IVORYTON — Ivoryton Playhouse Artistic Director Jacqueline Hubbard fondly thinks of the 110-year-old theater as a “big momma elephant.”
The playhouse logo includes an elephant in recognition of the town’s ivory history. It was only natural then that the star of Hubbard’s new book, “Ella Capella and the Pink Umbrella” (2020 Hubbard/Long), would be an elephant who gives to the town and is in turn helped in her own time of need.
And like Ella, the playhouse is in need since the pandemic forced the stage to go dark.
Some businesses have been able to pivot during COVID — restaurants moved to takeout, later offering indoor seating at diminished capacity plus outdoor seating; retailers offered curbside pickup and enforced social distancing; and medical professionals switched to telehealth when possible. The changes helped customers safely keep their favorite restaurants and retailers afloat.
However, adapting has been nearly impossible for the playhouse because of the unique nature of their product. Groups of actors energetically perform on a small stage in front of enthusiastic live audiences — all COVID no-nos. But patrons are rallying around the playhouse, which closed only once before, during WWII, in other ways.
When the pandemic came to Connecticut in March, the playhouse had to cancel their 2020 productions. To stay afloat, they launched a fundraising campaign to help pay the bills while the stage is dark and quiet. They asked for donations and made T-shirts with the words, “I helped keep Ivoryton Playhouse Afloat in 2020,” printed beneath a drawing of an elephant in a small boat.
“It’s not just local people, it’s the community, the audience, the ticket-buyers who have helped so much,” Hubbard said. “When we let people know that our season was cancelled, they said, ‘don’t worry about it, keep the money, we know you’ll be back next year.’ It’s not just the donations, people have been calling and emailing, they send little notes and messages with their donations,” Hubbard said, adding, “One lady even made masks and sent them to us, some had musical note patterns, some had elephants. Every week there was something that lifted our spirits.
“We had a tight turnaround to raise funds to be matched by a state grant,” in the fall and people really stepped up. “We were calling people and emailing them, and the response was amazing.” The situation has been “awful but heartwarming at the same time,” Hubbard said.
Illustrator Cully Long, a playhouse set designer and scenic design professor at Weber State University, purchased a T-shirt and asked Hubbard if there was a story behind the shirt’s image and message.
“Of course, there is,” Hubbard replied, “I have a story for everything.” Long told Hubbard that if she wrote the story, he would illustrate it.
Surviving a pandemic whether one is a patient, business owner or a treasured community theater requires lots of people each contributing in their own small way, which is what plays out in the book created through Hubbard’s and Long’s chance conversation.
Hubbard started out hoping to put lots of locals in the book, but it became hard to include some, and not others, and while writing she welcomed her seventh grandchild.
“I realized that there were just too many people to put in the story,” Hubbard said, adding that one character is named after a real person, “Mrs. Merrick is a real person, she was on our board for years, and was a past president.” Although not named, “they all know they’re in there,” Hubbard said of her community members.
The playhouse describes the story this way: “Ella Capella is an exceptional elephant who sings and dances and entertains the whole village of Ivoryton until one day a terrible storm threatens to sweep her away. The book celebrates a community that comes together to save Ella the Elephant and make sure she always has a place to sing and dance and tell her stories.”
The book relates this sweet tale with a poetic cadence and charmingly uplifting illustrations that are reminiscent of story books published in the mid-20th century. Long used a simple palette of mostly gray, pink and green outlined in charcoal. The book is full of images and references to Ivoryton Village and appeals to adults and children alike.
Hubbard hopes to reopen the playhouse sometime in 2021, and is confident that when allowed, they will be able to sing, dance and tell their stories safely with the help of the newly redone ventilation system.
To donate, purchase books or T-shirts, visit, https://www.ivorytonplayhouse.org, call, 860-767-9520, or check with local retailers. Proceeds will help to support the playhouse.