The show must go on: How Wolfbane Productions evolved amidst the COVID-19 pandemic

No live performances meant no ticket sales for the Appomattox County venue

Guys and Dolls 2020 - Wolfbane Productions (Photo/Parker Michels-Boyce) (Parker Michels-Boyce, Parker Michels-Boyce)

APPOMATTOX, Va. – Virtually every business has been hit by the coronavirus pandemic, but for many in the performing arts, it felt like a do-or-die moment.

No live performances meant no ticket sales, and no ticket sales meant no money coming in the door.

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As we collectively begin to venture back to in-person activities, many are itching to see live productions and performances more than ever before and Ken Arpino, the executive director for Wolfbane Productions, says bring it on.

Arpino admitted that adapting to the new normal during COVID-19 was not easy; however, he also said that the innovation that came out of it was well worth the hardship.

“There was a lot of pressure on artists. It puts this pressure on you to be like, ‘I have to be brilliant but I don’t feel like being brilliant right now,” explained Arpino.

One of the main programs that saw changes was the Wolfswood Faire, a day that’s typically in-person and jam-packed with sword fights, live performances, music, food and a battle between two tribes - the Night Cloak Tribe and the Moon Fang Tribe.

Obviously, this couldn’t be held on-site last year, so Wolfbane had to go back to the drawing board. Thus, the online version was born. The duels were staged, filmed and put online for everyone to enjoy.

Arpino said in order to make the magic happen, everyone had to wear masks off-camera and go through routine testing.

He’s excited to bring it back to an in-person event this year, but he said last year’s format gave them the opportunity to flesh out storylines and even inspired the creation of a children’s story division.

“We put together some content for kids that would help them get through because we certainly sympathize with parents becoming teachers and nannies,” Arpino said. “We just wanted to have mindless content that was educational and fun and bright and positive that they could trust their kids to just watch and have a good time.”

That wasn’t the only new program to come out of the pandemic. Wolfbane also started a program called ‘New Year, New Works,’ which brings audience members behind the scenes of creating a show.

“We want the audience to see what it’s like to develop a new work from page to stage and see that whole process,” said Arpino.

Participants will be able to participate in casting, read-throughs and then eventually see the final, fully-produced product on stage at Wolfbane.

“I think the pandemic gave us the confidence to do it because we realized we’re not alone,” Aprino said. “A lot of artists are feeling what we feel right now and so we need to create a support system because it’s a lot to ask someone to be perfect after a pandemic. We’re all rusty.”

The featured production will come from different scripts that were pitched to the Wolfbane team. As a part of the process, they’re bringing in a writer, a lyricist and a composer and the goal is to write a musical starting now, being ready for a table read in January and then hitting the stage next July.

By bringing people into that process, Arpino said he hopes that it helps provide people with an appreciation of just how difficult it can be to put a show on stage.

“We pride ourselves in the fact that not everyone who sees a Wolfbane show has a vast theater knowledge, we want to be approachable for everyone. We call it the Wolfbane effect - once you see a wolfbane show you’re hooked,” Arpino said.

While the creativity and innovation brought on by the pandemic helped sustain Wolfbane, Arpino said it wouldn’t have been possible without help from community partners, like the Babcock House and local hotels, who reached out with support over the past year. He also said another source of support was their widespread base of patrons they were able to cultivate digitally.

Wolfbane also received nearly $90,000 in federal COVID-19 funding, which Arpino said was used for things like paying staff members, sanitation, PPE and other mitigation methods.

While the heavy lockdowns of the pandemic are hopefully behind us, Arpino said the innovation is here to stay.

“What we decided as a company is, theater is back and we are so excited to bring patrons back. We all lived this collective nightmare, so let’s all get together and celebrate and have a good time,” Arpino said.

Wolfbane’s upcoming season will be announced at the Wolfswood Faire on Aug. 21. This year, there will be two audience choice winners instead of one in an effort to energize potential audiences.

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