‘Keep It Small and Keep It Safe’: StageCoach Theatre Returns to the Stage with ‘Clue’

Colonel Mustard in the library with a face shield? Loudoun’s community and professional theater scene took a hit this year when COVID-19 brought productions and rehearsals to a screeching halt. As Northern Virginia’s Phase Three moves forward, Ashburn’s StageCoach Theatre Company is dipping a toe back into the water with a small-scale but enthusiastic production of “Clue” starting Sept. 12.

The show is co-directed by community theater veterans Kat Brais and Barbara Carpenter.

“We need this show at StageCoach to help keep our doors open,” Brais said. “If we can be the test case for using these protective masks and it works, then maybe other people will be brave and try something like this. Everybody has to think small now. Keep it small and keep it safe.”

Loudoun’s for-profit theater company has its own space in Ashburn, and its small footprint gives it the flexibility it needs to put on quality productions in the age of COVID.

“What works to our benefit is we are a very small house,” Brais said. The company will limit seating to 30 people in a space that normally seats up to 70.

Brais said the company is taking precautions to ensure the safety of actors and audience members. They’ve removed the first two rows of seats and are spacing audience members by groups.

“We’ve reblocked things for the comfort level of the audience watching them as well as the actors performing the parts. It’s been challenging. We’re very concerned about the health and well-being of everybody. We’re going about it in a mature way.”

StageCoach also has outfitted the cast of 10 actors with clear face masks and face shields for rehearsals and performances. Brais said even with strict protocols in place, many local actors were jumping at the chance to audition. The company had 40 actors show up for auditions in May.

“Every other theater is closed,” Brais said. “Almost every single person who auditioned thanked us for going forward because they just miss it.” 

“We have some really talented folks in these roles that we wouldn’t normally have been able to get,” she said.

The cast includes familiar Loudoun actors and new faces in the community, including Ashburn resident Arista Michelle, who auditioned for “Miss Scarlet” with encouragement from her young son, along with DC, Fairfax and Fauquier-based actors. 

Husband and wife actors Phil Erickson and Penny Hauffe are community theater veterans appearing in their first StageCoach production as Mrs. Peacock and Professor Plum. 

“It’s great to be able to do this and to share some of the joy of finally being out there acting again,” Hauffe said. “When we saw their audition process and how carefully they were adhering to the CDC format and the way we were allowed into the audition space, it gave us a lot of confidence that they were really trying to do this the right way.”

StageCoach Theatre Company’s new production of “Clue” features actors in clear face shields, reduced seating capacity and other safety protocols. [Kat Brais, StageCoach Theatre Company]

The face shields took some getting used to but are now part of the drill, the actors said.

“It was a little bit of a challenge,” Erickson said. “What we’re doing as we develop interactions between actors is going well. It’s just one more step in preparation that you have to go through. 

Hauffe and Erickson were motivated both by a desire to practice their craft and the community’s need for the arts in challenging times.

The couple, who have performed with Run Rabbit Run Productions and Main Street Theater in the past, were also featured in livestream performances from Franklin Park Arts Center during Phase One shutdowns earlier this spring 

“People are using whatever creative means they can to promote the arts which has been very valuable,” Erickson said. “The need never stops for exposure to the arts in whatever form you prefer. We’re just hoping to continue to be part of that.”

Everybody’s bringing something really fun to each character,” Hauffe added. “It really takes your mind off of everything you’re doing during the day, all the problems. When we go to rehearsal, it’s a different world”

Brais, the show’s co-director, is a longtime Loudoun community theater actor who is married to StageCoach co-owner and artistic director Terry Smith. StageCoach is best known for interactive murder mysteries, most of them original works written by Smith. But in this case, the company bought rights to a licensed adaptation of “Clue.” Brais and Carpenter thought the timing was right for a small-scale, slapstick, murder mystery/comedy.

“We picked this show because it’s fun,” Brais said. “Everybody needs something light right now. Everything is so heavy. It’s going to be fun to see ten adults being silly in costume on a set that looks like a giant Clue board.”

StageCoach Theatre Company plans six performances of “Clue” running weekends Sept. 12 through Sept. 27. Tickets are $25 and reservations are required. Go to stagecoachtc.com/clue-on-stage for tickets and information.

StageCoach will also hold auditions for actors 18 and over for a new show, “Dial M for Monsters,” Saturday, Aug. 8 and Sunday, Aug. 9. For audition information and sign-up and performance details, go to stagecoachtc.com.

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