After being closed up for more than a year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Center on the Square is reopening with some sweet plans.
First, “Sweet and Salty” was written by and is directed by former Center on the Square Creative Executive Director Wendy Neill, now a volunteer.
“I was really anxious for the theater to be able to come to life again,” Neill said. “It’s nice to be doing theater again.”
“Sweet and Salty” is the first full-length play Neill has written, she said, although in the past she has written some skits. Her purposes in writing the play were to restart the theater after COVID-19, get the actors back together again and give the community a chance to get back together.
The story features the lifelong friendship of Lily and Grace, Neill said, starting with them at the age of 10 in the 1970s, following them as teenagers in the 1980s and into adulthood at the present.
“Part of the play is done as a TV show,” she said.
Watching a video will be a part of the play and will fit into the story, Neill said.
“There’s actually a couple of commercials for our sponsors in the ‘70s style,” Neill said of the video segment.
As an example, Neill said Lynn’s Automotive, 2100 Arkansas Highway 16, used cars from the 1970s brought from various members of the community to make their commercial look like it was created during that decade.
“It was another piece of community,” Neill said of Lynn’s Automotive’s commercial including older vehicles owned by area residents.
Second, European-style cookies called kolaches baked by Wild Sweet William’s Baking House will be served after Act 3 to sweeten the afternoon. Strawberry hibiscus tea from Mr. Postman Espresso, which Center on the Square is making into lemonade, will be served after Act 1 to drink on the way to Act 2.
In “Sweet and Salty,” cooking and food are an important part of the friendship, Neill said, making the refreshments an important part of the show.
Wild Sweet William’s developed the kolach which will be served especially for Center on the Square to use as a snack for this production. Neill said it features the flavor blend of peaches, brown sugar and sea salt.
“At this time, this flavor is only available at the show,” Neill said, although Wild Sweet William’s owner Lisa Ford is keeping the right to sell the cookies in the bakery at some point, should she so desire.
Third, the show will be held outdoors at three parks in Searcy. The first segment will be held at Citizen Park, 213 W. Arch Ave. Patrons should bring lawn chairs or blankets to sit on, so social distancing can be maintained. Shade will be provided for seniors, as well as hand fans, although Neill said the weather forecast is predicting some clouds and somewhat lower humidity.
Each act will be held at a different park, and audience members will be told where to go next after the first and second acts, Neill said. Citizen Park is the smallest of the venues. The theater is withholding the other two locations as a surprise for guests.
Neill said she came up with the idea of holding the show in acts at three parks while brainstorming ways for plays to be less likely to spread COVID-19. She said this play is similar to a progressive dinner. Searcy Parks and Recreation Director Mike Parsons is donating the use of the parks to Center on the Square for the two Saturday afternoons that shows will be held.
While audience members will be transitioning from location to location, the cast members will remain where they are after each performance, which is how the theater is able to space an hour-and-a-half play at intervals of one hour each.
While the story is only about two girls growing up as friends, because it shows them at several points in their lives, there are quite a few actors in the show.
“It actually ended up being like 41 by the time you count cast and crew,” Neill said.
The children’s and teenagers’ parts are double cast, Neill said, to allow as many young actors to participate as possible, which she said also helps out from a practical standpoint as well, because if someone catches the virus or for some other reason cannot attend the show in which she was cast , there is an automatic backup person. While “Sweet and Salty” includes a number of children and teenagers, it is a Center on the Square mainstage production, not a KidStage production.
The Jones family has made “Sweet and Salty” a family activity, with 11-year-old twins Alexa and Addie playing Allison and Lily, respectively, and their 17-year-old sister, Mallory, playing Grace.
“We like to act together,” Addie said. “It’s fun to share experiences with your siblings.”
While the twins are joining Center on the Square for the first time, Alexa said they have been in plays in the past at school, and Mallory has been in Center on the Square productions before.
While the Jones girls are all sisters, Addie said by now it feels like everybody in “Sweet and Salty” are very close.
“It’s really fun to get connected with the people you are acting with,” Addie said. “We are all comfortable with not wearing masks around each other, so it starts to feel like family after a while.”
Alexa said she also has enjoyed meeting new people through a Center on the Square production, and she appreciates the experience in an entirely different way.
“It’s also just a fun summer thing to do,” Alexa said.
Neither Alexa nor Addie said she felt like it hasn’t been long since they had started rehearsals.
“It doesn’t feel very long,” Addie said, “but when you look at the weeks … .”
Rehearsals for “Sweet and Salty” have been going for over a month, probably since late April or early March. Despite not feeling very long, “we are all ready for the play,” Alexa said.
“Sweet and Salty” will be dedicated to the memory of Mary Lou Dunn, who was a board of directors member, actress, show director, audience member, financial supporter and friend to Center on the Square.
“Sweet and Salty” will be held Saturday at 2 p.m., 3 p.m., 4 p.m. and 5 p.m., as well as at 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. June 26. Tickets, available only on centeronthesquare.org, are $22 or $18 for seniors, military and students, and must be purchased by midnight Thursdayfor Saturday’s shows, or by midnight June 24 for the shows June 26. Tickets for “Sweet and Salty” will not be available at the door or by phone, Neill said.