The return of local theatre in GR is highlighted by Always…Patsy Cline performance

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Marybeth Stanziola , Editorial Intern

Circle Theatre in Grand Rapids reopened for the first time since March 2020 earlier this May. They’re back with a production of the musical “Always… Patsy Cline.” Performances took place in an outdoor and socially-distanced setting from June 3-20.

“Always… Patsy Cline” reflects on the real-life friendship between country music legend Patsy Cline and long-time fan, Louise Seger. The musical’s heartfelt and humorous narrative makes it a great addition to Circle Theatre’s roster.

The lack of extensive production and cast created a show that was relatively easy to rehearse both remotely and distanced, especially considering the two leads are roommates outside of the theatre world. Emily Diener (Patsy Cline) and Mary Kate Murnen (Louise) were excitement about the return of local theater and the triumphs and tribulations of this production.

Circle Theatre felt that it was the appropriate time to slowly integrate local theatre back into the Grand Rapids community considering the lifting of many COVID-19 restrictions combined with the warmer weather.  Although outdoor theatre has existed for centuries, having to audition, rehearse, and put on a show remotely brought on challenges many actors hadn’t dealt with before.

Diener and Murnen had a slight advantage despite these obstacles, however, because they have been roommates since before the audition process for “Always… Patsy Cline” even began. Since they’re the only two main cast members, the pair were able to rehearse from the luxury of their apartment when need be. Their pre-existing chemistry added to the believability of friendship and endearment that the musical focused on.

It wasn’t only a small acting cast, however, as the entire production team consisted of only five people. This smaller team created a more intimate and laid-back show, but more importantly this allowed for a safer production process.

“It was just the five of us, so we social distanced as much as possible, and we kept masks on up until the CDC said we didn’t have to anymore” Diener said. “We took those steps to make sure that we can keep doing theater and that it wouldn’t just disappear from us again.”

The cast and crew experienced challenges producing this show outdoors. The physical elements like bugs, heat, wind, and the sun created a whole new ballpark of challenges that they were forced to figure out and conquer. While these obstacles can get in the way and create the opportunity for an occasional candid moment, Murnen noted that being in the bright sun opposed to a dark theater allowed for audience participation and an intimacy rarely experienced within an indoor venue.

“It’s really cool to be able to look out into the audience and see all one hundred-and-some people singing along or laughing with their friends,” Diener said. “It’s nice to connect with them in a way that we wouldn’t get inside the theatre.”

Even though certain aspects of this “adjusted theatre” were still new to both actors and the audience, those comforting elements keep the comradery strong between everyone involved. Murnen saw familiar faces in the crowds after not being able to put on shows for over a year and it became evidently clear that the two have their hearts in the theater.

After reflecting on “Always… Patsy Cline” and all of the hard work that comes along with it, Diener and Murnen hope that theatre is finally back to stay after its long and devastating absence during the peak of COVID-19. They’re both excited for The Circle Theatre’s upcoming summer concert series, Cabaret, and an upcoming production of Hair later this year, which Diener will be participating in.  The latter is scheduled to take place within the physical theatre, which will mark a huge milestone of returning to a sense of normalcy not only in the theatre world, but society in general.