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Abbeville Opera House tries something new

December 25, 2018

ABBEVILLE, S.C. (AP) — The century-old Abbeville Opera House will step outside its comfort zone this winter.

In an effort to boost foot traffic on the square and enliven the city, the opera house will host performances on weekends in January and February, something it hasn’t done in years.

Unlike its other programming in the volunteer-run theater, the opera house has invited professional entertainers, such as comedians and musicians, who, city leaders hope, will attract a wider and younger audience to the square.

“I think the decision to do things besides live theater was to target a demographic that is not currently visiting the opera house,” said Mike Clary, director of economic development for the city. “We want to bring in a different crowd of people. More people.”

He has taken inspiration from other opera houses, particularly the one in Newberry, which has live music and comedy year-round.

“When I came into my role, I viewed tourism and events as a complement to our economic development strategy,” Clary said. “So, I took that philosophy to (City Manager) Blake (Stone), and I think Blake agrees, for the most part, and we approached the opera house.”

They brought on Cecily Ferguson, former executive director of Greenwood Performing Arts, as a consultant.

Ferguson said her expertise came in handy, given the unfamiliar nature of the acts the opera house wanted to host.

“The opera house only presents plays that are locally based,” Ferguson said. “All of the actors and performers are people from driving distance. It is not a professional theater from the standpoint that people are not paid. It’s community theater.”

Negotiating contracts with professional entertainers was new to Emily Bledsoe, director of special events for the city. Much of the work had to do with keeping performers comfortable, such as arranging lodging and making sure they have what they expect and need for their performance.

The opera douse did not have, for example, the equipment necessary for live music.

“It takes a lot of money to bring professional performing arts to the stage,” Ferguson said.

The series was made possible, in part, by a grant from the SC Arts Commission, which funded a grant Clary submitted, and by local sponsors. Another concern, Bledsoe said, was making sure the performers appealed to a wide audience.

One concern was the material the comedians would bring to the table. She described the acts as PG-13, “clean, compared to most comics these days.”

Clary said live music was on their minds from the start. Regarding stand-up comedy, “We saw a gap in the market over here,” he said. “There’s not too much that I’m aware of in Greenwood. They have a show every now and then. Even as far as Anderson, I’m not aware of any regularly scheduled stand-up comedy.”

The opera house hadn’t put on winter shows for a variety of reasons. Clary said it was to give a break to the volunteers who help run the opera house. Kathy Genevie, business manager at the opera house, said it was because winter weather was liable to make travel on weekends difficult and force the theater to cancel shows people wouldn’t be able to attend. Whatever the reason, businesses on the square suffered from the revenue the city would have otherwise made from tourists who come to Abbeville for performances at the opera house.

“Abbeville is certainly a charming and beautiful place,” Ferguson said, “and we want more people to come and see what we have to offer.”

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Information from: The Index-Journal, http://www.indexjournal.com

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