Local actor starts the Long Bay Theatre
While the COVID-19 pandemic brought loss and despair to many sectors of the economy, live theater took a particularly hard blow. Even a full year after the historic shutdown of theaters on Broadway and across the country, the future of the industry is unclear.
Meanwhile, local artist Greg London chose to flip the narrative, viewing the crisis as an opportunity not only for live theater in general but also for professional arts along the Grand Strand. His November 2020 production of Godspell—performed in a parking lot at Broadway at the Beach—reflected not only London’s initial motivation, but also the determination, collaboration, and optimism that define the Long Bay Theatre. The opening lines of “A Beautiful City” from the musical Godspell—performed in November 2020 in a parking lot at Broadway at the Beach—not only reflect London’s initial motivation, but also the determination, collaboration and optimism that define the Long Bay Theatre.
An actor, former CCU theatre professor, singer, and director who has worked in Myrtle Beach over three decades, London had an entire year of gigs—including musicals, concerts and national tours—lined up in March 2020. He’d been in New York the very week the pandemic hit. He received call after call informing him that his upcoming year of employment was being cancelled.
“It was unreal. I couldn’t take it in, and it was happening to everyone around me, and the more we thought about its scope, the more depressed we got,” London says. “To have not just your livelihood, but your passion and your livelihood, so combined in the arts, to have it completely taken away and to have no real hope of what that future is—it’s crazy.”
As the days passed, London couldn’t help thinking about possibilities, and his reflections ultimately involved the Grand Strand.
“’I love this place, I love these people, and all these people in lockdown are just as depressed as we are, so let’s do something,’” says London.
London originally established the Long Bay Theatre (LBT) in 2007, renting a space in the Palace Theatre and producing professional theatrical events. It was absorbed by the Palace a few years later, and London left to travel on several year-long Broadway tours. Talks about LBT started up again in January 2020 among London; Robin and David Russell, CCU theatre professor and director of video services, respectively; and Vicki Carter, former stage manager for LBT at the Palace.
The confluence of COVID, blacked-out theaters and a deep-seated desire to establish permanent, professional theatre in Myrtle Beach facilitated the renewal of LBT. But, the road to Godspell was long: the context was unprecedented, the learning curve steep and the required creativity significant.
Efforts began with a fundraiser recording of “A Beautiful City,” produced through donated, individually recorded performances by 50 of London’s artist friends around the country, which produced a significant seed fund. From there, it was months of phone calls, research, budgeting, networking, more fundraising and a sizeable dose of faith in community. In the end, it was the latter that brought the production together.
After learning the cost of the sets, lighting and sound would be prohibitive, London and a partner who “fell out of the sky” (Clay Rowan, the father of a former voice student) decided to build them on their own.
Faced with zero models for how to design sets for a parking lot production, London sought direction from CCU’s Jonathan Wentz, assistant professor of theatre design. For advice on creating a safe, socially distanced environment, London turned to friends from the CDC. When his plan for a building space fell through, Robin Russell offered up her garage.
“It was a functioning shop,” says Russell. “We built 40 platforms, and it took up the entire garage. It’s what theater’s about: coming together as a community, as a group; it was very uplifting to me in a time like this. We were all pulling for something.”
From garage to parking lot, the community stepped up.
“We had mothers of former students networking on Facebook, and people saw the posts and came to help,” says London. “When we loaded the set into the parking lot, there were seven people that I’d never met before who wanted to help. One volunteer sat under the stage and hammered for 11 hours to make sure the stage was flush to the ground—and it rained in the middle of it. And then we came back the next day and worked 11 hours until it was up.”
When the set was finally complete, reality of the production began to sink in.
“I’ll never forget that last day it was built: Greg climbed up on top of that thing and there he was, all by himself,” says Russell. “It was like, he did it. Hell, that was just halfway through, but the set was up. It was really a moving moment to have grunted that from a 2 x 4 in my garage to a three-level set that was going to hold 15 people.”
When opening night arrived, participants on both sides of the stage were a bit overwhelmed. Performers and staff were incredulous that they actually had an opportunity to perform, while audience members heaved a collective sigh of relief to enjoy live theater.
“I’m almost tearing up thinking about being there in the parking lot, at Broadway, with my friends and my beach chair; all of a sudden the lights come up, the performance starts, and I feel like I’m at a Broadway performance,” says Tilghman Smith, a member of the LBT Board of Directors. “It just showed me what can be. Such a bad part of this year is that we’ve all been stuck at home, yet opportunities have risen and can continue to rise and change as we go forward, especially with theater.”
LBT has held other events over the past six months, but they hope to make an annual outdoor performance a signature event, with plans already in the works to produce a feature musical in summer 2021.
“I’ve heard from many people how wonderful it was to sit outside with your friends and basically tailgate and have that event,” says London. “It is more community building than going to a theater and sitting with your friends side by side and you never get to talk. We love that. We will keep that tradition.”
As with many arts organizations, LBT’s operation is dependent on outside funding. Smith said the COVID pandemic has led many people to support local businesses and organizations, and she believes LBT should be a central part of that movement.
“This is our community. We need to make sure we’re lifting up Myrtle Beach, that we’re lifting up our community and our city,” says Smith. “There’s support for the arts here; let’s come together and make this happen.”
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