By JEFF CLEMETSON
On Saturday, March 14, 2020, five days before the state of California initiated a mandatory lockdown for schools and businesses, Lamplighters Community Theatre initiated a lockdown of its own.
“We were worrying about [the virus] a few days before that, obviously, as everything was going on and we had a couple of patrons that expressed concern so we made the decision Saturday night, that’s it, we’re going to close,” said Lamplighters president Paul Ericson. “We realized we were an unsafe environment at that point — a small room and close together.”
The shutdown cut off a production of Agatha Christie’s “The Hollow” in its third week of a five-week run, and just before the end of Lamplighter’s 81st season. The future of La Mesa’s local theater — a part of the community since 1937 when it was known as The La Mesa Little Theatre — was very much in doubt.
Ericson and the rest of the Lamplighters board of directors immediately made efforts to curb expenses.
“We turned off the air conditioning, water coolers, heater — anything we could think of to save energy for electric bills and things. Anything we could do, we did,” Ericson said. “And then we ended up being very lucky in that our landlord was willing to support the theater and help us get through it — that was the key. That’s why we’re here.”
Robert M. Honn, landlord of the building at 5915 Severin Drive that houses the Lamplighters Theatre, will soon by honored with “a very nice plaque” for his generous patronage to the theater, Ericson said.
And although that plaque is not adorning the lobby walls just yet, theatergoers can experience some of the improvements to the Lamplighters stage and stands starting July 23 with a grand reopening production of “The Last Five Years.”
Some of those improvements made to the Lamplighters space during the pandemic include new lobby and hallway décor and improvements to the seating.
“We had some patrons complain that the seats were too low last year, so we actually had a crew in here and raised them all,” Ericson said. “We found some ways to stay busy and improve some things at the theater while we were waiting to get things started.”
Another project the Lamplighters did during the pandemic, it what would be the only production during its 82nd season, was to perform a play for online streaming.
“The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey” by James Lecesne was a one-man show starring actor James Steinberg who played all eight characters and was directed and edited by O.P. Hadlock. The play was filmed on the Lamplighters stage in black box and was streamed online using an outside service.
“As a production it was successful,” Ericson said. “O.P. did a great job, the actor did a great job. It just wasn’t a financial success.”
“People want to go to theater to see theater,” added Pam Stompoly, producer for “The Last Five Years.” “I find it very difficult to watch a play on my computer or a TV. I think some of the excitement of theater is experiencing it with everybody around you at the same time. It’s a group experience.”
When “The Last Five Years” opens on July 23, audiences will not only not miss out on the group experience, they will witness a Lamplighters Theatre first — a musical with a live band. “The Last Five Years,” written by Tony Award winner Jason Robert Brown in 2001, is a poignant and smart contemporary musical of five years in the relationship of an ambitious young writer, Jamie, and his struggling actress wife, Cathy, played by real-life married couple Christopher and Keri Miller and is directed by Teri Brown and Jonathan Sturch.
The story explores Jamie and Cathy’s five-year relationship and is presented in a form of storytelling in which Jamie’s story is told in chronological order (starting just after the couple have first met) and Cathy’s story is told in reverse chronological order (beginning the show at the end of the marriage). The characters do not directly interact except for a wedding song in the middle as their timelines intersect.
“We decided to do this first show ‘The Last 5 Years’ as an add in show because it only has two actors and we felt it was a safe choice — from an audience relationship standpoint — to put up something with a small cast to start with,” Ericson said.
A small cast production was also a necessity, Stompoly said, because after a year and half away from the stage, assembling a large cast and production team would have been a “challenge.”
“There’s some people who lost a bunch of people during COVID, so they’re staying away for a while. There are some people who just want to give it another year just because. But the majority of folks are ready to go,” she said.
Even with most theater professionals “ready to go,” Stompoly is not taking chances with casting for Lamplighter Theatre’s return season by holding auditions right away and all at once, now that the productions have all been chosen.
“So that’s part of what I’m trying to do, trying to arrange auditions, trying to make sure we have all of our directors covered, and also looking to establish new relationships with new people who have not been here before — bring new blood in,” she said.
The Lamplighters Community Theatre 2021-22 season schedule will include six plays and a Christmas special, starting with the production of “The Last Five Years,” which opens July 23 and runs through Aug. 15. Shows are at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets are $26 for general admission and $23 for students, seniors, and military. Group rates also available. For reservations, call 619-303-5092 or visit www.lamplighterslamesa.com.
— Reach editor Jeff Clemetson at email@example.com.