CHATHAM — “It's hard being closed,” said Kevin McLain, executive director of The Chatham Orpheum Theater. But don't get the wrong idea. The Orpheum is committed to staying closed until it can safely reopen to provide the same kind of experience for which it is known and loved. The number one priority of this community theater is exactly that. Community.
It's that commitment to community which has inspired the creation of the Orpheum's Virtual Screening Room. Visit chathamorpheum.org to learn how the theater is bringing the same quality cultural programming safely into your home that would normally be featured on its two screens. Currently on offer are “RBG,” the award winning documentary about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (with net proceeds to benefit the ACLU Foundation in support of their Women’s Rights Project, co-founded by Ginsburg in 19720); “Leonardo: The Works,” the Opheum's Art Series premiere exhibition, presenting every single attributed work by the great master of “The Mona Lisa” and “The Last Supper”; and in the theater's Sustainable Practices Series, “Cooked: Survival by Zip Code,” a timely documentary adaptation of Eric Klinenberg’s “Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago.” Also available is a kids' and young adults' section, featuring games, trivia and links to Orpheum-recommended movies, resources and activities.
“In our Virtual Screening Room you know there will be quality cultural programming for kids and adults. There will never be inappropriate content. Nothing we wouldn't show in the theater,” McLain said.
Back in March, when the pandemic first arrived and businesses were forced to close for the safety of the community, McLain, along with Ignacio Martinez and Christopher Mortell of IMCbyDesign, brainstormed to come up with the best ways to maintain the Orpheum's connection with its audience and its place as a vital gathering place in the community.
“I am used to getting up in front of our audiences and talking directly to them, and that couldn't happen,” McLain said. In this suddenly very abnormal and distressing atmosphere, “We wanted to create and provide a sense of normalcy, a way to keep people in touch, to communicate, to provide programming and maintain our connection with the community, many of whom were suddenly quite isolated.”
The first iteration of what would become the Virtual Screening Room was the Orpheum's free streaming of cultural programming such as The Met Live in HD Series, encore presentations of the Metropolitan Opera House's performances. Soon it became clear that COVID-19 was not a problem that was going to go away after a few weeks or even a few months. A longer term solution was needed to enable the theater to continue to fulfill its mission and perform its vital role in the community.
“Geoff Bassett makes our Artist of the Month documentaries. We have the past six years of them archived, and we decided to ask some of the artists to record new introductions to their documentaries,” McLain said. “I expected them to discuss their art, but I was blown away by the way they instead spoke about the world we are living in now, the changes that have taken place, and how they have changed the way they are creating art. People deal with these things by coming together in any way they can to process. It's very moving.”
Given the information that is available about the transmission of COVID-19 and the suggested guidelines needed to keep the community as safe as possible, McLain said that the theater is likely to remain closed to in-person events and screenings until next summer. Due to the small size of the building's rooms, opening with a limited capacity simply isn't practical. The moviegoing experience that the Orpheum's supporters have come to know and love would be unrecognizable if ticket holders were forbidden from sitting in their favorite seats, visiting the concession counter for a snack or a drink, or even from using the rest rooms.
“When we do reopen, we want to provide that familiar experience that everyone is yearning for,” McLain said. “We're not trying to open as soon as we can. That way, the entire experience becomes about what you can't do. We don't want to have spent seven years building this theater to open again and be a disappointment. When we're ready and it's safe, when the experience will be the same thing everyone loves and remembers, we will open. We are the light at the end of the tunnel. We've already booked two events for next summer. Community theater will be back in all its glory and then some.”