Cover artwork of the Season in review 2020/21: A group of friends open a time capsule labelled 2020.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
DC Season in Review 2020/21
  • Washington DC Banner for Season in Review 2020/21
    Artwork by Bekka Lindstrom, Drawings by Ian Sklarsky
  • Three Strangers Sitting Around a Backyard Firepit at Two in the Morning Listening to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, by Bob Bartlett
    Three Strangers Sitting Around a Backyard Firepit at Two in the Morning Listening to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, by Bob Bartlett. Produced in his back yard in Maryland. Photo courtesy of Bob Bartlett.

It was a cool November evening in Davidsonville, Maryland, just outside of DC. There were twelve of us surrounding a fire and three actors performing Bob Bartlett’s new play, Three Strangers Sitting Around a Backyard Firepit at Two in the Morning Listening to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska. Before we sat in a circle, there were furtive movements and occasional nervous conversations between audience members – six feet apart and properly masked. The pandemic was just entering its eighth month, and it felt like we had been apart from each other for years.

Nothing prepared me for the moment of actors speaking written words into the same air we were all breathing. I was concentrating and engaged, and my brain was working in a way it had almost forgotten. Bob Bartlett’s production in his backyard was a reminder of how precious this art form is. It also reminded us that theatre makers can’t be stopped by a pandemic and that in trying times, innovation perseveres.

“I wasn’t willing to go all of 2020 without theatre,” said Bartlett, “so I wrote a play that could be performed in my backyard for a socially distanced audience of a dozen or so… We presented [it] for a couple of weekends last fall with all revenue going to the cast and production team who were impacted by the shutdown of theatres.”

Innovation in form and relevance in content shaped the presentation of new work in the Washington DC area in the 2020/2021 season. New plays, in fact, flourished in these strange and unprecedented times. "Shepherding new play development has absolutely been the silver lining in this unusual season away from the theatre,” said Mosaic Theatre Literary Manager Chelsea Radigan. “A halt on in-person productions has helped us get back to basics about what artists need right now and to providing a supportive platform, where the text is the focus."

One of the first statements about the pandemic came from one of the largest theatres in the area, Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Maryland. Homebound, produced in May of last year, was a web series about the pandemic and episodes were written by local playwrights Alexandra Petri, Karen Zacarias, Farah Lawal Harris, Liz Maestri, Psalmayene 24, Tim J. Lord, Audrey Cefaly, Dani Stoller, Lady Dane Figueroa Edidi, and Caleen Sinnette Jennings. The company continued to support new work during the year and in January presented a digital world premiere of a new Adrienne Kennedy play, Etta and Ella on the Upper West Side. Later in the season they co-produced two digital world premieres: American Dreams by Leila Buck (coproduced with Working Theatre) and The Catastrophist by Lauren Gunderson (coproduced with Marin Theatre Company).

Arena Stage, one of the oldest regional theatres in America, has a long tradition of producing new American plays. Early in the year the company engaged local playwrights in two filmed monologue projects inspired by interviews with DC area residents. May 22, 2020 captured one day in the life of the radically changed lives during the COVID-19 pandemic. Playwrights included Audrey Cefaly, Annalisa Dias, Caleen Sinnette Jennings, Aaron Posner, Psalmayene 24, John Strand, Gregory Keng Strasser, Mary Hall Surface, Karen Zacarias, and me. The 51st State as inspired by the protests after the murder of George Floyd and the quest for the creation of the 51st state in Washington, D.C. Playwrights included Lady Dane Figueroa Edidi, Farah Lawal Harris, Caleen Sinnette Jennings, Teshonne Nicole Powell, Otis Cortez Ramsey-Zöe, Debra Kim Sivigny, Gregory Keng Strasser, Mary Hall Surface, Aria Velz, and Karen Zacarias. Other new play events at Arena Stage included their hosting online of The Flash Acts Festival featuring 40 new short plays by American and Russian theatre artists and Veterans Day 2020: an adaptation of War Words produced in collaboration with the Atlantic Council.

Woolly Mammoth Theatre, the four decades old national innovator in the development and production of new plays premiered This is who I Am by Amir Nizar Zuabi, a commission by Woolly Mammoth and co-produced by American Repertory Theater, The Guthrie Theater, and Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The play tells the story of an estranged father and son, separated by continents, who reunite over Zoom. From their respective kitchens in Ramallah and New York City, they recreate a cherished family recipe and struggle to bridge the gap between them, one ingredient at a time.

A home for new work and for making transformational, socially relevant art, Mosaic Theatre’s first two projects in the season were hybrid, digital presentations of world premiere plays. Alexandra Petri's Inherit the Windbag which was set to open just a couple days after the stay-at-home order went into effect, was turned into an innovative eight-part web series. The play dramatizes the televised Republican and Democratic Conventions of 1968 and the blistering nightly free-for-all between conservative pundit William F. Buckley and liberal author Gore Vidal. Dear Mapel by Psalmayene 24 was filmed in the DC restaurant Baby Wale where Natsu Onoda Power directed a filmed workshop of the play.

Theater J, the nation’s largest and most prominent Jewish theatre, is a home for world premieres and living playwrights. Though they didn't premiere any new work in this season, they remained busy in development: “Theater J has continued its commissioning program,” said Artistic Director Adam Immerwahr, “commissioning new adaptations and translations of works from the Yiddish theatre. Currently, Aaron Posner and Lila Rose Kaplan are under commission through this program.  We have also been developing new adaptions from Yiddish culture, including new plays by Renee Calarco and Rinne Groff."

Olney Theatre Center invested in their Vanguard Arts Fund, a program that supports creative teams on projects that involve multiple disciplines to create unique theatrical experiences. Two pieces were developed: The Joy that Carries You by Awa Sal Secka and Dani Stoller and directed and choreographed by Paige Hernandez, and I Am Rafiq, a one-person storytelling event with food, written by Joe Calarco, performed by Mohamad Alrifay, and directed by Kholoud Sawaf.

Rep Stage in Columbia, Maryland, premiered Lady Dane Figueroa Edidi's Ghost/Writer as a radio play in May 2021 and will produce a fully staged production of it in their 2021-22 season. The play is made up of two colliding narratives: an Irish immigrant in the 1920s who hires a Black woman from Baltimore to help exorcise ghosts, and a writer in 2019 who hires a ghost writer to help him through writer’s block. “I was thinking about the ghosts of this country, the history of this country and how it is really important … to deal with and confront the white supremacy and the colonization, etc.,” Edidi said. “You can’t write a play that takes place in those time periods and not deal with Black people having to deal with white supremacy.” Rep Stage also produced LOVE/language earlier in the spring, bringing together ten DC-area playwrights to write monologues about how love can help us connect and heal in a time when isolation and unrest affect our daily lives.

Theatre for Young Audiences continued to flourish in the Washington Area. Imagination Stage, a children’s theatre company with a dedication to creating new works and adaptations, created Spy Academy & the Lost Treasure of Atlantis, an online interactive spy adventure for five to ten-year-olds. “This was a supremely challenging year that truly tested our name—Imagination Stage,” said Producing Artistic Director Janet Stanford. “After discovering that live online was better than isolation, we used the opportunity to create an interactive show that combines filmed footage of a spy adventure with facilitated interaction by one amazing actor with a group of 15-20 households.” The immersive online experience was created by director Strother Gaines and playwright Douglas Robinson, in association with Leapfrog Productions. Adventure Theater MTC premiered a great deal of semi-produced digital readings of new works, including the musical Fantastigirl and the Math Monster by Tori Boutin and Madeline Belknap, Finding Christmas by Chil Kong, Spice of Life by Brandon Rashad Butts, and The Heartcracker Ballet by Margaret Gorman.

Theater Alliance, a company dedicated to creating to producing new work that is socially conscious and catalyst for innovation and diversity, presented two radical new works. A protest in eight digitally premiered in December eight short plays about legislative changes that will address the systemic oppression of Black folks in America. Topics such as defunding the police, reducing prison populations, and decriminalizing sex work were explored in new work by Roney Jones, Alric Davis, Savina Barini, Emmanuel Key, Kayla Parker, Tehya Merritt, Naima Randolph, and Carmin Wong. In April the company premiered a production City in Transition: The Quadrant Series, in which playwrights Khadijah Z. Ali-Coleman, Avery Collins, Shalom Omo-Osagie, and Leslie Scott-Jones were charged with unearthing their histories, exploring their current situations, and projecting their futures in the four quadrants of Washington, D.C.  From hip-hop battles to the nonprofit industrial complex, the performance was an interwoven narrative of the city as it is today.

Solas Nua, a bold company dedicated to presenting contemporary Irish arts, was one of the first theatres in Washington to present live theatre with the May 2021 premiere of In the Middle of the Fields by Deirdre Kinahan, performed in a park in Dupont Circle. Earlier in the season the company premiered The Emoji Play in October, co-created by local playwright Jeremy Keith Hunter and Irish playwright John King. The project utilized Zoom and WhatsApp to exchange text messages with the actors and audience throughout the performance.

Rorschach Theatre, a company dedicated to producing new works of magical realism and “impossible” theatre, created a season-long project called Distance Frequencies. Each month audiences received a new chapter in a box filled with artifacts such as letters, maps, and objects. They opened their boxes in curated outdoor locations around the city and experienced the narrative with the city as their backdrop. The project was created by Kylos Brannon, Roc Lee, Tosin Olufolabi, Douglas Robinson, Debra Kim Sivigny, and Jonelle Walker as well as co-Artistic Directors Jenny McConnell Frederick and me.

The Welders, a playwrights Collective designed to collaboratively produce one play by each member, and then hand the entire organization off to a new cohort when that has been accomplished, began their third generation with a new cohort of playwrights: Cat Frost, Farah Lawal Harris, Teshonne Powell, Sisi Reid, JR Russ, and Jared Shamberger. Though their productions were on hold during the pandemic they are poised to take the area by storm with their first production, Jared Shamburger’s The B-word.

Other new play projects took place such as the company Nu Sass’s Backyard Arts which brought performances to back yards across the area of White-ish by Deidre Staples, Wombat Drool by David S. Kessler, and The Lily Show by Lily Kerrigan, and Marx in Soho by Howard Zinn, performed by Mary Myers. Pointless Theatre began a new workshop incubator series between company members. Out of this grew the development of a new work by Rachel Menyuk, formatted as a series of digital vignettes based on interview recordings of her grandmother, who as a child escaped the Holocaust through the Swiss mountains. Spooky Action Theater expanded their “New Works in Action” in a big way and presented nine new works online. Prologue Theatre presented virtual readings of five new plays in their “Foreward” new works series. Finally, Rachel Hynes and Anastasia Wilson independently created and produced the innovative Love Story: A Meal in Five Courses, an interactive play in which audience members met on Zoom and were guided through a meal with thought-provoking questions about love, relationships, and intimacy.

Whether it was by sitting around a fire with twelve socially distanced audience members, travelling to different locations around Washington for an episodic immersive experience, or engaging with new forms of online content, Washington area theatres found innovative ways to support new work.

dc@dramatistsguild.com

 

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Randy Baker
Randy Baker

is a playwright, director, and the co-Artistic Director of Rorschach Theatre in Washington DC. In addition to Rorschach where he has directed numerous shows, he has directed at Source Theatre, WSC Avant Bard, Pointless Theatre, American University, Catholic University, Georgetown University, Imagination Stage, among others. Recent plays he has written include the productions of Forgotten Kingdoms at Rorschach Theatre, Rashômon at American University, and Wolves in the Lion City at Theatre Lab as well as workshops of The Burning Road at Arena Stage and Monastery at Theater J.