The Mayo Performing Arts Center (MPAC), originally built in 1937, has been a staple of the Morristown, New Jersey community for generations. When the pandemic hit, the theater shut down, just like most communal gathering places in local towns and neighborhoods across America.
But as restrictions started to ease, MPAC opened back up again in September. It wasn’t a full, back-to-normal reopening just yet, there were guidelines for social distancing, reduced capacities and masking.
“Usually, in times of crisis, people look to be together. And the theater’s always been a place where people can be together,” said Ed Kirchdoerffer, the general manager of MPAC. “During the pandemic, the theater could not be that gathering point for the community. In fact, it was the exact opposite.”
This gave the theater ample time to develop programmings, such as online theater classes for young children and trivia nights for people in the community who still sought social interactions.
But Kirchdoerffer said they always knew they wanted to come back to in-person events. It was just a matter of how.
They started by updating their safety equipment and procedures. In the span of one summer, MPAC invested more than $100 thousand in health and safety equipment, such as touchless faucets in their bathrooms and UV filters.
They also developed a reopening plan that included masked audiences and methods for keeping theater patrons socially distanced at all times.
“We went through a lot of protocols to make sure that the experience was healthy and safe for patrons and performers, volunteers and staff,” Kirchdoerffer said.
Now, they are working on plans for operating at full capacity by this upcoming September.
“We’ve had a lot of opportunities to work out the necessary protocols over the last nine months to prepare,” Kirchdoerffer said.
Even during the pandemic, MPAC has always understood the importance of being a constant presence within the community.
“A lot of people in the Morristown area have been there for a very long time, like me, born and raised in the area, and it’s an important part of the community — a very big part of Morristown,” said Gail Flaherty, an on-off volunteer with MPAC for the past 10 years.
It was this loyalty and community bond that led to everyone working together to return to the theater.
“For the most part, everyone’s been very cooperative on all sides,” Kirchdoerffer said. “Especially in November, December and January, where things were kind of bleak. We fully expected to be shut down because of everything that was going on and all the numbers started going back up at the time.”
But peoples’ cooperation and adherence to the strict guidelines set forth by the theater paid off. Kirchdoerffer said, “People were thirsting for a live concert experience. Thus, people took the precautions that were necessary.”
And, when volunteering opportunities were once again available, there was no shortage of people willing to return to their previous position.
Flaherty is very clear about how upfront MPAC is with its volunteering guidelines. Volunteering is a hard job, involving lots of time on one’s feet and having to deal with ushering, ticketing and bartending/manning the concessions stand. But the one constant is the never-ending stream of interested volunteers.
“This volunteer program at the theater, people don’t leave. They stay for years and years,” Flaherty said.
In these tough times, MPAC has also served as a place of stability.
“The fact that they kept most of the staff on throughout the whole pandemic with no shows, is really a tribute to them, and they have really been able to bring back most of those employees as we get ready to ramp up again,” Flaherty said.
More than just the theater’s staff depends on the theater, it’s a part of the local economy.
“And now, the town is looking to the theater opening at full capacity in the fall, as, hopefully, a stimulus to the restaurants, which, of course, have had as big a struggle as we’ve had this past year,” Kirchdoerffer said.
In anticipation of full audiences returning, the staff and volunteers have been open about why they believe the theater is essential.
“Anyone who loves the arts, or music, theatre, or children's shows, they know the theater, and, God forbid, it didn’t come back, it would have been horrible,” Flaherty said.
“It was uplifting to the town to know that something was back, even if it was on a limited basis,” Kirchdoerffer said.