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Myrtle Beach theaters adjust to performing with masks while keeping the show's quality

MYRTLE BEACH — Jim Collins has been suiting up in knight gear and armor for most of the 24 years he’s been with Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament. But this year, there’s one more added piece of costume that wasn’t worn during medieval times.

“Wearing the mask is obviously the biggest change,” said Collins, the show manager in Myrtle Beach. “The knights have to do combat with a mask on, which is a big departure because it restricts the airflow. So when you’re out there fighting, you start breathing heavily. There was a transitionary period where you have to acclimate your body to getting less oxygen than it’s used to or regulating CO2 levels. It’s the strangest feeling.

“And then once you relax and your body starts to figure out that it’s getting a little less and then you modify the way you breathe. The initial time you do it is kind of a shocker.”

Performers throughout the state of South Carolina are required to wear masks as a stipulation of interacting with other performers during this COVID-19 pandemic. It can prove to be challenging to high-energy shows like Medieval Times and Pirate’s Voyage, and has changed the way shows are presented, or blocked, for the audience at places like The Carolina Opry and The Alabama Theatre.

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Members of the entertainment team perform during a rehearsal ahead of an evening show at the Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament.

Greg Rowles, emcee at The Alabama Theatre, said changes were made to the audio levels, which now accommodates proper sound levels to as far back as the balcony because of social distancing. He said many hours were spent my the theatre's lighting crew to make adjustments for the new choreography where dancers were placed further away from each other.

"The changes for us are drastic, but the changes for the patron are so subtle," Rowles said. "If you're coming to the show for the hundredth time, they may notice small things. For folks who have not seen the show before, they're not going to notice a thing other than a couple of the numbers where we have all of the dancers out there, they're wearing masks."

Rowles said the production numbers that include all performers are from The Lion King and Aladdin.

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Members of the entertainment team perform during a rehearsal ahead of an evening show at the Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament.

"The masks are blended into the costumes, so it looks like they're supposed to be there anyhow," he said. "So you're really not focusing too much on the masks... It's very artfully done."

Rowles said Alabama Theatre adheres to the strict backstage guidelines, as well, with one-way hallways to get on and off stage, distanced dressing rooms and no more gatherings at "The Barbershop," a nickname coined for Rowles' dressing room where the entertainers would gather before each show.

"The saddest part of the whole thing is we don't see each other through the whole show," he said. "The only time I see my fellow entertainers is when I'm intro-ing them, outro-ing them or when we're on stage in the finale. That's when I see them. The rest of the time, nobody sees anybody. It's not natural. None of this is natural for anybody, especially the entertainers.

"But at least we're not dealing with this medically. There are a lot of people as I know who are suffering. So I try not to whine as much as I want to, going 'I got to wear a mask.' People are a lot worse off and I've got to be considerate and meet people where they are."

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The Carolina Opry is celebrating its 35th season this year and Jordan Gilmore Watkins, vice president and director of marketing for Gilmore Entertainment, said the show opted to later its blocking and choreography to adhere to social distancing guidelines.

“For example, we had a number where Delvin Choice, one of our featured male vocalists, would spin some of our dancers and we have changed that portion of the choreography,” Watkins said. “We also follow all of the state and CDC guidelines for backstage procedures. Cast and crew wear masks whenever they are not able to distance, are encouraged to get ready at home as much as possible, don’t share equipment or spaces, regular sanitation procedures are in place, and cast meet and greets have been cancelled. It certainly presents a challenge when you are in an environment where things are moving so fast backstage, but I have been so impressed by our fabulous crew, they are truly pros.”

Watkins said as the first theater in Myrtle Beach, the theater has “weathered many trials and industry changes over the last 35 years and have learned to adapt quickly to any new demands.

“This is not what we thought our 35th anniversary would look like, but the cast could not be more excited to get back on that stage and the shows are better than ever,” she said. “The choreography is just as exciting and dynamic as before, just a little more space between performers… They actually have more energy and enthusiasm than ever after being away from their passion for so long.”

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A look at the stadium before an evening show at the Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament in Myrtle Beach.

Chris Irizarry, general manager of Medieval Times, said the company not only worked to ensure the safety of its performers, but went “above and beyond” with safety protocols with its guests. Reservations are required, which helps the company track where the guest sits, who their server was, what retail team member passed by that table, what knights worked that night, and it records if there had to be a seating change.

“Try that with 500 people,” Irizarry said about when the castle’s arena is at half capacity, which is the most allowed by state law.

Collins, the show manager, said changes to the show have been minimal, but one change of note is when a knight won a game pre-COVID, the knight would throw a carnation to someone in the audience.

“We no longer handle the carnation,” Collins said. “We’ll point to whoever is going to get the carnation and then someone from the gift shop will have gloves on and hand it to whoever the knight gave it to.”

It’s a small price to pay for performers to do what they love and audiences to enjoy what they paid for, even if it means everyone has to wear a mask for some long-awaited entertainment.

“It took us a while to get used to doing it,” Collins said of the masks. “You practice with it to get the guys up to speed. You have to remember, they’ve been off for a couple months, too. And then they come in and you try to ramp up quickly and get everyone in shape to do a show. Of course the most important thing is to do it safely, not just for guests, but for us, too.”

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