Cover artwork of the Season in review 2020/21: A group of friends open a time capsule labelled 2020.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Philadelphia Season in Review 2020/21: Empty Stages, Full Schedules
Philadelphia Banner for Season in Review 2020/21
Artwork by Bekka Lindstrom, Drawings by Ian Sklarsky

Something new popped up in theatre advertising in Philly this past year. Suddenly, every postcard, email, and web ad contained the time zone. For the first time local performances were starting promptly at 8pm EST.

While theatre buildings were closed all across town, our theatrical productions were being seen all across the country. Like theatre artists everywhere, we embraced Zoom, learned to livestream, and became best friends with YouTube, Facebook Live, and even the postal service. The results gave us a theatre season that was as lively as it was different!

It also leveled the playing field. Now anyone who owned a laptop with a camera could present new work and bring it to ever-growing audiences. A great example is the Philadelphia Dramatists Center who presented a marathon weekend of new plays by its members as part of the Philadelphia Free Fringe, created an online evening of terror entitled The Witching Hour and presented a livestream evening of risqué plays entitled Talk Dirty to Me. They also began presenting full-length plays on Zoom through a program called The Long Read, which presents new works that have been developed at the PDC.

Similarly, Jouska Playworks, an ensemble of Black playwrights who have formed an alliance with Simpatico Theatre, created a showcase of their work that was livestreamed throughout February and March and ended with a weekend marathon of all the plays on March 27 and 28.

Philly’s DG Footlights™ expanded to meet the need to see new work and presented 30 plays throughout the season, bringing new audiences in from coast to coast, and included a City Swap with Knoxville, Tennessee.

While access to readings and productions expanded, fully-produced new works didn’t take a back seat. They came with surprising innovations, especially when it came to taking a fresh look at the classics.

The Phoenix Theatre production of Katrina Hall’s new adaptation of The Winter’s Tale turned Bohemia into a carnival and put the women in Shakespeare’s piece font and center, where Hall, the theatre’s 20/21 Virtual Artist in Residence, firmly believes they belong. The livestreamed production ran February 19, 20, and 21.

EgoPo Classic Theater is famous for outstanding interpretations of classic plays from all eras of theatre. But this year they ventured into something totally new with their world premiere production of Emily. Created by Breanna Geffers and designed by Natalia de la Torree, Emily is something we’ve never seen before: theatre by mail.  Every few days last October, audiences received a new correspondence from Emily that included personal objects and custom art designed for Emily to audiences as a radical thinker rather than a shy recluse.

The Wilma Theatre is ending the 2020-21 Season with Fat Ham by James Ijames which moves Hamlet to a Southern barbeque. It’s a witty take on the Bard’s tale where the only death is the patriarchy. Fat Ham is a filmed production that could be viewed anytime on demand during its run.

Don’t think the modern world was ignored as a subject for new work. Theatre Exile began their season with the world premiere of Jeremy Gaple’s D-Pad, which explores the world of independent gaming through the lens of a female developer, and isn’t there something meta about an online production of a play that explores the world of online gaming? Artistic Director Deborah Block said that the production did not “feel like a stage play that was unnaturally put behind a screen.”

Theatre students at Drexel University created a 24-episode web series that looked at who and what became essential during the unprecedented moments of 2020. Written entirely by the student members of the ensemble under the tutelage of playwright David Lee White, the series included episodes such as The Crosswalk Sound of Music, Funeral Director, Protect the Protestors, and Balloon Sculptor.

Radio plays also made a comeback in a big way.  The Arden Theatre adapted 74 Seconds…To Judgement, its 2019 world premiere by Kash Goins, into a radio play.  Germantown Radio teamed up with Dramatists Guild Member Caitlin Cieri to produce original works as part of their regular programming.

Philly Dramacast, a radio podcast produced by the Philadelphia Dramatists Center, has been working overtime, producing new plays by Keith Eckert, Bill Burrison, Sheila MacDonald, Charles Primerano, Gil Sokolow, Robin Rodriguez, Donna Stuccio, and Daniel Wolf. Interestingly, the playwright members of this organization have taught themselves the new skills they needed to take their plays to the airwaves, proving that not even a pandemic can keep us from getting our work in front of the public.

Even shows cancelled by the pandemic have found new life online. Last season, Stephanie Kyung Sun Walters’ play Esther Choi and the Fish that Drowned made the Kilroys List on the strength of a production that closed almost before it opened. In November of 2020, the Phoenix Theatre partnered with original producer Simpatico Theatre to present a live cast reading of the play. The event also included a chance to talk to the playwright about her work!

In Philly, like the rest of the country, our stages have been empty, but our theatre lives have been full. While we look forward to seeing our plays onstage this fall, we’ll never forget the innovative ways we found to see that new theatre continued to thrive against all odds.

 

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Marjorie Bicknell

holds an MA in Speech/Theatre from Northwestern University. Her plays have been published by Dramatic Publishing, Heartland Plays, and ARTemis Arts. She is the founder of the Playwrights Alliance of Pennsylvania (PAPA), president emeritus of Philadelphia Dramatists Center.