As scenes of Richmond grappling with its Confederate history – and grappling with its monuments to the Lost Cause – make national news, the city could soon make headlines for something altogether unrelated: Soon, Richmond may be the only place in the country where audiences will be able to see live theater in a pandemic.
On June 18, the Firehouse Theatre will open a world premiere, one-man version of Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” to limited audiences. How limited? At maximum, the 99-seat Firehouse will host six people at each performance. Most of the show’s scheduled performances will have just two audience members to help attendees feel safe.
Joel Bassin, Firehouse’s producing artistic director, believes it may be the only theater in America playing host to live audiences at the moment.
“My guess is that’s true statewide. I believe it’s true countrywide, and it may be worldwide,” Bassin says. “It’s kind of a cool thing to think about, and a scary thing at the same time.”
Bassin stresses that health precautions will be undertaken to ensure audience safety. Attendees will be given an assigned time to arrive at the theater to avoid crowding and their temperatures will be taken before entering the building. Audience members will be required to wear face masks and will have a specific restroom assigned to them. Refreshments must be ordered in advance and will be left upon the bar for pickup upon entering.
Actor Billy Christopher Maupin says it’s a bit of kismet that the Firehouse had his one-man show scheduled for this slot in its season as Virginia begins to open back up for business.
“I don’t have to socially distance with anybody else on stage,” explains Maupin, who adapted the play from Wilde’s novel with director Shirley Kagan. “As far as I know, this is the only live theater being produced for a live audience right now.”
Initially, Maupin and Kagan planned to adapt the play “Our Town” into a one-man version, but ultimately couldn’t get permission from Thornton Wilder’s estate. Wishing to avoid this fate again, they began looking at works in the public domain and decided on Wilde’s Faustian novel about a man who sells his soul to pursue a life of sin.
In crafting his version, Maupin says he pulled elements from three different editions of “Dorian Gray,” including some of the more blatantly gay elements included in Wilde’s original manuscript. Maupin says he’s worked to highlight the more sympathetic elements of Gray and make hedonistic aristocrat Lord Henry Wotton more of a villain.
In portraying 16 characters over two and a half hours – including intermission – Maupin says he has his work cut out for him.
“Oh man, it’s a beast,” says Maupin, who compares adapting “Dorian Gray” to readying a Shakespearian work for the stage. “The problem is that it’s an Oscar Wilde novel. Everything is gorgeous. His writing is gorgeous. You just want to keep the whole thing, but no one wants to sit in a theater for 48 hours.”
Once a near-constant presence on Richmond’s stages, Maupin has been on something of a sabbatical lately, spending the last two years in his native Kentucky. Maupin says he needed the time to get a different perspective.
“I felt like I had done everything that I had needed to do in Richmond,” he explains. “I wanted to take a step back and see what paths my life might need to take.”
Maupin began rehearsals in the borrowed band room of a middle school in Kentucky, using tape on the floor to mark where his set would be as Kagan gave directions by Zoom.
Kagan, a professor of theater at Hampden-Sydney College who’s also acted and directed in Richmond, says she was inspired to pursue a one-man show after seeing Patrick Stewart’s solo adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” on stage.
“The one thing we did not want to create was a fancy staged reading of the novel,” Kagan says. “Everything in the adaptation was geared to making it as dramatic as possible. We didn’t change a single word of the novel, but sometimes we rearranged things so that scenes flowed well from one to the next.”
Asked about the finances of staging a theatrical production that will have either two, four or six patrons in the audience, Bassin is blunt: “It’s a complete disaster.” Though the show will also have some of its performances broadcast live online and accept donations, Bassin is prepared to take a bath.
After experiencing a life-threatening stroke last year, then having the pandemic hit, Kagan says it’s a show of resilience to create theater at this time.
“There’s something incredibly life-affirming about saying maybe we have to adapt a bit, but we can still make this happen,” Kagan says. “We’re doing our best for the people who want to stay at home and get a little entertainment, while at the same time cautiously and carefully inviting people back into the community of theater.”
“A Picture of Dorian Gray” plays June 18-July 19 at the Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad St. For information, visit firehousetheatre.org or call 355-2001.