From stage to screen: Manship Theatre makes the most of challenging times

Executive director Melanie Couvillon in the Manship Theatre lobby. Photo by Jenn Ocken.

The calendar cleared in a hurry in mid-March. A painstakingly planned season of live performances was wiped out by the threat of an invisible virus. But as they say, the show must go on, and so it has for Manship Theatre in downtown Baton Rouge even during stay-at-home orders and social distancing restrictions.

“We knew we had to figure out how to move forward,” says Manship Theatre executive director Melanie Couvillon. “That’s kind of our motto right now. Things are still changing daily, and we’ve got to be able to roll with it.”

As musical performers and traveling theatrical troupes canceled their tours, Couvillon and director of programming John Kaufman turned their focus to bringing independent movies and documentaries right into patrons’ homes. “We call it ‘Virtual Cinema,’” explains Kaufman. “Immediately after the pandemic began, film distribution companies wanted to help independent local cinemas like us, so they began offering us the right to show their films online at no charge to us. And they have not stopped yet.”

With Phase 2 of the reopening plan came the ability to welcome guests back to the theater in person—but at 50% of capacity and with social distancing and safety requirements. That meant the 325-seat venue could accommodate less than 100 people. Live performances were still off the table, but in their place came in-person movie showings of fan-favorite classic titles like Jaws and Jurassic Park—made accessible to the theater thanks to a rare discount program put in place by Universal Pictures. Moviegoers have seized the opportunity to get back in front of the big screen, even as other local multiplex theaters have remained closed.

Meanwhile, Kaufman spends hours each day on the phone with artists and their agents rescheduling shows that had been planned for coming months. None have completely canceled, and many have set new performance dates for early 2021.

Couvillon notes that Manship Theatre donors and sponsors have remained generous during this time. “Our members have been incredible—renewing their memberships and continuing to support us, knowing that they want their theater to be around when things get back up and running,” she says. “Manship Theatre loves being part of the Baton Rouge community, and we can’t wait to get back to doing what we love to do, which is live performances.”

Get the schedule of Virtual Cinema and in-person movie showings at manshiptheatre.org.

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