As many of the city’s artistic directors predicted in April, innovation is the name of the game when it comes to running a theater in a pandemic.
Despite the continued restrictions and necessary coronavirus safety precautions, Richmond theater is alive and well, though it might look a bit different.
Some local companies are faring better than others. Those without a permanent facility, like 5th Wall and Quill, are fortunate not to face the problem of what to do with a dormant space. Meanwhile, CatTheatre has recently moved out of the building it occupied for 54 seasons.
“It was the perfect pandemic storm,” its managing director, Mike Fletcher, says. “We couldn’t continue to pay rent on a building we weren’t using. So, we’re taking this as an opportunity.” In early October, audiences can look for CatTheatre’s CATharsis Pandemic Theatre project, featuring three original one-acts by Ryan Bultrowicz.
Similarly, Swift Creek Mill Theatre continues to offer online content, though it’s still recovering from last month’s flood. Next month, Swift Creek Mill will begin releasing a new digital series, the Young People’s Playhouse, beginning with “Chicken Little on the Farm” by Paul Deiss and Artistic Director Tom Width.
“We’ll really miss having audiences right here in the theater, but we’re really excited about making digital entertainment come alive in schools and homes anywhere,” Width says.
HatTheatre is currently the only professional company offering in-person, socially distanced classes, with strict COVID-19 guidelines in place, and Cadence Theatre Company has digital educational opportunities for adults, kids and teens this fall, with a rehearsal and performance program, unstaged adult acting classes with Rusty Wilson, and, just announced, the KdentsTV Teen Horror Film Contest.
Quill Theatre Company is also focusing on digital education for now, and Artistic Director James Ricks says there is some exciting digital content on the way this fall. Ricks says his strategy moving forward includes “weathering the storm and doing some careful planning, so that when we are given the ‘all-clear’, we can hit the ground running.” He says he can envision a summer Shakespeare festival on the Agecroft Hall lawn, with chalk-marked social-distancing squares.
For Shakespeare fans, a day trip to Staunton’s American Shakespeare Center may be in order this fall, especially for those feeling the need to get out of their home or Richmond in general: Audiences can enjoy safe, socially distanced performances under its new protocols. Performances of both “Othello” and “Twelfth Night” run through Oct. 18 at the Blackfriars Playhouse and online through Sept. 27. Its fall 2020 digital education curriculum is available for parents, educators and those seeking personal enrichment through a deeper understanding of the Bard and his works. And in December, audiences can celebrate the holidays with “A Christmas Carol,” live or online.
Locally, we are seeing the return of live theater, spearheaded this summer by Firehouse with “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” a one-man show with very limited audiences of just four to six patrons. Firehouse Artistic Director Joel Bassin says he’s moving forward with “Ann,” a one-woman show starring Jacqueline Jones as former governor of Texas and revolutionary American politician Ann Richards, directed by Billy-Christopher Maupin, in a similar fashion.
“It became obvious that the model we established with ‘Dorian,’ solo shows with severely restricted audience capacity, could work again,” Bassin says. “The show had the additional advantage of being about a revolutionary political figure who advocated for voting rights and women’s rights, and so it fit in with election season.” Bassin adds that he’s committed to producing work with a live component whenever possible, but like “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” “Ann” will be offered via livestream for patrons who prefer to watch from home.
Artistic Director Carol Piersol of 5th Wall responded to the need for social distance by taking theater outside, with the recent Porch Plays series, featuring original works by Chandler Hubbard, Matt Bloch, Rich Orloff and Joe Calarco. Audiences brought their own chairs and wore masks while enjoying porch theater from the front lawn. Piersol says to look out for more pop-up theater like this to come this fall.
Meanwhile, at Richmond Triangle Players, socially distanced live theater returns with “The Second Coming of Joan of Arc,” starring Marjie Southerland, directed by Chelsea Burke, which will also be available as a livestream.
“I think keeping the essence and soul of live theater intact during this unprecedented time is of critical importance,” says Executive Director Phil Crosby. He says the company has shifted focus to productions with a limited cast size. “It’s just as important to keep our artists safe as it is our patrons,” Crosby says. ‘“Joan’ fit the bill perfectly.”
Audiences will have multiple opportunities to see Marjie Southerland onstage this season, as she reprises her role as Harriet Tubman in Virginia Repertory Theatre’s “Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad,” on the November Theatre stage, with socially distanced seating.
Some companies are spending this season in a planning phase, and social activism is a common theme we can expect to see in projects to come.
Richmond Triangle Players is currently accepting applications for the So Queer Playwrights Festival, a competitive festival of LGBTQ+ works, which leads to one playwright working closely with the theater to develop and produce a play. Similarly, Cadence Theatre Company is currently seeking screenplays and scripts for its Sitelines BLM project, a series that will feature short films and filmed public performances from BIPOC, which stands for Black and Indigenous people of color, writers, engaging in the current moment via stories of specific Richmond locations.
TheatreLab recently announced an exciting merger with the Conciliation Project, an arts organization founded by Tawnya Pettiford-Wates in 2001 to address issues of systemic racism through provocative performance and open dialogue. She and TheatreLab’s artistic director, Deejay Gray, say that it’s important to practice “radical transparency” moving forward, taking the opinions and voices of the community into account as they develop a strategic plan. They are holding monthly virtual town hall meetings to discuss the mission of the merger, with the next one scheduled for Oct. 18 at 4 p.m.
“We are an organization at the intersection of arts and activism, so what kind of an organization is that and how does that organization serve the community of RVA?” asks Pettiford-Wates. She wants the community to have a say in the answer.
“We are at a unique time, historically,” she adds, “and I’m talking about the call to artists, the call to arts to be leaders, to be the reflection, to show society itself, to interrogate society, to challenge society, to break down systems and paradigms.
“I don’t think we can go back to business as usual.”