COVID-19 hit Playwrights Alliance of Pennsylvania (PAPA), a group of playwrights supporting and critiquing one another in central PA for over ten years, quite personally. Joe O’Connor, a former member who had recently moved to Maryland to enjoy retirement, passed away at the end of March after contracting the virus. Joe was an enthusiastic playwright and poet, particularly proud of a ten-minute play he wrote for the August Cicada Festival in Mt. Gretna a few years ago. PAPA is dedicating its 2020 August Zoom production of ten-minute, epidemic-themed plays to Joe to honor his zeal and talent.
Between the theatrically energized cities of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia lies a sprawling area dubbed “central Pennsylvania.” It is a civilized and populated area despite the acres and acres of farmland, countless red barns, and the occasional Amish horse and buggy. There are also playwrights and theatres. Talented playwrights. Beloved theatres. Thriving and cultured communities loving and promoting the arts, proud to be included in the boundaries of the DG’s Philadelphia region.
I live outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s capital; and there are eight brick and mortar theatres within twenty minutes of my home. Because central Pennsylvania is not Broadway, very few theatres here were built as such. Actors in search of a home create theatre venues in whatever space central Pennsylvania can provide: a one-room school…church…gristmill…parking garage.
There are also numerous theatre companies without a permanent home but creative in finding venues in which to perform. And then there are the myriad of high schools and colleges in the capital region producing stellar musicals each spring to bring the music of Broadway to central Pennsylvania. I believe some acting and vocal talent in this area rivals what I have seen in NYC.
Which brings us to the pandemic and the fate of these beloved theatres and talented actors. To keep patrons safe, all central PA theatres closed their doors—halting sold-out shows and area premieres of two critically acclaimed Broadway plays: Casa Valentina and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
But one theatre in particular, Open Stage, bravely took a different route. The producing artistic director re-configured its production (in rehearsal) of Angels in America—both parts, Millenium Approaches and Perestroika—for a Zoom! Yes. For any-dollar donation to Open Stage, a patron was treated to a front-row seat of theatre magic. The brilliant production spanned close to twelve hours over six evenings with talkbacks.
Local playwrights are engaging the talents of actors to put voice to their words via Zoom. PAPA—referenced in the first paragraph—has embraced Zoom for its monthly critique meetings. The playwrights have also embraced Zoom for PAPA’s annual August production of short plays for Mt. Gretna to keep both actors and audience healthy.
PAPA members have been busy with other Zoom productions as well. In May, short plays by three PAPA playwrights were featured in “Virtual Play Ground,” an afternoon of theatre emanating from Frederick, Maryland. Two playwrights will have ten-minute plays performed in July as part of DG Footlights in Philadelphia. One member crafted a play specifically for Zoom and has signed a publishing contract.
And as I write, I can hear keyboards clacking away to meet the just-announced August 23 deadline for one-act play submissions to the Harrisburg Area Community College for its New Works Festival, open to all PA playwrights. The hills (and valleys and fields of central Pennsylvania) are alive with the sound of playwright creativity.