2 Clay County theatres wouldn’t let pandemic shut them down

Julie Morgan

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Orange Park Community Theatre Facebook

A Pew Research Center study conducted in January found that Americans are becoming more comfortable attending indoor sporting events or concerts.

Shortly after the COVID pandemic began, 23 percent of Americans said their comfort level would allow them to attend an indoor sporting event or concert. This number dipped to 19 percent in November 2020 but jumped to 43 percent in January 2022.

Speaking about the early days of the pandemic, “We had no idea what we were in for,” said Dr. Vicki Lowe, president of the Orange Park Community Theatre.

OPCT is “just now getting back to normal” and at total capacity with a new show, Disney The Little Mermaid Jr, opening later this month.

Much like other businesses, at one point, the Moody Avenue theatre allowed only 50 percent of its capacity. That, coupled with the detailed task of trying to keep cast, crew, and patrons safe, is how the doors at OPCT remained open.

“We as a board tried to be very strategic and purposeful about everything we did, including wiping down each and every seat and armrest of each and every chair in the theatre between shows —as well as the set pieces and prop pieces—it was quite daunting,” said Lowe.

However, not everyone was in their corner when they remained open. “We had patrons reach out to us frustrated that we did not close, while others cheered us for not closing.”

Established in 1969, OPCT has become an institution in the community. Even though they lost sales, patrons and business partners “stepped up in a big way and helped sponsor or grant funds to help make up for any losses.”

Through outreach efforts and only one rescheduled special production, the community theatre essentially broke even by thinking beyond the stage.

“We did learn about new possibilities and options open to us, such as live streaming and digital programs.” In addition, “we focused a bit hard on fundraising and community outreach to remind people we were still here and still active,” said Lowe.

She says the climate and culture have changed, but business at the theatre has entered a new normal with child actors and their grandparents showing up again for auditions.

The final show of the season is in June. It’s called Freaky Friday The Musical. It runs June 3-19, with evening and matinee performances.

The new season starts in August with The Great American Trailer Park Musical.

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Clay Theatre

Clay Theatre’s pandemic story

Business at another Clay County theatre also suffered during the pandemic, but it too survived.

Clay Theatre in Green Cove Springs is a much different type of theatre.

The venue was established in 1937 and transformed from a movie theatre in its heyday to an event venue today.

According to The Knot 2021 Real Weddings Study, in 2021, 94 percent of weddings planned for 2021 happened in that year. The site says this was a far cry from 2020, when nearly half of the scheduled weddings were postponed.

Clay Theatre reopened as a wedding venue in April 2019, just one year before the pandemic.

Andrea Vallencourt and her husband Daniel own Clay Theatre. Her first thought when COVID hit was, “Okay, I guess I’m going out of business now.”

Business looked promising before the doors officially opened. “I had 50 weddings booked at our grand opening,” said Vallencourt. Then COVID hit. “Of course, I panicked because I didn’t know what to expect.” They finished their March 2020 weddings, then closed temporarily.

The venue worked with couples to reschedule the most important date of their lives. But they never had to tell a couple their date was canceled. “They all made the decision on their own,” said Vallencourt.

She says other vendors criticized her for giving refunds or allowing people to reschedule. “Being a new business owner, there wasn’t a handbook I could turn to. This was unprecedented. I just had to do what I felt was right.” This earned her favor and good reviews from her customers.

Eventually, Clay Theatre reopened. “I let people make their own decisions.” Vallencourt says she gave couples the flexibility to do as they wanted when they wanted. “I hosted weddings for six people because that’s what they were comfortable with.”

Things indeed turned around in 2021. “Pretty much all of 2021 was normal for us. 2021 was a little bit of a blur also because I had double the amount of weddings that I normally would’ve had.”

Vallencourt says she’s thankful to be in a good place this year. “I’m in a position where I’m helping other venues through their struggles.”

Saturdays in 2022 and nearly half of 2023 are much like Saturdays in 2019 for Clay Theatre ­­— booked.

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I cover Clay County in North Florida. I write about what matters to you in Orange Park, Green Cove Springs, Penny Farms, Keystone Heights, Fleming Island, etc. Got a hot tip? Tell me about it!

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