Court Square Theater prepares for its revival

While Court Square Theater will hold an open house this weekend, the Hispanic Film Fest that starts at the end of the month will mark the first big event since the theater closed in May 2020.

By Chase Downey, contributor

After nearly a year and a half of being closed, Court Square Theater is planning to reopen, starting with an open house this weekend, followed by the Hispanic Film Festival at the end of September.  

The theater has been closed since May 22, 2020, when the Arts Council of the Valley suspended its operations following a loss of funding in the wake of the pandemic. A year later, on May 26, the art council’s board of directors voted to reopen Court Square Theater, and it hired a new managing director, J.P. Gulla. Gulla previously served on the art council’s board. His new position focuses on getting the theater back on its feet by overseeing the installation of new safety measures. 

The theater began its renovations on Aug. 9 with the replacement of its two HVAC units. The new units are equipped with bipolar ionization purification systems, a method of air purification that generates positively and negatively charged particles, which are marketed as being able to remove SARS-2-CoV, the COVID-19 virus, from the air. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, bipolar ionization can not single-handedly protect against COVID-19, but when coupled with social distancing and masking guidelines it has the ability to reduce airborne transmission. 

Court Square Theater includes a stage, which has allowed it to be a venue for musical acts and plays, in addition to showing movies. Gulla said the theater will restart primarily with films, allowing audiences to sit where they want to sit and wearing masks, if they feel comfortable. 

Gulla said staff will wear masks at Court Square Theater, and the theater will recommend audience members wear masks — but will not require them to be worn by vaccinated individuals. He also said it’s too early in the process to be looking at introducing vaccine passports, but the theater “will see what other theaters are doing in the area…and put a plan together” to adopt similar measures when the time comes. 

“We do foresee something happening with a mask mandate, but that is up to Gov. (Ralph) Northam, and whether or not that is something he is instituting in theaters,”Gulla said. He said the same would go for whether the theater must limit the number of people in the theater. 

The first time the theater will reopen its doors will be Saturday for an open house during the Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance’s “Best.Weekend.Ever.” 

Community members can munch on free popcorn while taking tours of the theater, giving Court Square Theater a chance to showcase its improvements and promote its upcoming Hispanic Film Festival, which will run from Sept. 29-Oct. 3. Additionally, the theater will hold a free reading of Mary Chase’s Harvey after the tours at 1 p.m. on Sept. 4. 

The first film to be shown at Court Square Theater will be “I Carry You With Me” — the 2020 film starring Armando Espitia, Christian Vazquez and Michelle Rodriguez — on Sept. 29 for the opening film for the Hispanic Film Festival.  

“The theater is very much a heartbeat inside a community, and we need to get it back,” Gulla said. “The Court Square Theater is a staple for our community… whether it be fundraising, whether it be shows, whether it be bringing in outside entertainment for our community.”

Andrea Dono, executive director at Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance, said the community thrives on arts and culture, which the theater helps provide. 

“When you think about economic development, you want to give people multiple things that they can do in a single visit and a reason to come back over and over again,” she said. “I think their plans for reopening and how they want to reposition the theater…is going to be an incredible asset for our community. It’s going to come back even stronger than it was before.”

Court Square Theater plans to do exactly that, Gulla said. 

“We want to make our space an event and make it an experience,” Gulla said, adding that if audience members go to the theater to see a movie, there is a chance for them to see something more, like a sonnet at a Shakespearean film screening.

As for previous programming, Gulla said popular shows with cult followings like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” shadowcast and others involving JMU students would be returning. 

“We want to, definitely…involve JMU in all aspects that they were before,” Gulla said. “We want to add to it. We feel like… there’s some parts of our community that didn’t have the ability to be seen on the Court Square stage in some capacity…we want to also bring them in to play.”

Gulla pointed to the Hispanic Film Festival as an example and expressed interest in bringing schools in for programming like “Peléand other films.

Karina Kline-Gabel, director of the Hispanic Film Festival, said she is excited to see Court Square Theater return as well. Last year marked the first time she had to postpone the film festival, and the return of the theater means continuing her vision to bring Spanish-language to the Valley. 

“To be able to go downtown and see a film or a live music or theater production at our community theater is such a benefit to our Harrisonburg community,” Kline-Gabel said. The Hispanic Film Festival seeks to “expose film goers to the beauty and complexity of the Spanish-speaking world and provide a cinematic experience for [the] local Spanish speaking population.”

Gulla said he also met with the Shenandoah Valley Black Heritage Project regarding working together in the future.

“We invite the community, if they have ideas … if you want to do something, or if you have an idea of something that would be great for our community, let us know,” Gulla said, “so that we can make it happen.”

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