Those of us still sheltering in place because of the pandemic are getting tired of the same old entertainment on streaming sites; those of us beginning to tentatively venture outside our houses are eager to find live entertainment in a socially distanced world. Artists, too, hunger to provide entertainment and insight to anxious audiences. The wellbeing of both their wallets and their souls depends upon their ability to provide artwork for people.
On 4th of July weekend, Disney+ opened the doors for mainstream theater to flood back into our lives; they released a filmed version of the Broadway hit Hamilton, and the arrival of the beloved musical quickly overtook social media. Undeniably great as Hamilton is, it doesn’t fill the hole that local theater has left in our hearts. If anything, it makes us realize how much we miss the availability of the rich local theater which is ordinarily so prevalent in Dallas. Thankfully, we don’t have to rely on corporate streaming services to get our theater fix. Dallas theater executives are working diligently to make theater available during a pandemic, and the coming weeks promise satisfaction to hungry theater makers and goers alike. There's a plethora of local theater options this month, including online shows, drive-in performances and even tentative in-person shows.
MainStage Irving-Las Colinas is one of the first theater companies in DFW to offer an in-person production this summer. From July 23-August 1, they are performing David Javerbaum’s An Act of God. They had initially planned on producing the musical Disaster!, which, though topically pertinent to our times, would have been impossible to produce while social distancing and maintaining a safe production environment.
“We looked at what show would have a small cast, and what show could be produced with blocking that would give the most social distancing for the actors on stage,” says Clayton Cunningham, president of the board of directors at MainStage. They settled on An Act of God, a play based on a book which is in turn based on the Twitter account.
Not only does An Act of God have a tiny three-member cast that allows for ample social distancing throughout both rehearsals and performances, it’s also an uproarious comedy intended to lighten COVID-darkened moods.
“For everything in the world that everyone is going through, we felt that there needed to be some laughter,” Cunningham says.
The play will be produced in the familiar style of a TED talk, with God herself (played by Sharon Etzel) speaking to the audience, flanked by archangels Michael (Eric Criner) and Gabriel (Alex Swanson).
“Everyone is really aching to return to some sort of normal pattern of behavior,” says Kass Prince, assistant executive director of operations and external programs at the Irving Arts Center. “We just wanted to make sure that this was the safest possible way to continue our missions.”
Normal patterns of theater-making and theater-going behavior are being adapted to the circumstances. For the cast and crew, that means having their temperatures taken when they show up for work, wearing a mask throughout rehearsals and keeping an eye on the 6 feet of social distancing. For audience members, it means adhering to the theater’s strict plan for safely getting into the theater, getting tickets (if you don’t print them out at home), and getting to a seat. Changing the behavior behind stage, on stage and in the audience is the price of keeping live theater alive during these times.
Although MainStage (as well as other productions with in-person performances) is enforcing stringent social distancing for audience members, many would-be theatergoers still prefer to stay at home. With just these people in mind, other theaters are doing what they can to provide alternative ways to see productions. It isn’t always an easy feat — publishing companies and the families of playwrights are sometimes reluctant to offer the rights to stream plays online. In the cases where it is possible, theaters are eager to make their productions available to those who can’t physically go to the theater.
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This month, two North Texas theaters are offering online shows. WaterTower Theatre is streaming a new production of I Am My Own Wife from July 16- August 2. The play is about the iconic Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a transgender woman who lived through 20th century Germany. In Fort Worth (not that spatial location matters for streaming-only shows), Amphibian Stage is producing The True History of the Tragic Life & Triumphant Death of Juliana Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World. This play is perfect for streaming at home, because it was written to be performed in complete darkness anyway. To mimic the theater experience, Amphibian Stage recommends on their website that audiences turn off their lights and cover their screens for the show.
For people who are eager to leave the house but aren’t willing to sit in a theater just yet, Prism Movement Theater is joining live theater and drive-in movies; their new "dance experience" Everything Will Be Fine is performed live in parking lots for audiences staying safe in their cars. Because of high demand, they’ve extended their original performance dates to include July 17-18 and 24-25.
“Man does not live by bread alone. We need the arts,” says Cunningham of MainStage Irving’s return to producing live shows.
Whether theater is being brought to us in our homes or made available for us to attend, Dallas is keeping the necessary food of the arts in stock.