Mitchell Park in Greenport was packed Monday night, with people assembled on beach chairs, towels and blankets for the first of the Dances in the Park since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Children cartwheeled on the green, Katlyn and Company offered a drum circle and hula hoops in a corner near the marina and the park filled with chatter and music drifting from the nearby carousel as people waited for reggae music from singer Winston Irie and his band to begin.
It was the kind of crowd that would have been unthinkable this past year and a half. COVID-19 forced the cancellation of most events in Mitchell Park, traditionally host to community gatherings ranging from Dances in the Park to the Maritime Festival and Shakespeare in the Park. Some of those turned virtual — Shakespeare performances, for instance, were presented over Zoom last year. But many, like the popular summertime Dances in the Park series, were simply canceled, with hopes that they’d return the following year.
Christine Kelly, president of Friends of Mitchell Park, said the organization has given money to Dances in the Park and recently approved an application for support from Shakespeare in the Park, which plans to return to Mitchell Park with an outdoor performance of “Twelfth Night” on Aug. 22. The nonprofit, which provides financial support to Greenport Village-approved events that take place in the park, “didn’t really do a whole lot” during the pandemic because there were no requests for event funding, Ms. Kelly said.
The organization, however, was still able to host its “signature event” — tai chi in the park on Saturday mornings from June through October — both this year and last year. Ms. Kelly added that Friends of Mitchell Park normally hosts a free skate Sunday for kids in the rink at Mitchell Park, which, although it was canceled in 2021, the nonprofit hopes to bring back this coming January. Other events they usually support, like an annual family-themed concert from musician Brady Rymer, have moved to Zoom.
“But so far, you know, I think we’re slowly gearing up to get the word out that if you need support, we’re there,” Ms. Kelly said, adding that she thinks “there should be kind of a rebound effect now that people can get outside and do more things now.”
Amie Sponza, president of Northeast Stage, said virtual performances don’t quite compare to performing in front of a live audience.
“The energy we get from the audience is irreplaceable,” she said. “They’re like another cast member, almost. Because when you get that feedback, whether it’s laughter or any kind of emotion … that indicates they’re with you; it feeds you and your performance.”
Northeast Stage has hosted annual Shakespeare performances in Mitchell Park since the 1990s, she said. It’s a more relaxed environment than a traditional theater — sometimes people will even walk across the stage while they’re performing, Ms. Sponza said. This year will be even more relaxed, because the theater group didn’t have time to raise funds for lights or microphones.
“We’re going to be relying on the sun, before it goes down, and the lights on the boardwalk. And we are going to invite the audience just kind of in the round, around us,” Ms. Sponza said.
Shakespeare in the Park will be one night this summer, instead of three. Other performances of “Twelfth Night” will be held indoors in September at Holy Trinity Church, which is also the rain location for the Aug. 22 performance.
“The people that know about it are thrilled and certainly all the performers are thrilled. They just missed it so much,” Ms. Sponza said.
That energy — which, one band member told the crowd, had recharged him — was certainly evident at Mitchell Park on Monday night. Couples swayed in soft blue light from the floor of the park stage, children linked hands as they danced and a dense crowd jostled around the awning where Winston Irie performed.
The crowd joined in as Mr. Irie sang, “Take my hand, take my whole life too, ᾽cause I can’t help falling in love with you,” finishing the song to whistles and cheers and a “thank you” yelled by a small girl near the front of the performance area.
Organizations interested in applying for support from Friends of Mitchell Park should visit friendsofmitchellpark.com. A funding request form is available under the “Funding Policies” tab. Mitchell Park events applying for support must be pre-approved by the Village of Greenport
The Maritime Festival is also expected to return to Mitchell Park in September.