If you want a dazzling example of someone making the most of a really bad situation, look no further than the Sunrise Theater in downtown Southern Pines.
A little background:
“A lot of cool things have happened to the Sunrise since it was rescued from closing a couple of decades ago,” I wrote in a column that appeared in this space a little over a year ago. But I added that the best piece of luck that the theater has had in recent times came a year before that: “I’m talking about the hiring of MaryBeth Poplyk as its executive director.”
As fate would have it, though, you need to fast-forward just a few weeks from that column’s publication to begin encountering what was surely the worst thing ever to descend on the Sunrise — not to mention our town, our state, our country and the rest of the world. I’m talking, of course, about the COVID-19 pandemic.
Initially, the Sunrise had no choice but to shut its doors and turn out the lights, like other theaters everywhere. This was especially hard to take for me and other Moore Countians, since it came at a time when MaryBeth and the theater’s board were hammering out the details of an exciting deal with the Temple Theater in Sanford to bring live productions here a couple of times a year.
All that went on indefinite hold and seemed to stay there (though “Steel Magnolias” is now scheduled for October), causing me to toss off these words about the Sunrise in this space just a month ago:
“I’ve grown depressed every time I’ve driven past its mostly dark front in the past year. … How long will it take most folks to start feeling safe again while sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in that and other theaters across the country, including all those big ones in New York?”
And the sorry fact is that those last words should never have been uttered, since they failed to reflect a whole lot of good stuff that has been happening in recent months. All that became abundantly clear last week during a conversation — and theater tour — with MaryBeth.
“The most important thing that has allowed the Sunrise to survive COVID has been the staff and volunteers,” she said. “While change and uncertainty can be crippling for some organizations, the Sunrise embraced it. The staff took a creative approach in coming up with ideas, trying everything — some that succeeded and some that didn’t.”
MaryBeth, who is clearly putting in a lot more than 40 hours a lot of weeks, practically begged me not to make this about her.
“It’s totally about the Sunrise,” she said, “and the incredible team of people I work with: Kevin Dietzel, Elaine Evans, Claire Sellers, Killian Poplyk, Evan Blades, Heather Brookfield, Elizabeth Shaver and many volunteers — and our board members. None of it was easy, but they stayed committed and worked very hard. Every single member went above and beyond their usual job to make sure that the Sunrise could remain engaged with the community and continue to provide entertainment.”
When the theater shut down last March, she and her crew began to offer what she called “a few things to keep engaged and provide a little entertainment to the community.” They ranged from curbside concessions on Fridays to using the marquee for humorous movie quotes. The staff worked with studios to offer new-release films through a virtual theater. Tickets could be purchased on the Sunrise website, and a link allowed people to watch the film at home.
“The Sunrise was fortunate to have our little outdoor amphitheater and park — the First Bank Stage at Sunrise Square,” MaryBeth said. “Thanks to the work done by many people over the years to develop this space, by August we were able to have summer camps, outdoor marketplaces and outdoor movies. Several area dance studios were also able to use the space for recitals. Summer camps were scaled back and moved outside so we could still offer something for children.”
Last October, the state began allowing theaters to reopen at reduced capacity.
“Rules were placed on the number, the layout of seating, and the cleaning protocols that would have to be followed,” she said, showing me how the Sunrise follows and enforces all of the rules by keeping groups separated by at least three seats. Plainly marked empty rows are scattered throughout the theater.
“We always observe social distancing,” MaryBeth said. “And after each event, the theater receives a thorough cleaning — including a fogger that kills germs on contact. … Movies returned to the Sunrise in mid-October, but attendance was low. We found that people weren’t comfortable in a theater with strangers. So we began offering private rentals, allowing families and friends to take over the theater and watch movies in private. We offered our regular concessions, so it felt like a regular movie night.”
As vaccinations increase and more people are comfortable returning, the Sunrise will be showing four films nominated for six Oscars, including in the Best Picture category. Also this spring, there will be live video encore performances by the Metropolitan Opera and National Theatre, including “Tosca” in April and “Porgy and Bess” in May.
I was especially glad to be given a tour of the upstairs space that is being renovated and turned into a micro-theater to be opened later this month — with its own concessions area, dining/meeting space, and a theater room with casual seating (donated by Furniture of the Pines) for more relaxed movie-watching by small groups.
Enough. But you get the idea. Given the circumstances, what’s going on these days in and around the Sunrise Theater is anything but depressing.
“The past year has been extremely hard,” MaryBeth acknowledged as we headed back downstairs. “But we didn’t give up or just shut the doors and wait for things to change. Our team of staff, volunteers and board members was supported and motivated by the community to keep this beloved historic theater alive and active throughout the pandemic.”
The goal, she added, “is always to have the Sunrise not only survive, but thrive — and serve the community for another 80 years.”
Steve Bouser is the retired editor and Opinion editor of The Pilot. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.