Like many arts institutions in many towns, the Arts Center of Kershaw County in the Midlands town of Camden felt the sting of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The three-building complex, which includes an auditorium, art gallery, studios and the historic Douglas Reed House, didn’t open its doors to anyone from March to September. Multiple theatrical productions were missed, as was the fall’s annual Carolina Downhome Blues Festival, the stalwart music event that puts internationally respected blues musicians on stages around the small town.
But the Arts Center also has a rising artist on Nashville’s music scene in its corner.
Songwriter Patrick Davis, whose work has been covered by artists such as Jimmy Buffett, Jewel, Lady A, and Darius Rucker, grew up in Camden and graduated from the University of South Carolina. He’s remained ingrained in the Midlands community, as his 2017 Gamecock anthem “Big Ole Cock” and his annual Columbia show benefiting Toys 4 Tots attest.
And he’s pitching in to help the Arts Center, volunteering his time for a May 7 concert in the Wood Auditorium to help raise funds for the institution during this difficult time. It will be the first performance inside the centerpiece venue since last March, and follows an outdoor show by Joal Rush last week, the return of the Arts Center’s free Finally Friday concert series.
In accordance with CDC safety guidelines, seating will be limited, with social distancing, plentiful hand sanitizer stations and other health protocols in place. The center’s staff was quick to point that this is an event for the greater Midlands area, given that Camden is only 20 minutes away from much of northeast Richland County, no farther away than popular events held in Harbison, Irmo and Lexington.
“I think it says a lot about our community that these guys (Rush, and now Davis) are willing to come back and help us ‘restart’ after the COVID shut down,” said Arts Center board chair Mary Ellen Green.
She described the problems the organization encountered during the pandemic.
“We went from having activity on the campus seven days a week to no activity at all,” Green recalled, referring to the many performances and educational initiatives that couldn’t happen last year. “It was a very strange feeling to be in the buildings and there wasn’t any activity. They were all so silent.”
But the Arts Center is very much still here.
“We were able to make (it) thanks to an endowment that our donors started for the center many, many years ago,” Green continued. “We also received two rounds of (Paycheck Protection Program) funding, (plus) grant funding from the federal, state and local levels.”
Those included infusions from the state Arts Commission and support from local businesses and private donors who stepped up in a time of crisis.
Resident Technical Director Richard Kiraly expressed gratitude to the center’s leadership and supporters “for ensuring that I and my fellow staff members remained employed during the shutdown, when so many of my technical peers found themselves so abruptly out of work. COVID-19 has devastated the theatre gig job market.”
The center didn’t waste its downtime.
The unexpected hiatus allowed Kiraly to continue creation of a smaller, black box style theater space inside the Wood Auditorium, which he described as “now being used as a more COVID-19-conscious space with flexible seating so we can observe social distancing.”
He was also able to work on maintenance and upgrades to the facility’s lighting system, and organize the costume loft.
And the center’s staff remained determined to pursue its creative mission in spite of adversity.
Kiraly recounted how Director of Theatre and Education Jami Steele Sprankle “developed COVID-19 protocols during the first three months of the shutdown.
“There were many meetings with agencies and other venues and the greater theater community to strategize and plan for how we could operate the backstage mechanics of shows,” he noted, “including dressing room considerations, backstage traffic, and even how to clean our spaces in an effective manner.
“We did some modifications to our air conditioning system to make it a fresh air system, we developed a disinfecting plan for surfaces and shared spaces, and consulted with other public venues on specific best practices.”
While the doors were shut, Sprankle and Kiraly collaborated on a number of virtual offerings (including Zoom-style performances of “The Importance of Being Earnest” and “Tartuffe”), a number of video shorts featuring Theatre Guild members, and filmed performances of “Big Bad Musical” and original, non-traditional holiday show “Heartbeat of the Holidays,” devised and directed by Sprankle.
“COVID-19 presented a significant challenge for a live performance venue like us,” Kiraly said, “but we used the opportunity to develop new skill sets so that we could still present creative content safely.”
Kristen Wood Cobb, the Center’s executive director for over a decade before leaving in 2017 to take a similar position with the Harbison Theatre at Midlands Technical College, has served as a consultant since October. She emphasized that venues around the state leaned on each other for guidance, sharing suggestions for safety upgrades and policies.
“Just like the rest of the country, we all felt a little lost,” she enthused. “It was very special to see all of us come together.”
May 7. 7:30 p.m. Arts Center of Kershaw County. 810 Lyttleton St. $35. artscenterofkershawcounty.wildapricot.org.