Pistarckle Theater on Saint Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, hadn’t experienced a storm quite like Hurricane Irma since Hurricane Marilyn back in 1995. But in the fall of 2017, it wasn’t just Irma who came to visit; she was followed almost immediately by Hurricane Maria. But while the back-to-back storm season decimated more than 70 percent of buildings on these 50-plus Caribbean islands located southeast of Puerto Rico, the small theatre company, located in Tillett Gardens, miraculously survived without sustaining structural damage.
“We did the normal preparations that you can,” said artistic director Nicola Emerich recently over the phone . “You put everything in plastic and in dry areas and you pray.”
The theatre went on to opened its 2017 season, albeit a few weeks late and sans electricity. Despite many setbacks, Pistarckle brought some much needed entertainment to the troubled community last fall, and continues to be a source of light as the region’s rebuilding efforts continue.
“We wanted to make sure that the theatre got going as quickly as possible,” said Emerich. “Originally we were going to open the season with Evita, which was crazy, because half of the cast left the island. And that’s a major production with lots of sets, costumes, and scenery.”
“And an airplane!” quipped Bonnie Erb, the president of the board of directors.
Instead the company staged the absurdist comedy Alternative Facts by local playwright Matthew Hamilton-Kraft. The costumes were simpler, and Emerich cobbled together a set from furniture loaned by local hotels.
“There was no TV, no movie theatre—we were it, we were the entertainment,” said Erb. “Some people didn’t know we existed until there was nothing else to do.”
“People wanted to get out and just forget,” Emerich said. “We had no electricity; we were on a generator. Nobody had electricity for three to four months, so the fact that we could supply entertainment and air conditioning was a huge hit. And it did a lot for morale for all of us with the theatre and all of the people who came to see the show.”
There were some elementary hurdles to ovecome: With no phones or internet, the theatre was unable to sell tickets via its usual means. “Our biggest challenge was the lack of communication availability,” concedes Erb. Word of mouth brought patrons, both old and new, to the theatre’s matinee-only run of the show. Many tickets were covered through donations.
To further fill the entertainment void, Pistarckle also hosted a series of murder mystery nights in addition to its planned season. These were so popular that they had to turn away people at the door—without the ability to take ticket reservations, they never knew how many audience members to expect.
The theatre also provided another kind relief in the hurricane’s wake. Because schools were closed for months, Pistarckle opened its doors as a camp for kids during the day. While parents were busy with renovations, Pistarckle’s Hurricane Recovery Camp became a refuge for young students.
Erb, who led the programming, enlisted the help of teaching artists for the six weeks the camp ran. The community pitched in with donations to pay the teaching artists, and the kids worked through their trauma with acting, dance, puppetry, and yoga classes.
“We saw such changes in the kids from the day they arrived until the day it ended,” says Erb. “They let go of so much of their stress—they all came in here so stressed out.”
Many of the kids caught the acting bug from camp and came on board for Pistarckle’s holiday show, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever!. With no costumer on the island, parents and volunteers chipped in to help sew costumes for the production.
While the island’s efforts to recoup continue, the theatre is beginning to return to some semblance to its pre-hurricane operations. The company will mount a total of six shows for its 2018-19 season, in addition to its after-school programs and summer camps.
Arsenic and Old Lace opened last week, to be followed by The Nutcracker in December. The company will finally stage Evita in February, followed by Doubt and a to-be-announced play in the spring.
Also on the docket this season: replacing the theatre’s leaky roof. “There may be water during performances, dripping on people’s heads and making puddles on the floor,” said Emerich with a laugh. “So that is a concern! But everybody’s been living like that anyway, so hopefully everyone will take it with a sense of humor. We have umbrellas!”