Cover of the March/April 2022 issue of The Dramatist
The Listening Party
  • Photo of The Listening Party audience at Contemporary American Theater Festival
    The Listening Party audience at Contemporary American Theater Festival. Photo by Seth Freeman.
  • Photo of The Listening Party at Contemporary American Theater Festival
    Question and answer session at Contemporary American Theater Festival's listening party. Photo by Seth Freeman.
  • Photo of The Listening Party at Contemporary American Theater Festival
    A full parking lot at Contemporary American Theater Festival's listening party. Photo by Seth Freeman.

It was a warm July night in a parking lot in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Multicolored lights from dozens of LED headphones glittered in the darkness. It looked like a silent rave from the distance, minus a DJ on the 1s and 2s.

The crowd had come out and donned headphones to listen to the audiocast of my play The House of the Negro Insane, produced by the Contemporary American Theater Festival. While the pandemic was still raging and most theatres were still shuttered, CATF persevered, finding innovative ways to bring stories to the people.

To echo August Wilson, an audience is a community of people who gather willingly to bear witness. That sense of community was the biggest piece I missed in most pandemic theatre experiments. Watching Zoom readings and streamed performances on my laptop didn’t come close to delivering the excitement I feel when artists and audiences experience a story, in-the-moment, communally.

My play was originally slated to premiere at CATF’s 2020 festival, until the world went into lockdown and the production was postponed. It was a heartbreak that many other playwrights and theatre artists suffered that year—and many continue to suffer. As productions across the country shut down for the foreseeable future, so did my momentum, my opportunity, and my inspiration. I stopped writing plays. As COVID spiked and anti-vaxxers surged, it felt futile to create for an art form in stasis. Fortunately for me, CATF had no intention of surrendering completely.

In 2021, CATF Founder Ed Herendeen proposed a crazy cool idea: they would produce The House of the Negro Insane—along with Kevin Artigue’s Sheepdog, another festival selection—as an audiocast. CATF production manager Trent Kugler wrangled the cast and crew into a recording studio in New York. Director Tamilla Woodard and sound designer Sharath Patel worked their magic behind plexiglass and facemasks to weave together heartfelt performances and soundscapes.

CATF was not content with simply distributing the audiocast on BroadwayonDemand. Associate Producing Director (now Producing Artistic Director) Peggy McKowen wanted to reconnect the CATF audience and the Shepherdstown community to the art by throwing listening parties for each of the plays. On the night of the audiocast launch, a diverse West Virginia crowd enjoyed dinner and drinks at tables set up in the parking lot of the Marinoff Theater before slipping on wireless headphones and listening to my play.

The technical elements of the event went off without a glitch (at least to this oblivious playwright), but the most memorable parts were the theatre things: hearing the laughs, gasps, and murmurs from the nearby tables in real time; catching fragments of conversations between folks, afterward, as they talked about the play at their table or on the way to their cars.

Through innovation, creative daring, and the willingness of so many incredible artists to jump in and swim in unknown waters, my play came into existence for audiences in a new and exciting way. On a plane back to Oakland, California the next day, I was inspired to do a thing I hadn’t done in over a year. I started writing a new play.

Photo of Terence Anthony
Terence Anthony

is a writer for theatre, TV, and comic books based in Los Angeles, CA. He is currently a staff writer on Bass Reeves, a series on Paramount+. The world premiere of his play The House of the Negro Insane at the Contemporary American Theater Festival is slated for July, 2022.