It was mid-March 2020. While backstage at a Sunday matinee of The Warehouse Theatre’s rock musical Hedwig and The Angry Inch, artistic director Mike Sablone came to a sudden and heart-wrenching conclusion: this was the last time he’d watch the performance.

“Our entire livelihood and form of artistic expression relies upon getting people together in an enclosed space,” says Sablone, “and a pandemic meant that an art form which has existed this way for centuries simply couldn’t continue to exist in that same form.”

While the decision to cancel the rest of the 2020 season was the hardest he’d ever made, it quickly galvanized his team and the innovative thinking that followed. “We were all going through a collective trauma, and I wanted to do what art does best: help people process, connect, heal,” Sablone reflects. “That led to a unique opportunity for us to produce some art, some theater, virtually. There’s already so much free entertainment out there [online], so how we responded needed to feel authentic to The Warehouse Theatre.”

Sablone immediately started working on a show called Objectivity. “There was a silver lining to the show being virtual. It allowed us to collaborate with artists out of Los Angeles and Chicago, and people from 27 states and 7 countries tuned in to see it. We were able to share The Warehouse Theatre in a way we’d never otherwise have been able to do from 130 seats in the West End of Greenville.”

Beyond being immensely successful, the most rewarding result was the community response. “It struck a chord,” says Sablone. “It spoke to the moment we were all in, and we saw the impact it made on the audience. People stayed afterward in the chat to talk about the show. . . . The conversations that started were organic, international.” 

Being able to pay artists when so many venues remain shuttered is really important to Sablone, as is continuing to support The Warehouse Theatre’s education initiatives. His passion for the show that followed, Fire in the Garden—also a success—and children’s programming like virtual Shakespeare, is evident in every word. “Teachers’ jobs in the last year have been incomprehensibly difficult. Knowing that we were there to work with them, to help bring the arts into virtual schools, makes me proud—and we couldn’t have done it without the incredible support of our donors and the Metropolitan Arts Council.”

“It spoke to the moment we were all in, and we saw the impact it made on the audience. People stayed afterward in the chat to talk about the show. . . . The conversations that started were organic, international.” 

 

Sablone shares another year-long effort that recently came to fruition for the local theater. “I’m thrilled that we have this phenomenal new logo and branding that feels as fresh and contemporary as the work we’ve been doing.” Local agency FUEL helmed the refresh. “My favorite thing about the new logo is that it has a nod toward our physical space. You’ll recognize our iconic marquee, which helps root us in Greenville . . . while being modern and forward-looking at the same time.”

For Sablone, that heritage and sense of place will always be foundational to The Warehouse Theatre, even as they evolve, adapt, and get ready for several upcoming endeavors. “I feel like the theater that’s being done here is just as important as what’s being done in New York. Our audience is just as important. I love the fact that we’re a professional regional theater pulling artists from everywhere, but ultimately elevating the stories that are relevant to us here—and sending them out to the world.”

Speaking of pulling artists from everywhere, the theatre launches a play festival this June, featuring nine nationally acclaimed playwrights, who scripted pieces specifically for local actors and directors. It’s an impressive lineup, and an ideal way for the theatre to end the 2020–2021 season.

Finding his way back to that emotional moment backstage in mid-March, Sablone smiles. “My hope was always that someday, we could reopen with Hedwig. The set is still there, almost untouched, covered in a thick layer of dust,” he says with feeling, noting that it became a symbol of hope. “I still believe in the importance of that story, and after a pandemic, it’s even more fitting. Hedwig is a show about rebirth, about going through a trauma to get to where you are . . . it certainly feels, somehow, incomprehensibly more relevant today than it did almost three years ago when I programmed it.”

Though he couldn’t have predicted the future, it’s a credit to Sablone’s vision that the historic venue was able to adapt and thrive as quickly as it did. After all, thinking ahead—or in theater-speech, improvising—is just part and parcel of The Warehouse Theatre’s ongoing, impassioned mission.

Click here for Mike Sablone’s top 8 picks for virtual performances. For more on The Warehouse Theatre, and their upcoming short play festival, June 11–14, visit warehousetheatre.com

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