Now that we are on the other side of 2020 and can look back on that most unprecedented year, it will perhaps be remembered for the things that didn’t take place far more than the things that did. Many beloved events, festivals and traditions that define the landscape of central Illinois were noticeably absent during the year of COVID-19.
One such absence was the green and yellow tent that appears every summer in Bradley Park, the home of Corn Stock Theatre’s annual summer season. Each year, the company produces five productions under the tent, and while they offer performances year-round, it’s the summer tent season that provides the overwhelming majority of their annual income.
For the first time since (literally) laying their stakes in the 1950s, Corn Stock Theatre did not perform in Bradley Park for the summer of 2020. Of course, their situation was not unique; they weren’t the first to cease operations and were far from the last. As the pandemic endured throughout the year, their indoor fall and winter productions were canceled as well. Corn Stock’s last in-person production, as of this writing, was a revival of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, performed last February at their indoor Winter Lab theatre, just up the road from the tent site. (I suppose if a theatre had to go on hiatus for a while, they might as well go out on the most famous play of all time.)
While it’s been nearly an entire year since Corn Stock held in-person live performances, they have been anything but inactive during the “pandemic pause.” Like many others this year, Corn Stock learned the value and meaning of another P-word that became quite familiar in 2020: they pivoted.
New Productions in New Formats
Immediately following their summer cancellation announcement, Corn Stock released two “seasons” of Corn Stock Unmasked—their own spin on The Masked Singer, a popular television series—on Facebook. Corn Stock performers, each shrouded behind a secret identity, performed show tunes twice weekly for a panel of Corn Stock directors and technicians. All participants recorded remotely, and viewers were encouraged to donate and vote for their favorites. The popularity of this presentation generated thousands of dollars in donations and even won “Best Online Performance” honors from Peoria Magazine’s Best of Peoria competition. Corn Stock was also voted “Best Performance Venue” in 2020.
In addition to Corn Stock Unmasked, a task force was assembled to help maneuver through the unusual year. Several initiatives were created, including a “Digital Play Series” which offered nearly a dozen shows in the fall months created expressly for virtual presentation. All performers were socially distanced in small groups, and all performances were streamed online. These productions showcased a diverse range of material, including new works, a murder mystery, readers theatre and takes on familiar classics such as It’s a Wonderful Life and a recreation of Orson Welles’s infamous “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast. Each production took a different approach to the online format—one of them had nine actors performing together across two time zones and in six different states! The series culminated in a December presentation entitled “Curtain Call: A Showcase Celebration of our Corn Stock Community,” a revue featuring snippets from past performances—a way to happily end 2020 and look forward to better times ahead.
Corn Stock has also offered regular workshops and lectures from theatre professionals on topics such as performing professionally, sound and light design, and theatre management. The online format has allowed lecturers and participants from all over the country to tune in and engage.
Anchors in the Storm
Entertainment and education are pillars of the Corn Stock mission, which they’ve been able to carry on even while regular operations were interrupted. Assembling these efforts and seeing them through successfully has been the focus of Corn Stock’s theatre manager, Nyk Sutter-Downs, and staff members Brandi Young (box office manager) and Maggie Sloter (grants and fundraising coordinator). They have worked tirelessly throughout the entire pandemic and were all still relatively new to their positions when it began.
Corn Stock has also relied much more on additional fundraising than normal this year. Their first-ever annual appeal was sent out to patrons, and in another first, Corn Stock teamed up with Peoria Players Theatre to create the “We ALL Play in Peoria” fundraiser selling masks and t-shirts with proceeds benefiting both theatres.
These fundraising efforts also saw the “revival” of an old favorite. After its refurbishment by Eagle Scout Matt Marsh during the unusually quiet summer months, they began selling new bricks to be placed in the Memorial Brick Garden. Originally dedicated during their 50th season in 2003, the garden features names, memories and messages from the past. This new round of bricks allows patrons and company members who perhaps weren’t involved during the original dedication to contribute and add to the memories!
The generosity of patrons and members has been paramount to Corn Stock’s ability to weather this storm. When the summer season was canceled for 2020, many season ticketholders refused refunds, donating that sum back to the theatre instead. Throughout the year, several company members organized “birthday fundraisers” through Facebook, and the theatre also benefited from the annual Giving Tuesday event on December 1st.
While the staff and company at Corn Stock Theatre are eager to get back to live theatre when it can safely take place again, they have made great use of an unusual year, finding new and creative ways to engage patrons. If you’d like to support Corn Stock Theatre, or learn more about their current and future offerings, find them on Facebook or visit cornstocktheatre.com. PM