Once brimming with creative energy, Cartersville’s performing arts theaters are now empty for want of an audience. Both located in the heart of downtown, The Grand Theatre and The Legion Theatre continue to serve as reminders of the toll COVID-19 is taking on all aspects of daily life.
As their caretakers patiently wait for the playhouses to reopen, individuals across the globe are gaining a glimpse behind venues’ doors with the Dark Houses Atlanta project.
Through this initiative, photographer Michael Boatright has captured “hauntingly beautiful” images of the stages and seating areas — also known as the houses — of nearly 30 theaters.
In the photos, which are posted online at www.darkhousesatlanta.org, viewers can see the interiors of these venues in the state they were in prior to the lockdown. Along with empty seats, the some of the images showcase the sets of the theaters’ halted productions.
“When I first had the idea for this project, I quickly sketched out a synopsis that has remained by and large unchanged,” said Boatright, a resident of DeKalb County. “I wasn't sure how this might be received, as you can see how this could be seen in a negative light for the theaters that have gone dark.
“But so far, in every single one of my 29 shoots — so far — I've not met anyone who wasn't excited about the project and grateful for it. Theater people are really great, loving people. They love the art form and they love each other. They get it. They get that it's only with community help — both inside and outside of each theater's communities — that they and the art form will survive.”
Calling the need to cancel events “heartbreaking,” Kristy Montgomery shared The Grand’s staff was “very honored and excited” for the venue to be featured in the Dark Houses Atlanta project.
“While it certainly goes without saying that everyone has been majorly impacted by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we definitely have been hit hard in our community of arts,” said Montgomery, The Grand’s program director. “So much of our usual plans are completely impossible right now, and it has meant several months of very little to nothing at all happening on our stage.
“We felt it was important to capture these moments, given the historic nature of these events. Seeing the empty houses across our area serves as a good reminder of the fact that we're not alone.”
Echoing Boatright’s comments, Montgomery finds the images to be “just as hopeful as they are sad.”
“So many theaters depicted have remnants of shows that were being worked on or the start of projects to come,” she said. “These set pieces serve as a reminder that life happens onstage, and it helps remind me that life will continue to happen onstage once we make it through our current situation.”
In addition to The Grand Theatre and The Legion Theatre, other venues featured in the Dark Houses Atlanta project include Academy Theatre, Actors Express, Alliance Theatre, Art Station, Aurora Theatre, Balzer Theater at Herren's, Conant, Core Dance Decatur, Dad’s Garage, DramaTech Theatre, Ferst Center for the Arts, Fox Theatre, Horizon Theatre, Jennie T. Anderson Theatre, Marietta's New Theatre in the Square, Out Front Theatre, Pinch ‘N’ Ouch Theatre, Rialto Center for the Arts, 7 Stages, Shakespeare Tavern, Southwest Arts Center, Stage Door Players, Synchronicity Theatre, The Basement Theatre, Village Theatre and Whole World Theatre.
Familiar with Cartersville, Boatright is a member of the Booth Photography Guild and was aware of The Grand Theatre at 7. N. Wall St., but not the 70-seat Legion Theatre.
“The Grand was every bit of what I expected it to be —Grand — and then some,” he said, referring to the venue that was established in 1910. “I was not aware that they had done a carefully, and safely, managed theater camp and their staff were striking the set when I came in.
“It is exciting to me to see the theaters that although they are ‘dark’ — meaning, they are not playing shows for live audiences — they are, with whatever resources and skills they have available, making as much creative and effective use of their spaces and those resources and skills to try and keep the theater alive. I wasn't expecting this when I started the project and it actually gives me great hope for the future of the live-theater art form.”
While capturing the Cartersville images Aug. 4, Boatright was thrilled to travel down West Main Street and visit The Legion Theatre, the home of the Pumphouse Players, for the first time.
“The Legion Theatre/Pumphouse Players was like a true breath of fresh air — kind of funny, since, they had not been in the building for weeks,” he said. “But it was refreshing to see the enthusiasm that President Laurel Ann Lowe had for the project and the love for her community theater, the house and the players.
“And what a beautiful little theater. Such an intimate space that they have made very efficient use of. It was actually a fun shoot, in the midst of all the sadness of all these closed theaters.”
Like Montgomery, Lowe also considers it an honor for The Legion to be highlighted among the other venues in Boatright’s project.
“Seeing The Legion featured alongside prestigious theaters large and small is really special to me and to our members,” she said. “Lots of people across Atlanta know about theaters, like the Fox and the Alliance, but this is our artistic home, in our hometown. The Legion and our community are as important to our ‘Pumpies’ as the larger theaters are to the Atlanta arts landscape.
“When I see the photos of our set, frozen in time since March 10, I can only describe the scene as hauntingly beautiful. We haven't had performers on our stage in over five months, and the untold story we were working on just sits there and waits for us to come back. There is a sense of loss.”
At The Legion, Boatright photographed set pieces from the Pumphouse Players’ production of “Ada and the Engine,” which was forced to close a week before opening. Along with preparing to open the historical drama, rehearsals were in full swing for “Recommended Reading for Girls,” which Lowe was directing, when the lockdown occurred.
“The evenings had been full of a lot of energy, strong stage presences and laughter, so to go from that to empty air and nothing was a sharp turn,” Lowe said. “Of course, we all hoped we'd be able to get back to work soon, so we put off many decisions as long as possible, while also trying to shift gears to create online content and engage our artists.
“We polled our members and our board, but it is difficult to get everyone on the same page. Ultimately, our organization decided we would rather take our patron and participant health seriously and do our best to fulfill our mission at the same time.”
During COVID-19, both Cartersville theaters pivoted from presenting performances for live audiences to virtual offerings. The venues’ caretakers are voicing their optimistic attitude in the midst of the pandemic in their marquees, with The Legion’s reading “The show must go on – line” and The Grand’s message — “This is only an intermission” and “The show will go on.”
The PHP, which has produced online readings and short plays, is appealing to the public to help bolster its virtual endeavors.
“We've just launched a yearlong fundraiser,” Lowe said, “that will help us improve our current offerings of staged readings, live capture shows and short play festivals, and we've announced some exciting events that will be played to online audiences.
“Coming up, we'll host four short play festivals between September and December, plus we're partnering with Lock Willow Productions in November to bring online audiences the musical ‘Daddy Long Legs,’ and with TheatreExtreme to bring you special Halloween and Christmas events. We do not have firm plans for reopening, but we have pledged to continue finding new ways to fulfill our mission, whether that be online and/or in-person.”
After conducting a playwriting contest, The Grand is gearing up to audition for “The Rainbow Fish Musical,” which will be presented completely via Zoom. The venue also will launch The Grand Theatre Digital Academy — acting classes and theater education for adults and students, kindergarten through 12th grade, with registration starting Sept. 1.
“We have several other opportunities in the works as well for our local musicians, and we'll be partnering with radio station WBHF and local theater company ACT I for some radio dramas,” Montgomery said. “A lot is coming, and we're very excited about all of it.”
In viewing the Dark Houses Atlanta project’s images, she hopes the public also will remember “how important the arts” were in the midst of sheltering in place and COVID-19.
“Every show you watched on Netflix or album you listened to, all of that involves people who do the same thing that we do,” Montgomery said. “The arts are what help us connect with one another, even when we can't physically be together.
“Look at the photos in this project and reminisce about what you've seen on our Grand Theatre stage, and what you're hoping to see once we're back — and we absolutely will be back.”
Along with recognizing the importance of the arts community, Boatright is striving for the Dark Houses Atlanta project to inspire people to support the featured theaters and their troupes.
“A couple of ways that people can help is to hire out-of-work theater people when you can. For example, need someone to do some construction — hire a set builder,” he said. “Also, there are a few organizations trying to help, such as the Atlanta Black Theatre Festival’s Artist Relief Fund, to C4 Atlanta’s Artist Lost Gig Fund or the Atlanta Artist Relief Fund, which prepares and delivers healthy meals to those without paychecks.
“You can also make donations to the theaters themselves. There is a link to each theater's website on my Dark Houses Atlanta project page, www.darkhousesatlanta.org, or consider purchasing a ticket to a show or season, and donating it back — or attending when it's safe to do so. My personal response, among many, is the decision to buy a ticket and attend at least one performance — when it is safe to do so — at every house that I have photographed for this project.”
In addition to their Facebook pages, further details about The Grand and The Legion can be obtained on the theaters’ websites, https://thegrandtheatre.org and http://pumphouseplayers.com, respectively.