Amid the present pandemic’s frightful statistics and sheltering mandates; amid the face masks, six-foot intervals, empty shelves, and eager Zoom offerings; amid the panic, financial hardship, and all that anxiety, it’s hard and not a little sad to recall that we did, indeed, have a theatrical season here in Southern California, B.C. – Before Covid – and it was full of sparkling, compelling work, including a number of world premieres, that wowed civilians and dramatists alike.
Among the notable world premieres that our fellow scriveners loved: Mama Metal, a Humanitas-developed, meta-theatrical comedy by Sigrid Gilmer at IAMA Theatre Company (at Atwood Village Theatre). “This play made me laugh out loud, said MILDRED LEWIS, whose own play Dedications was slated – B.C. – for the Company of Angels’ 2020 Los Angeles Short Play Festival – It’s all ReLAtional. “I love comedy that goes there,” said Lewis. “And Gilmer’s play is a much-needed addition to the mother/daughter canon from a unique African American perspective.” DIANA BURBANO, whose Fabulous Monsters was postponed at Playwrights Arena, agreed. “I really rocked to Mama Metal. I love watching women work outside comfortable norms, challenging the viewer and making them uncomfortable,” said Burbano, who also applauded Las Mujeres Del Mar (The Women of the Sea) by Janine Salinas Schoenberg at Playwrights Arena. The Spanish Prayer Book by ANGELA J. DAVIS at The Road Theatre Company topped VINCENT TERRELL DURHAM’s list of the season’s best world premieres. Durham had followed the play from its inception at Antaeus Playwrights Lab to a reading at The Road, then on to a full production at the latter. “It was inspiring to see a theatre company have faith in a new work by a fellow Southern California playwright and put all their resources behind it,” said Durham, whose own play The Fertile River, was selected, B.C., to be part of the 2020 Great Plains Theatre Conference. “This was my very first invite to a theatre conference. The bright side is that the invites will be carried over to 2021.” JENNIE WEBB, co-founder of the Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative (LAFPI), had nothing but love for E.M. LEWIS’s How the Light Gets In at Pasadena’s Boston Court, calling the play “amazing and surprising.” “The production was so gorgeous and, at the same time, really simple,” said Webb. JONATHAN JOSEPHSON, whose adaptation of Randy Newman’s Faust: The Concert at the Soraya Center for the Performing Arts was postponed due to COVID-19, also had special praise for Lewis’s play, calling it “life-affirming, positive without being preachy, hilarious and heartbreaking.” “I admire all of Ellen’s stuff, but this was a truly special play and production,” said Josephson, adding, “My wife (a chemist and tough critic) was there, and she loved it, too.” Lewis’s Apple Season also had a glowing run at Moving Arts, one of only two NNPN Rolling World Premiere productions in LA last season. (The second, Herland by Grace McLeod, ran at the Greenway Court Theatre.) Lewis’s twin productions “showed the diversity of her work and how two theatres approached new works in a supportive way with imaginative technical and design choices,” said JEANETTE FARR-HARKINS. ALEX ALPHARAOH was moved by Christine Hamilton-Schmidt’s Charlotte Stay Close at Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA. Alpharaoh’s O-Dogg: An Angeleno Take on Othello, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy set in 1992, during the Los Angeles Riots, was on the runway at EST/LA, B.C. ALETA BARTHELL loved San Diego Rep’s production of HERBERT SIGÜENZA’s Bad Hombres/Good Wives, a loose, unapologetically riotous adaptation of Molière’s The School for Wives. “This was such a fun show that brought together two cultures in a joyous way,” said Barthell, whose play Window of Shame is a finalist for the National Playwrights Conference at the O’Neill Theater Center, to be held online this year. THELMA DE CASTRO hailed the musical 33 1/3 House of Dreams by JONATHAN ROSENBERG and Stan Ross, also at San Diego Rep. The musical, about LA’s legendary Gold Star Recording Studios, producer of more than 100 Top 40 hits from the 1950s through the 1970s, reportedly set a revenue record for musicals produced at the downtown theatre. “This play literally rocked me!” said De Castro. “It’s the story of Stan Ross’s father, Bob Ross, who produced hits such as ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling’ and ‘La Bamba’ that we all treasure. Stan, Jonathan’s dentist, mentioned to Jonathan that he had a story, and the two of them persevered to get this outstanding show produced.”
And then came COVID-19, halting the season, sending writers and producers alike scrambling, nervous but hopeful, to retool for an online environment. Arising from the ashes was a patchwork of Zoom readings, panels, productions and classes. First out the virtual gate (by this writer’s reckoning) was Breath of Fire Latina Theater Ensemble, based in downtown Santa Ana, the corazón of Orange County, with an experimental reading of DIANA BURBANO’s Sapience on March 17, less than a week following the formal closure of theatres such as South Coast Rep, where Burbano is a teaching artist. Having achieved liftoff, Breath of Fire then turned around to help other writers and companies online, sharing freely what they’d learned.
“Our mission, as a theatre company, is to support the work and enrich the lives of Latinas in the visual and performing arts,” said Burbano, who serves as the ensemble’s literary manager. “But when we saw how much the community needed to communicate, and how hard the learning curve was for some, we expanded our outreach and opened it up for others to use as a platform. We learned how resourceful we can be.”
The launch to an online environment, however, was not within bumps. Breath of Fire had takeaways, which they promptly shared. Veteran stage actors, who’d never worked online before, had to become acquainted with the platform and its limitations. Rehearsal and discussion prior to a reading—often done cold—were key to making the medium work. Small rewrites clarifying and bridging the text for Zoom or Facebook were invaluable.
“We are not creating film or TV, [the] online [platform] is our stage,” said Burbano. “You lose intimacy when you have the barrier of a screen. This makes it harder to assess the temperature of the room, and it gets complicated when you are of a collaborative nature. We learned to digest the lessons and move on, remembering that perfect is the enemy of the good.”
Still admittedly in “freefall,” theatre companies small, medium and large are pivoting online, reaching out to audiences, artists and donors, talking, connecting, engaging and trying to keep utmost in mind that happy endpoint when we all, once again, will find ourselves in the room together.
“A personal philosophy of mine as an artist is to tell the truth with love, so we have to talk about the very strange time we’re in, and we have to talk about what’s next,” said JESSICA KUBZANSKY, artistic director of Boston Court, at a recent colloquium organized by Center Theatre Group. “We’ve labeled it ‘the unpredictability of everything’ because there’s so much that we don’t know. The gift of the pandemic is that I’ve been in many virtual cities, seeing many virtual productions in the last three weeks, and I’ve been very impressed. . . . [But] I, too, long for us to be back live.”
One of the central questions for Boston Court, said Kubzansky, is “how do we continue to be us when we’re connecting in a way that, generally speaking, we have not done before.”
Writers, too, are in that question: How do we connect in this new, more remote medium? What stories, amid the pandemic, do folks most want to see and hear, and what will they most desire when the all-clear is sounded? Some scribes have flung themselves headlong into Zoom readings, furiously creating new work for a new platform; others are using any spare time to read and reflect, knowing the curtain, as it always has, will rise again.
In this new landscape, the Geffen Playhouse is now, more than ever, reaching out to alumni artists to create new content, said Matt Shankman, the Geffen’s artistic director. “We want to see how we can use this new proscenium to create an intimacy and a communal experience: How do we use what we’ve got, to do what we all love to do, which is to put on a show.” Danny Feldman, artistic director of the Pasadena Playhouse, is huddling with writers, too. “I’m talking to artists, trying to see the world through their lens. If we’re going to be in an intermission period with regard to being together in a room, I’m less interested in what I want and more interested in what they are thinking about with the tools they have and the stories they want to tell,” said Feldman.
People will want heart, said Michael A. Shepperd, artistic director of Celebration Theatre. “I was talking to a group of playwrights last night and asking, ‘what will the world want to see when all of this is over?’ We all came down to ‘love stories,’ stories of connection, of getting together, that go to something very basic,” he said.
And while revenues streams, in the short term, have shriveled, new audiences are emerging for intrepid theatre companies that dare to think outside the box. “We launched ZoomFest, our on-going series of original virtual plays written for and set in Zoom. We’ve attracted new audiences (who are donating from all over the country) and viewers from around the world,” said Jennifer Eve Thorn, Artistic Director of Moxie Theatre. “This is inspiring us to think about the way we can continue to reach people even after the stay-at-home orders are lifted and about how theatre becomes more accessible when all you need is the Internet.”
Another central question, said Snehal Desai, producing artistic director of East West Players, is how to keep everyone—audiences and artists alike—safe. “Showing up will be a political act when we can show up at theatres [again],” said Desai. “Initially, people are going to be risking their lives, to a certain extent, and we’re going to be on the line, trying to create a safe environment for everyone.”
Added Kubzansky, “People have been predicting the death of theatre for 100 years, and so far, they’ve been wrong. Great stories are always great stories. I have true faith that we will continue, one way or another.”