in many memorable photos. “
Another innovation that has proved popular is curbside concessions.
“The Sunrise started selling its Amish Country popcorn, locally-made candy bars, sodas, beer and wine each Friday afternoon,” says Poplyk.
To keep everyone safe, the staff delivers the orders to cars.
“It was a good way for the little theater to help pay bills while also staying engaged with the community,” says Poplyk. “As more businesses have reopened, sales have slowed, so we may shorten the curbside hours.”
As theater closures continued, film studios looked for other ways to show their films.
“The Sunrise immediately jumped on the virtual cinema option with them,” says Poplyk.
This made it possible for the theater to offer movies to the community that would have been shown on the big screen had the theater been open.
“But it also made it possible for the single-screen theater to show several movies at one time — a virtual multiplex,” says Poplyk.
Viewers select a movie from a list on the Sunrise website. They purchase a ticket that ranges from $5-12 depending on the studio, then watch the film as a family/group at home. The studio shares a portion of the ticket price with the theater.
“While ticket sales are not a big money maker, every little bit helps, and the Sunrise is able to provide entertainment to the community,” Poplyk says.
Summer camps have also required a creative approach. Last year’s camps had 30 children in each of the three sessions.
“This year, the theater limited camps to 15 and moved the activity to their outdoor space,” says Poplyk. “Two of the camps have sold out, with the third having fewer campers due to being rescheduled a few times.”
Poplyk says that staff, parents and campers will be wearing masks and social distancing. Camp director Kimberly Fielder-Jones has changed the staging and choreography to keep campers safe while still having fun.
“Costumes are incorporating masks,” says Poplyk. “For example, in “Pirates, the Musical,” all of the pirate campers will be wearing beards over their masks. This is perfect for a pirate cast of Blackbeards, Bluebeards, Redbeards, Purplebeards, Yellowbeards, etc.”
A huge financial blow for the theater is the fact that the Met Opera and Bolshoi Ballet both canceled the remainder of their seasons.
“Fortunately, many ticket holders generously donated their tickets back to the Sunrise rather than asking for refunds, which has helped us tremendously,” says Poplyk.
One of the biggest and most popular events for the community has been First Friday, drawing 1,000 people or more.
“Each month, the theater waits for the governor’s announcement to see how the numbers are doing, and if the limit on outdoor gatherings will be lifted,” says Poplyk. “May, June and July have already been canceled, but an additional event has been added to November. Hopes are high for an August event.”
The outdoor space will also be used as soon as crowd sizes are increased. The First Bank Stage at Sunrise Square will be used to show outdoor movies, small concerts, and private events when 50 or more people are permitted to gather.
“The Sunrise is prepared with an outdoor projector, movie screen and sound system with the hopes of offering some great summer classics soon,” says Poplyk.
Movie theaters are part of Phase 3 of the N.C. reopening plan. “When that is announced, the Sunrise will be ready to open its doors to the community,” says Poplyk. “Plans have been underway to ensure social distancing in the theater, with increased cleaning and protection protocols. Every other row of the theater will be blocked off, and empty seats will be left between groups. Other changes are being made to make the theater touch-free.”
While the theater has always been frugal, Poplyk says they went into extreme cost-cutting mode to reduce overhead expenses when the shutdown hit.
“Even though no movies or events were occurring, the bills kept coming,” she says. “When the PPP loans became available, the Sunrise was able to use the funds for the eight-week timeframe it specified. Since then, the theater has relied on concession sales, virtual movies and donations. While these do not cover all costs, we are confident the theater will weather this storm.”
“The annual Raise the Roof fundraising concert will be more important this year than it ever has been to the Sunrise Theater,” says Poplyk.
Poplyk says that the Sunrise Preservation Group’s board of directors and the Sunrise Theater staff have worked very closely to develop a roadmap to guide the theater through these tough times.
“They have taken a proactive approach and adapted as the situation has changed,” says Poplyk. “The Sunrise is a nonprofit community theater solely dedicated to serving the community, which has cared for and supported it in return. The future of the Sunrise is bright, but it will definitely be challenging. The board, staff, volunteers and community will be up for the challenge to ensure the Sunrise Theater remains vibrant for another 80 years.”