Peppercorn Theatre has been producing shows for the young audiences at Kaleideum since its founders were still in college and Kaleideum was still the Children’s Museum of Winston-Salem.
Last week, Kaleideum posted on its Facebook page: “While Kaleideum is hopeful that we will reopen the Kaleideum North campus to visitors in July, we regret to announce that Kaleideum’s Peppercorn Theatre will be suspending programming through the summer of 2021 as we plan for the future and navigate the changes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. …
“Kaleideum remains committed to live storytelling and we look forward to presenting theatre programming again when it is safe to do so. Thank you for your support of Peppercorn Theatre at Kaleideum.”
Elizabeth Dampier, executive director of Kaleideum, said, “It’s a difficult decision, but we are going to put Peppercorn Theatre on hiatus for one fiscal year and then reassess.
“We are definitely committed to theater programming and theater performance. We are not dropping that aspect of our programming. We had staffing impacted across the museum, not just in that department.”
In 2011, while they were students at UNC School of the Arts, John Bowhers, artistic director; and Anna Rooney, producing director, offered to provide the museum’s summer programming in return for a space to work. Harry Poster joined them in their second season and became artistic directer in the fifth season. Steven Kopp was artistic director their second through fourth seasons.
Poster is currently the producer at the Kennedy Center Theatre for Young Audiences in Washington, D.C., part of the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, and Rooney was a freelance producer in New York before moving to Savannah, Georgia.
The company wrote and produced three plays at the Children’s Museum their first summer. For the next three summers, they did three original plays a year in venues throughout the city, including Reynolda House Museum of American Art.
In October of 2014, Peppercorn merged with the Children’s Museum and became its programming arm.
In addition to presenting six original plays a year in a designated theater space, Peppercorn has provided pop-up theater activities during regular museum hours and provided 20-minute immersive field-trip programs that blended theater and education.
By the time the coronavirus hit in mid-March, Peppercorn had done nine seasons in Winston-Salem, presenting at Head Start, in Yadkin County Schools and Forsyth County Public Libraries, as well as at Kaleideum.
Bowhers said that when the layoffs came, he was disappointed but not terribly surprised.
“We’ve been asked to decrease our budget every year,” he said. “I was beginning to feel like we couldn’t make the kind of theater we wanted to make on the kind of budget we were being given.”
Peppercorn produced original work by national professional theater artists who spent time in the local community to create plays through a local lens. The artists who wrote and taught for Peppercorn have included Hannah Wolf, Naomi Shafer, CQ Quintana, Rebecca Cunningham, Adam Taylor, Kimberly Belflower and Angelica Chéri.
Dionna Daniel, a Winston-Salem native who lives in Los Angeles, was working on a play for the theater’s fall season, but that play has been put on hold.
“The piece speaks directly to what is going on right now. It was going to be about the coast and Pea Island and a lighthouse that was operated by an all-black rescue team,” she said. The play dealt with the African deity Yemaya who rescues enslaved people who were thrown overboard.
By January, Kaleideum had downsized the theater staff to Bowhers as producing director and Corinne Bass, who was managing director. In mid-March, when the museum shut down, the theater had planned to reorganize to make Bass producing director. Bowhers was to come back for the month of April and then become a contract worker.
“I think the museum made the right decision to suspend theater programming,” Bowhers said. “I understand that they are having to make hard financial choices.”
Bowhers is using his down time to get a graduate certificate in puppetry arts at a school in Connecticut. He is also doing freelance design jobs in theater and graphics.
“I’ll find way to have a presence in the Winston-Salem arts scene,” he said.
The museum’s north campus is open for summer camp, but Kaleideum is not open for visitors.
“I have a very special place in my heart for Peppercorn and what they have done,” Dampier said. “We are all facing things that we never thought we’d face and having challenges that we never expected.”
Bowhers said that he will remain committed to creating theater for young audiences.
“I feel like theater for young audiences and for the very young is just about the most important work that you can do,” he said. “I do feel strongly that I want to be involved in the conversation and have a relationship with the museum in some capacity when it opens back up.
“I hope there will be a place for the artists who were putting so much of themselves into making quality theater for young audiences.
“I’d like to see it come back strong. The museum was filling a need, and we saw the impact when we were doing it.”