The arts have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and theater and dance groups are no exception. Not only have the lockdowns been financially problematic for local theaters, but the very heart and soul of live theater is also facing a precarious future. The reason we go to the theater is to be in a space where we live and breathe both with our fellow audience members and with the artists themselves. In a world of social distancing, that type of artistic communion is impossible.
Theaters are doing what they can to fight back against the imposition of the pandemic, but not many are taking the opportunity to produce entirely new works.
Danielle Georgiou Dance Group, in collaboration with Undermain Theatre, is the exception. Danielle Georgiou and Justin Locklear are producing a new work that combines theater, film, dance and music called The Savage Seconds, which will stream through Undermain Theatre between June 4-10. Tickets are already available.
It was a show they’ve been planning with Undermain since September, when Georgiou was hired as associate artistic director, as a way to unite the aesthetics of DGDG and Undermain. Although the production has only been concretely underway since last fall, the story has been with Georgiou and Locklear for five years — there just hasn’t been a good enough time to produce it. Something comes up every time they get the gears moving.
“Finally, when we have a chance to tell it, the whole world explodes,” Georgiou says .
DGDG isn’t letting the arrival of a global pandemic stop them from sharing this story. Instead, they’re adapting it to reflect the universality of our current situation. Before COVID-19, The Savage Seconds was about a powerful family dealing with loss, grief and the struggle to communicate. Now, it’s about the same thing, but there’s a great plague thrown into the mix.
The Savage Seconds presents an archetypal family, with characters named Father, Step-Mother, Eldest Child, Middle Child and Baby. The story focuses on Baby, who is approaching a significant point in her life where she pledges her purity and her loyalty to the family. This is put on hold because of a sudden pandemic, leaving Baby alone to learn how one should perceive the world and its events.
“It’s called ‘The Savage Seconds’ because it describes the moment in between innocence and experience,” Locklear says.
In a sense, we’re all undergoing the seconds between innocence and experience. None of us have lived through a global pandemic before, and every one of us is having to learn how to deal with it. At the same time, our own personal and familial struggles carry on in spite of social distancing.
Social distancing is certainly interfering in our personal lives. But how does one manage to produce a play, even one that will be streamed online, within the parameters of social distancing? Before they started producing The Savage Seconds, DGDG didn’t know any better than the rest of us.
“Every day is a laboratory experiment,” says Georgiou.
That means the actual filming process requires creativity, not to mention the editing process. Characters having a conversation are shot separately and edited together; the chorus, a traditionally close-knit group onstage, will have to be united through movie magic. The main goal for filming and editing is to achieve a performance that feels intimate, even though every member of the cast and crew has to maintain 6 feet of distance from each other.
But in the theater world, intimacy isn’t restricted to the people on the stage. Especially for DGDG, interaction with the audience is crucial to every performance. That’s the most difficult part of maintaining a theater presence online. Even the most intimate theater production will feel like any other Netflix show. DGDG is finding creative ways to maintain the intimacy their productions are known.
The Savage Seconds has already expanded beyond the virtual stage: Locklear and Georgiou have created an interactive website for audience members to explore before, during and after the show. The website is a beautiful and haunting Easter egg hunt. As you discover new pages of the site, you encounter various characters from the show and otherwise unrevealed aspects of the story. This interactive element helps bridge the gap between live theater and film.
“There’s that nuance and intimacy of being in a room with people that are breathing, and there’s an interactivity of trying to figure out and decode what you’re watching,” Locklear says. “With film there’s not a lot of that. With the website, people can really engage their imagination and see how much they can find about the story.”
DGDG even brings in audience participation. They've shared a choreography tutorial from the show, asking anyone and everyone to share a video of themselves performing the dance. Videos submitted by May 25 will be included in the show itself. This both allows audience members to be directly involved with the show and lets DGDG produce a huge dance party scene without breaking the mandates of social distancing.
Planning a show in this situation requires constant communication with cast and crew, innovation and an unending amount of flexibility. Every day, a new challenge comes up and the show has to alter its course in some way. To each new problem, DGDG responds with a new plan.
“We’re basically on plan J right now. But we still have more letters in the alphabet,” says Georgiou.
Long-term plans require flexibility, as well. Nobody knows what state theater will be in next fall or even next year. It’s a sad place to be in for people who love attending theater and a terrifying place to be in for people whose livelihoods depend on theater. By embracing the challenges of creating theater and film in the middle of a pandemic, DGDG is confirming an age-old pattern: theater always prevails.
“If you look back through the history of theater, you will find times when theater was outlawed, when theater was super passé, when the idea of competing with the current technology seemed foolhardy," Locklear says. "I think you’ll find that people need it more than they know."
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