2020 has been quite a year in so many ways, and while there were a lot of dark spots this year here and everywhere, there have been some great things that happened as well. With over a dozen different productions, over 1000 audience members (and many more virtually), around 25 people provided with part-time employment, thousands of volunteer hours, and a great pile of 5-star reviews on Google, Facebook, and other platforms, Family Fun Xperience has sprung to life!
The year began for our team with a hope of a new space to finally launch FFX Theatre disappearing. We began asking around about alternate spaces and kept coming up short, until our friend George at Juice Box Surf mentioned a spot near his shop. One thing led to another, and we signed the lease to begin redeeming the former nightclub into a family theater space. We were all set to begin hiring and readying the space for audiences on April 1st, and on that April Fools holiday we were officially shut down by the pandemic before we opened the doors. We knew this project was no fool's errand, and what was at the time called "3 weeks to flatten the curve" became a much longer time of cleaning, adding equipment and signage and more to adapt to ever-changing phase requirements to keep cast, crew, and audiences safe. We were able to host some virtual performance and recording space for Salt Church to provide their services through Easter and beyond.
The beach began to open back up after Memorial Day, but we continued with some remodeling projects and other planning while trying to figure out how to keep our non-profit alive and in this wonderful space after plans A, B, C, and D had all gone away. We created a Theater Safety Council to study the various recommendations and guidelines from the CDC, WHO, state, national, and industry groups. Protests that erupted around the country arrived here also, and while our family was arranging seating to accommodate a possible Phase 2 opening we watched as a large group marched up Atlantic Avenue. We left just before the event turned ugly and watched as tear gas was launched on the news in front of our theater (hoping our freshly installed signs would survive.) The next evening more businesses were hit, and we were forced to replace a large second story window. Expenses continued piling up with little in the way of donations coming in, no shows to sell tickets for, and families everywhere very uncertain of what was next. A bright spot was a newly formed group called Locals Helping Locals. We originally met on zoom (along with a gajillion other groups on zoom calls in 2020!) to discuss how to mitigate the pandemic, where to find masks and sanitizer, etc. but grew to serving our community through the Coastal Edge back to school event, toy drives, giveaways, and even developed a locals brochure and now have our own Locals Helping Locals app in the iOS and Android app stores. These have been important to us, as the normal beach coupon books historically did not print, and nobody even knew we were a new business launching here for families. We also got a virtual walk-thru tour of the new space from Ember the baby goat, brought here with her friend Conrad from Hunt Club Farm.
By the grace of God, we made it through to the Independence Day weekend when Phase 3 was announced in Virginia and we were allowed to open our doors. Through July and August we hosted a variety of family-friendly shows to let the oceanfront hotels and businesses know "We Are Open" (Virginia Beach's tourism slogan for the year, selected long before the pandemic). From Games Labs and Family Trivia Nights to Magic Fridays with Nomo the Magician, small audiences found their way into FFX and found it not only fun, but also safe and comfortable. During this time we also began auditions and rehearsals for the show and our son, Alec, in addition to taking some of the great photographs above and help with various projects, filmed a fun little commercial for FFX. Our website and social media came to life as we launched our ticketing system and grew to 1000's of followers. We continued finding pockets of actors and theater crew around the area, and built more relationships with college theater departments. Although theater and live events in general have been largely canceled by pandemic concerns, we offered paid, ongoing roles and every recommended safety measure and then some, it has been as scary this year for cast members to venture out as it has been for audience in many cases, but we continued doing what we could best for safety while investing in the re-emergence of live theater and events. We actually received applications from performers around the world, and found a few great cast and crew members here to begin putting together the Family Fun Xperience show. The Atlantic Avenue Association refocused on revitalization of the area after a rescheduled Boardwalk Art Show we had planned to partner our fall event with to benefit the Museum of Contemporary Art here was again canceled. This led to a stunning proposal to improve this vital part of Virginia Beach that was presented to the Resort Area Commission and went on to pass in the City Council. FFX submitted a letter of support to this effort and plans to continue well past 2021 in the ongoing revitalization plans.
We continued a summer favorite show, the Fun & Games show, past Labor Day as we furiously workshopped and rehearsed the show while crew and others completed set and technical work, including relocating our tech booth and expanding the stage to include the family's backyard and Pop's garage. We also were blessed to be able to host a wedding reception for a young couple who attended a summer magic show here, and made the event magical for their family and friends. Other event space rentals as well as a Halloween show for Spectrum Puppets that were booked fell apart when further restrictions on social gatherings were put in place, but we were still cleared for the show with a limited seating capacity. My wife of 33 years has become our Front-of-House Manager and helped in so many ways with developing the box office, merch area, concessions, decor, and our enhanced cleaning regimens to keep the whole space safe.
Mayor Bobby Dyer and other guests joined us in November for a long overdue ribbon cutting originally planned for May, as the media covered us in the Virginian Pilot, Kingdom Life magazine, Tidewater Family, and other publications in print and online. We had our Opening Night and other events listed around the web, including now on Virginia Beach tourism sites and Virginia.org. Local printers and other small businesses have helped us get posters out about events and provided other vital resources as we participate in rebuilding our community's economy.
Opening Weekend was here! Not a holiday like the others we had been thru, but a huge day for our theatrical group and a realization of a dream for our non-profit organization. Groups had seen sneak peeks of a few scenes, and Tim's mom visiting from St. Louis to help out was treated to a full rehearsal show by the cast before she returned home, and it was our final dress/tech rehearsal. My daughter, Katie, on furlough from the Virginia Opera's canceled season, was vital in coordinating all the details for the production and grew her skills as she wore many hats beyond her typical Stage Manager one. All the media, games, costumes, set pieces, effects, lighting cues, sound cues, props, and more had come together with lines, blocking, and more that we had already seen in pieces create delight and laughter. We got word that social restrictions were tightening further, which in reality didn't alter our theater requirements, but affected greatly perceptions and ticket sales. The cast did a wonderful performance and we continued to hear stories from families and others attending of the impact it made on them. The mission of FFX isn't just a fun bit of entertainment, but to strengthen and encourage families, and that is what we continue to hear back. We were thrilled to find that even couples without children, seniors, and young singles enjoyed the show and wanted to come back in addition to moms, dads, kids, and teenagers.
Fun and a positive impact, a rare combo in 2020. Our hope as we continue forward is that more families come out, and as things open fully down the road, thousands more will be impacted as well. We shifted many times this year with that goal always in focus, and our faith rooted in the call we feel God has given us toward helping families from all backgrounds, because families of every type are vitally important. And we continued to shift. We had long planned to have a holiday season version of the show, but with little time to retool it this season we placed the signature show on the backburner as we develop additional cast members (and are still auditioning now if you know anyone) for the spring season. We launched a season of Funsgiving over the Thanksgiving holiday, and continued right into FFXmas Games for the Christmas season, hosting the Tidewater Winds holiday quartet benefit show, and are preparing for the New Years Around-The-World Celebration shows later this week, all packed with fun and games we had to completely reinvent this year to keep them interactive and engaging while still allowing for distancing and other adaptations that are necessary still for safety.
Through this all, and all these holidays in 2020, we have rediscovered something we knew as a family all along. The best holiday is any simple day you get to spend time together as a family. While families have spent a lot of unexpected time together this year with working from home and lost jobs, with schooling from home, and shopping and food delivery and so much more all making us go out less, and travel for holidays and vacations reduced drastically, but all this time at home together is not normal and will eventually shift back in most ways to something much like it was before as the world recovers. Some businesses are gone forever, some jobs aren't coming back like they were expected, sports seasons for school teams and so many other opportunities for children and parents were lost to 2020, and in addition to the lives lost from Covid, more have been lost to suicide, drugs, alcohol, abuse, and more this year as well, and families have all been impacted in different ways. But the time they spent together was in large part the strength that will pull us thru this time in history and on to re-grow our communities and nation. Having a quality shared experience out together with other families is something that FFX can contribute to the years ahead, as families continue to be so important to each of us. Our show has always been modeled around being able to adapt and change, and that was important this year, and is an important skill for families to learn together as well.
There is so much more that happened with FFX this year, both good and bad, beyond what is shared above and a few extra bullet points below, but through it all I have been encouraged in our faith and in our mission by my own family, extended family, our church family, and friends so close we consider them to be part of our family. As we all reflect on the year behind and look forward to the year ahead, we are excited by all the possibilities ahead of us as Family Fun Xperience continues to grow and impact families in our region and beyond. Our needs have never been greater, and we hope that many of you reading this can join us in the journey ahead and make a donation or become a business sponsor to help FFX survive and thrive in 2021 so we can reach more and more families. Here are a few of the verses I have been reflecting on through all of this: