By Jade Ruggieri
After two years off for the global pandemic, the West Virginia Public Theatre held its first, full summer season. With productions of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” a moving play about a 15-year-old boy on the autism spectrum rooted in themes of family, and “I Do! I Do!,” a timeless musical about the ups and downs of relationships, those involved with the theater were excited to offer the community a much-needed break from the heaviness of the pandemic.
“One of the things about theater is you get to experience that moment where everyone comes together,” Jerry McGonigle, artistic director of WVPT and director of Curious Incident, said. “As we finished and closed the season out, I felt a great sense of fulfillment and accomplishment. At the end of every show, people stood out of their seats and clapped, and a rush of excitement goes through you.”
McGonigle said he was relieved the pandemic did not create any cancelations in either production’s show dates. Working with a COVID compliance officer, the entire production team had to take daily tests to ensure safety, adding a layer of complexity to the stresses of preparing a show.
“The anxiety that goes along with COVID is very palpable,” McGonigle said. “I’m very proud of the fact that we did not have to cancel or shut down anything. I think that has to do with the rigor and professionalism with which we monitored it, and it takes commitment from the actors to live in a bubble.”
Even with precautions, “I Do! I Do!’s” Dan Fenaughty, who played the husband in the husband-and-wife production, got COVID right before technical rehearsals. Fenaughty quickly recovered and was well prepared to ensure the play’s premiere.
Behind the scenes, being the director is more essential than ever as McGonigle said it was important for him to stay positive and keep everyone moving forward because things can go awry at a moment’s notice.
“One thing the pandemic has done is allowed me as an artist to not take things for granted,” McGonigle said. “It’s taught me to be more efficient to maximize work potential – I experiment less and get to the point quicker. It’s really tested my love of theater and my relationship with theater. If you can be positive after this, you’ve passed the test.”
McGonigle was touched by the community’s willingness to see live productions because, he said, the audience is the final piece to a successful production.
“Particularly now, people who come to live theater are real theater-lovers,” McGonigle said. “There’s something about having an audience who are really passionate about theater; you can feel it backstage, you can feel it when you’re on stage or, as the director in the back of the theater. When you look down and see someone crying or laughing hysterically, I feel accomplished by that.”
The future for WVPT is bright as it will continue to offer a variety of plays with a little bit for everyone. Whether it is challenging the audience, premiering thought-provoking plays, or entertaining, the WVPT hopes to expand its summer season that can appeal to multiple audiences. With Curious Incident, McGonigle said the theater broadened the breadth of its audience base as people from the medical field showed their support.
“We hope to have a future of growth,” McGonigle said. “We have a deep commitment to the community, and we want to provide things for families and for children. To get the whole family to go and be an outing, then go home and feel really positive about life – there’s nothing better.”
In addition, WVPT wants to continue its developmental work of new plays, that was halted due to the pandemic. From a Tony-award-winning director to the author Stephen King and musician John Mellencamp, WVPT would love to be a home for new work to be developed.
Educationally, the theater hopes to send actors out to do workshops throughout the state and region. As an educator, McGonigle said it is in his blood so he would like to see teaching in the future.
This past year, WVPT is the resident theater company for the holiday show at Ogelbay Resort in Wheeling. As the play is developed, McGonigle said he would like to take that original production and bring it back to Morgantown or even throughout the state as an expanded offering.
“I would like to be the theater for Morgantown to experience recent, new or reexamined material,” McGonigle said. “We’ve had great support from the public, so I feel like we’re on the verge of actually emerging now and finding our own. We’ve shed the past, it’s gone and we’re now moving in this new direction that is full throttle to grow and provide experiences that otherwise would not happen.”
When McGonigle became the artistic director of the theatre seven years ago, there was over a quarter-million-dollar debt the theatre inherited. In the middle of the pandemic, WVPT is officially debt-free, so it is exciting for the business to be alive and healthy now thanks to a great board of directors to overcome the hurdles of the past.
As McGonigle reflected on the summer season – the challenges and even better triumphs – he had a feeling there was something special with the experience of Curious Incident, the first play of the season.
“As I look back at it with the 10 actors, there was a bond that is maybe stronger than anything I have ever experienced in doing a play,” McGonigle said.
“I think it had to do with this was a lot of their first shows since the pandemic, they came from afar, and they understood we were doing something important and high-quality. That bond and that feeling is something you carry with you – from the production to the actors, everyone was in it for the right reasons at 100%. When that happens, there’s nothing you can’t accomplish.”
To learn more about WVPT, visit wvpublictheatre.org.