In 2020, Marietta Burke goes to work every day in a dark, empty building.
When Gov. Roy Cooper issued stay-at-home orders and gathering restrictions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020-21, the Newton Performing Arts Center was forced to downsize and the theater and its offices nearly deserted.
As the center’s executive director, Burke was the only employee in the building. There are no shows, no performers, and no guests are welcomed into the historic auditorium. As part of cutting costs and saving money, Burke said she must use as little electricity as possible in the building.
So, every day, she sat at her desk in the dark, answering calls and trying to keep her laptop’s battery running as long as possible.
Before the pandemic, the center was used as a rental space and featured many local school performances and homemade programming and theater productions. In 2019, Burke was named executive director and wants to change the theater’s business model, focusing on booking tours and performers.
The pandemic temporarily halted new models, but once restrictions are lifted and life begins to return to normal, the Newton Center will be moving full speed ahead with their plans.
Now, NewtonPAC has successfully transitioned from a community rental facility to a fully booked venue for high-profile performers, bringing “big city entertainment” to small town theaters. The center is the county’s second-largest theater after the PE Monroe Auditorium on the Lenoir-Rhyne University campus, Burke said, and many of Newton’s performances at the auditorium have sold out.
“We’re just trying to provide a good entertainment venue in the county,” she said. “Something neutral, where you can forget about everything that’s going on and come and have a good time with other people who just want to have a good time.”
“Small-town theater, big-city entertainment” is the nonprofit’s catchphrase, which Burke said symbolizes bringing in artists and performers that people have to travel to to see in areas like Charlotte. In June, NewtonPAC featured comedian Donnie Baker and singer Debbie Gibson. Rock band Billy Bob Thornton and the Boxmasters played Saturday night.
“We’re in a small town, and a lot of people wouldn’t expect these artists to be here,” Burke said.
Prices range from $25 to $125, depending on the performance, and Burke said the theater has hosted people from South Carolina to Virginia to Tennessee, in addition to local residents.
“We had people fly in from Germany to see Billy Bob Thornton,” Burke said.
Bethlehem resident Bobby Cronan was on the Donnie Baker show earlier this month. He said he was surprised the comedian would be at the place.
“It’s a very, very affordable little theater,” Cronan said. “You’re not going to like a big arena or anything like that. You don’t have to deal with traffic in Charlotte. Just come and see a show in Newton, NC.”
Kayla Sharoyer was also on the Baker show. She said being close to her hometown encouraged her to attend. In her view, the theater lived up to its promise of “big city entertainment.”
Gone are the days of sitting in a dark office next to an empty auditorium. Now, Burke walks through the lobby of NewtonPAC on show day, seeing the crew laying out instruments and sets on a dark green stage. She listens to the performer’s voice check while her staff loads the offer bar.
And, when the doors finally opened, she watched guests squeeze into rows of upholstered wooden seats until the lights dimmed and the show began.