After more than a year of closures related to COVID-19 and a virtual shutdown of community theater, Johnson County Park and Recreation District is bringing back a new season of Theater in the Park.
The first show of the summer season, “Mamma Mia”, premieres this weekend at the open-air theater at 7710 Renner Road, as part of Shawnee Mission Park. The show features ABBA’s music! “Mama Mia” and will have seven performances with Curtain Time at 8:30 p.m. (June 4-6, June 9-12). Tickets are available on the site of the Theater in the Park.
With the lifting of the Johnson County Public Health Order requiring masks, there are no restrictions on masks or physical distancing. The open-air theater can comfortably seat hundreds of people when spaced out. Five outdoor shows are scheduled this summer at the Theater in the Park.
“Mamma Mia” stars the husband and wife team of Overland Park, Mark Swezey, the director, and Kristi Mitchell, who stars as Donna. This is the couple’s 22nd show as well as fellow performer Stasha Case at the Theater in the Park. Fun fact: Swezey’s days in the theater can be traced back to ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ in 1981.
Another fun fact: “Mamma Mia” marks the first time that Theater in the Park will use a rotating stage.
The cast will not be wearing masks as it is outside, and Swezey noted that most have received the COVID-19 vaccine. Swezey said the cast and crew felt “pretty comfortable” after a cautious spring when cast members wore see-through masks at auditions.
“It’s great to do theater again,” Swezey said, noting that SM South, where he’s been teaching since 1980, had five shows, four of which are online, but it was just a taste for theater lovers. “We are so excited. This is exactly the kind of show that I think you want to start at a time like this.
Mitchell, who is a music teacher at Barstow School, said she was “ecstatic”, like many of her fellow cast members, to return to the stage for live performances.
“I think ‘Mamma Mia’, with its fantastic soundtrack, fun vibe, love story, hope story, friendship story, it’s like the perfect vehicle to feel good and a great start to the season, ”said Mitchell. .
After juggling a school year with changing rules for singing, Mitchell realizes he’s nervous to keep everyone safe. But she was impressed with how the cast and crew respected each other’s safety.
“Even after the ban was lifted, we decided you know what, someone gets sick, we have to cancel a show; nobody wants that, ”Mitchell said. “So we kept our masks inside, and then once we got out here we took them off. There is certainly the freedom here outside to play without a mask.
“And I’ll tell you, this is the hardest working cast. If you don’t play on stage, you sing backstage. We work from start to finish, and it’s a great camaraderie. I am in awe of the young talent, and then you have the six veterans who are the oldest playing the fathers and three older women. We were once those young kids dancing to crazy people, so it’s fun to watch the two generations mix together.
“Jump on the reconnaissance train”
A day when almost everything closed in March 2020 is quite a vivid memory for Tim Bair, artistic director of production for Theater in the Park. They were in rehearsal for “Be More Chill” five days before opening night.
This marked the start of what has become the end of theater for 2020. Plans for community theater continued to be pushed back, until it finally became clear that it would be dangerous and that the season had to be canceled. .
“For us it was just heartbreaking, and I think like most people have experienced it too, it affects everyone in a different way, of course,” Bair said. “For me, it was particularly difficult because we had already auditioned our summer shows. We had castings for all the shows.
“Time kept on progressing, things were canceled and canceled. We thought, okay, we’re going to hold on until this, we’re going to hold on until that. As we all know, there was never anything to hang on to. It just ended and it was pitch dark.
It takes five weeks to launch a show, so decisions in the theater need to be made well in advance. That’s why Bair and his team finally called early enough in the pandemic to completely cancel. Hundreds of hours of preparation have been lost.
Theater in the Park had a few bright spots: They had films with social distancing for 300 people. At the end of last year, they had an indoor show with two actors and COVID-19 precautions.
Throughout the pandemic, especially as the community moves towards collective immunity, it has been a journey of mixed feelings in the theater: fear, hesitation, sadness and ultimately, excitement for the new season.
“We are in a place where we feel better; the vaccinations are taking place, the world is opening up again, it feels like we’re slowly coming back to normal, if that’s possible, ”Bair said. “I don’t know if it will be the same kind of normal again. “
This new season comes with changes, with some of the cast returning from last spring mingled with new faces. Some people are now unavailable, some people have grown up, some people have moved, some people have chosen to leave the theater.
And auditions for the theater have also changed. While the number of people auditioning this year has declined by around 100, the number of video auditions has jumped to 170 (from 40) this season. Bair said he hopes this summer will bring people together again in an outdoor space for performances.
“I hope people are ready to come out of the house and feel comfortable and come and enjoy the park,” Bair said. “I think it’s good that we’re outside. And I think whether people are vaccinated or not, I hope people will come. Hope we are all good and jump on the gratitude train. I’m really grateful that we are where we are and that we can move forward this season.