In 1979 I moved to Columbia, Maryland, the same year Toby Orenstein opened her dinner theatre. Since then, it has become one of the treasured members of Howard County’s artistic community. As Columbia has grown to Maryland’s second largest city, Toby’s has grown with it. Audiences come from all over the region to see their professional productions and talented performers. The theatre has won many awards, including several Helen Hayes Awards. Their productions rival those in many more classic venues, like Kennedy Center and the National, and Toby’s admission includes a meal.
Like other performing arts centers, Toby’s was affected by the pandemic. However, Toby’s bravely opened their doors in November, 2020.
I had a chance to interview Mark Minnick, Toby’s Associate Producer and Artistic Associate, about how Covid affected the theatre and even their planning of their new venue in Columbia.
Director, choreographer, actor, producer, and casting director, Mark Minnick has had his hand in many aspects of “the arts.” Theatre was always a part of his life growing up as a student of voice and dance and being voted “Best Actor” by his high school class. His professional career began as an actor in numerous theatres across the Philadelphia and DC Metro areas, performing in “Anything Goes” at Harrah’s Casino in Atlantic City, traveling the country with two National Tours, and earning his Screen Actors Guild card.
Mark made the DC area his home base and has been acting, directing, doing choreography, and producing for over 25 years in the area. He spent 15 years as the Casting Director/Associate Producer for Phoenix Entertainment, a theatrical company that produced touring musical productions in the states and overseas. With Phoenix Entertainment, Mark cast and oversaw more than 25 national and international productions; choreographed the 2008/09 National Tour of “The Pajama Game”and the 2014/2015 National Tour of“Camelot;”mounted three international productions of “Grease” (a South Korean tour; Istanbul, Turkey production; and in Macau, China for the 21st Annual International Arts Festival); and spent a month in Beijing, China at The Central Academy of Drama where he was the dance supervisor for the first Chinese language production of “FAME – The Musical.” He can be seen in the internationally acclaimed documentary film featuring that production entitled“The Road to Fame.”
Mark has been honored with fifteen Helen Hayes Award nominations for Outstanding Direction and/or Choreography for his work, winning for his choreography for “Monty Python’s Spamalot” at Toby’s Dinner Theatre. Mark currently directs and choreographs most productions for Toby’s Dinner Theatre, where he currently serves as Associate Producer and Artistic Associate, working side by side with Toby Orenstein.
What noticeable changes will Toby’s audiences see when they come for a show? What Covid-Safety rules do you have in place?
Pre-Pandemic, Toby’s usually seated about 300 people per performance, and we are currently only seating approximately two-thirds of our typical audience capacity. Audiences returning for dinner and show will see that we have temporarily removed our salad and dessert bars, and those items are now served to your table. Our main buffet is in place but each table is personally invited to the buffet by our house manager to eliminate any crowding that may occur. We are also asking all patrons to use an easily applied glove to serve themselves. Our house and service staff will still wear masks as they serve you, but guests are not required to wear masks at this time. Should the state/county change their guidelines, Toby’s will do what they are required to do, just as we have done since reopening. As for the production, Toby’s guests can expect the same top-quality performances they have come to expect from our creative teams. All your Toby’s favorites are fully vaccinated and onstage giving you a beautiful, hilarious, and heartfelt performance of “ELF The Musical”
Why did you pick the shows you chose for the coming Season?
When Toby’s closed its doors back in March of 2019, we had just begun our 2019 season with “Kinky Boots.” We had sold over 7,000 subscription books that have five tickets in each book for the remaining four titles. Our guests purchased seats for specific productions. So we did our best to reschedule those titles and provide the opportunity for our subscribers to get to see every production they wanted to see. We didn’t change titles to accommodate a smaller cast size. We just reimagined the shows for a few less people and with new creative staging and casting ideas. Our productions of “Shrek” that ran from March – June and “Elf” (onstage thru August 22) have been fantastic, and audiences are loving the dinner and shows!
Toby’s has a core group of performing artists and crew. How were you able, other than financially, to keep your core players and crew connected during the closing?
Times were tough for everyone, and I think people and businesses did their best to stay positive and keep employees updated. However, things were changing each and every day. We were changing, adjusting adapting, making new plans and arrangements only to scrap them and start over and over and over. It was a trying time for sure. But you are correct, we have a strong core group of artists that work for us, and they are all a part of the Toby’s family. So the bond was there for the family to keep hope and communication. Everything wasn’t perfect, but we honestly tried our best. At the end of the day, whether they are currently with us or not, the Toby’s family is a strong group and very much appreciated.
Why did Toby’s lead the way in opening its doors? When and why did you decide to open to audiences?
Toby’s made the decision to reopen its doors when we were granted permission by the state and county to do so and when we felt we had done everything we could and prepared properly. We reopened in November with an original holiday revue. We followed every restriction placed upon us, and it was very successful. Those who were comfortable to venture out had an amazing time, and we actually saw many people who had never been to Toby’s before. We operated with a small cast, very reduced house size, served dinner, masked and face shielded staff and performers keeping required distance and strong sanitization measures in place. There is so much to say on this and I could go on and on. I will just say that we made a decision to move forward, and we are grateful to our staff who went above and beyond. We are grateful to our guests and subscribers who continue to support us. Toby’s is open for business, and if you are ready to return to live theatre, we are here. If you need a bit more time, take the time. We will still be here doing our best to provide you with a safe and enjoyable experience.
How did the pandemic affect your moving to a new theatre? Are plans still underway or have things been postponed?
The pandemic did not affect our plans to move. The funding for the New Cultural Center was finally approved this year by the Howard County Council, and there is a lot of behind the scenes work currently happening. For Toby, the new facility will house a brand-new state of the art Toby’s Dinner Theatre, a Black Box Children’s theatre, a cafe, and a long overdue home for her school, The Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts, providing voice, acting, and dance classrooms. This is a monumental undertaking and with that comes a lot of work and, sadly, that takes a lot of time. Rest assured that this new cultural center will be the crown jewel of the new Downtown Columbia area.
Toby’s Dinner Theatre is presently presenting “Elf The Musical” until August 22, 2021. After a short break “Godspell” will open from August 27 – October 31, 2021. It will be followed by “White Christmas” in time for the holidays from November 5, 2021 – January 9, 2022. Their season will end with “Monty Python’s Spamalot” from January 14 – March 20, 2022. Subscriptions, as well as individual tickets, are available. Contact Toby’s for information and tickets.
Read Susan Brall’s Review of “Elf The Musical” at Toby’s Dinner Theatre.