GREENSBORO — When The Barn Dinner Theatre reopens June 19, patrons will notice changes since the COVID-19 pandemic closed it temporarily 15 months ago.
Capacity will be cut from 254 to 125.
Some tables will be empty to maintain social distancing between them.
The buffet will be gone, replaced by plated dinners.
Patrons will find menu and cast details not on paper but through QR codes on phones.
The long-running dinner theater on Stagecoach Trail opted to keep some precautions, even though Gov. Roy Cooper has lifted most mandatory mask requirements and all mandatory capacity, gathering and social distancing requirements.
“We are doing everything that is required and then some to make it safe,” said Ric Gutiérrez, general manager and producer.
One feature will remain the same: the entertainment.
Led by Director Mitchel Sommers, the cast will perform “9 to 5: The Musical.”
They had been performing the musical in March 2020, when the pandemic paused live, in-person entertainment worldwide.
Now, The Barn Dinner Theatre — known as “the Barn” to actors and audiences — has become one of the first Greensboro venues to resume in-person theater.
“The Barn is leading the way for bringing back live theater,” said cast member Jordan Clinton, who drives from Raleigh.
“9 to 5: The Musical” opened in 2008 in Los Angeles. It’s based on the 1980 film of the same name, with music and lyrics by Dolly Parton.
The popular film starred Parton, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin as three working women who live out their fantasies of getting even with and overthrowing the company’s autocratic, “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” boss, played by Dabney Coleman.
Parton’s theme song became one of her biggest hits of the decade.
The Barn will present “9 to 5” on weekends through July 31. That will be followed in 2021 by other popular shows that it had planned to present in 2020 — “The Color Purple,” “Love Machine: The Musical” and “Black Nativity.”
As of last week, its Facebook posts alone had sold 98 tickets to “9 to 5.” It’s also booking reservations for the other three shows.
“It’s telling me the public is ready to come back,” Gutiérrez said.
He wants to give first choice of seats to those who had tickets when the Barn paused operations in March 2020.
At the same time, Gutiérrez plans the Barn’s 2022 and 2023 season of plays.
He hopes to eventually bring back plays he had to scratch, including “Beehive, the Musical,” “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” and “After Midnight.”
The Barn has needed more than a cup of ambition to survive for 57 years.
The rustic structure with the red gambrel roof, brown rough-sawn siding and farm decor debuted as part of a chain of Barn Dinner Theatres across the South.
The pandemic permanently closed Chaffin’s Barn Dinner Theatre in Nashville.
The number of dinner theaters has dwindled. Now the National Dinner Theatre Association has 20 member businesses.
Gutiérrez still considers the Barn the oldest continually-operating dinner theater in the United States, even though the pandemic temporarily closed it.
But like other dinner theaters nationwide, the Barn has faced an audience decline in recent years — even before the pandemic.
“It used to be we could rock and roll this place for six nights a week and be dark only one night,” Gutiérrez said. “That changed at least six years ago, maybe even eight.” Before the pandemic closed the venue, it presented four shows a week.
Gutiérrez, Sommers and the 14-member cast are vaccinated and happy to be back. They rehearse six nights a week and will perform to a recorded track.
The same actors play lead roles: Kaitlyn Colbert as Doralee Rhodes, Kim Harrison as Violet Newstead, Cora Sharice as Judy Bernly and Andy Schlosberg as boss Franklin Hart Jr.
Several cast members have appeared in Community Theatre of Greensboro shows over the years, including its popular “The Wizard of Oz” that Sommers directed.
Audiences might think it’s easier to resurrect a play that the same cast already had performed rather than start from scratch. Leads already know where to go and what to do.
But there are other challenges, said Sommers, retired executive director of Community Theatre of Greensboro and a longtime play director.
“As artists, we are highly sensitized to the reality of what we just came out of,” Sommers said.
“And there is a feeling within all of us,” Sommers said, “that we owe it to ourselves and the world to make this performance reflective of the joy we are experiencing, being back in the theater ... There is an unspoken sense that we have a heightened sense of appreciation for being there.”
Sommers said he expects the audience to feel the same way. And he’s glad that more people are being vaccinated.
“I’m raising the bar for myself and all of us to get out there and live and enjoy and go see a show, and enjoy it more than you ever have,” Sommers said.
Louise Butler is known as the Barn’s biggest fan.
When the pandemic shut it down in March 2020, “It broke my heart,” Butler said in a May interview.
Butler has tickets for opening night on June 19, Gutiérrez said.
“I can’t wait,” Butler said.
To prepare, Gutiérrez plans a private plated dinner as a dry run for kitchen and other staff. He wants to hire enough staff at a time when restaurants face staffing difficulties.
“I don’t think our patrons will appreciate a buffet right now, right after a pandemic,” Gutiérrez said.
“We are trying to pay attention to what drives them, what makes them more comfortable,” Gutiérrez said. “What’s going to make them come back out to see a show and have a dinner?”
The Barn will keep its reduced capacity for June then re-evaluate it for July.
He hopes that full capacity will return in August for “The Color Purple.”
“We’re going to go with the science and how performance goes with our staff and staffing,” Gutiérrez said “We’re going to have to adapt and adjust daily.”
Clifton, the actor, is ready for an audience.
A theater teacher at Broughton High School in Raleigh, he plays the role of Dwyane Rhodes, Doralee’s husband.
A former CTG employee, Clifton hasn’t appeared in a play in 16 months. When Sommers offered him the part, “I jumped at the opportunity,” he said.
Facing rising gas prices and rain, he said he sometimes wonders whether it’s worth the long drive.
“But ... seeing Cora perform her show-stopping number, being able to share our talent with each other, is a feeling you can’t get anywhere else,” Clifton said as he made the drive.
“All of us put in full work days and we come to rehearsal drained and tired,” he said. “But I get home at midnight and I feel full of life. I guess that’s the magic of theater.”
Contact Dawn DeCwikiel-Kane at 336-373-5204 and follow @dawndkaneNR on Twitter.