In a normal year, the Columbia Marionette Theatre would be educating and entertaining kids during its typical 500 performances. However, since the theater shut down in March, COVID-19 has proved to be the largest hurdle it has ever faced.
"It's a major hit," John Scollon, a founder and executive director of Columbia Marionette Theatre, said. "Not only with the schools, but anybody in the entertainment community because there's a lot of performers that rely on those school shows."
Columbia Marionette Theatre's biggest customers are schools, according to Karri Scollon, the business manager of the theater and John's wife. With a lot of K-12 education going online, the theater has faced significant challenges.
Of the nearly 500 shows hosted a year, 350 are roadshows, where the Scollons go across South Carolina and perform at schools. During the trips, the pair would do an average of four different shows a day. The themes can vary from anti-littering shows sponsored by Palmetto Pride to fairy tales or shows encouraging kids to not be afraid of the dentist, sponsored by the South Carolina Dental Association.
"A lot of times, we are the very first experience in live theater that a kid ever has. We want to make sure that that's a good experience," Karri said.
The other 150 shows would typically consist of the productions performed in-house at the theater. Before the pandemic, Karri said there were some weeks of the year when kids on field trips filled up all 299 seats in the theater.
The in-house shows have puppeteers performing from a 10-foot scaffold overlooking the stage. At the time of its construction, the theater was the largest stage customized for marionette performances in the United States.
Everything for the shows is created completely in-house, including puppets, soundtracks, sets, costumes and scripts. The scripts can be original stories or adaptations of classic stories such as "The Little Mermaid," "Robin Hood," "Pinocchio" and even Greek mythology.
"We like to say, if you can imagine it, we can build it. We can create that dream," Karri said.
Over the summer, the Scollons were scheduled to perform at libraries across the state, but those in-person performances were also canceled due to COVID-19. However, they did record a video performance and sent it to libraries, but Karri said the recorded shows just aren't the same.
"It only takes one little smile, and the whole day's worth it," Karri said.
Those smiles are absent when performances are broadcast online.
Lyon Hill, the artistic director for the theater, said he sees a positive outcome in the longevity of recorded performances.
"You make something that can last and can continue to be seen by audiences," Hill, who has been with the theater for 23 years, said. "And I think that's really special, too."
Hill said that, with shows being canceled, he has had more time to be creative, whether he is designing new things or working on live electronic and beatboxing music to incorporate into future shows.
As of now, the Columbia Marionette Theatre can reopen, but it has been hesitant to do so because it wants to work around the schools. As a non-profit, Karri said the theater is fortunate to have received so much support from its sponsors, which allows it to "wait this out a bit."
The theater is prepared to require face masks and social distancing upon reopening. However, some other alternatives are being considered, such as outdoor shows or drive-thru shows, both of which could have larger puppets, Hill said.