Fall Arts 2020 - Theater
The current status of Atlanta's Theater scene during the global pandemic.
“Before we knew the severity of the novel coronavirus, we lowered the seating capacity for our space,” says Corey L. Smith, director of sales and marketing for Actor’s Express. “We also encouraged audiences to do what’s best for them and understood they may opt-out of attending our performances.”
On March 17, Actor’s Express closed its offices, effectively canceling 32 performances scheduled for the 2020 season. Pivoting to virtual events, Actor’s Express launched Virtual Threshold New Play Festival, an online program focused mostly on Atlanta- and Georgia-based writers who are making a mark on the national scene.
“Actor’s Express hopes to resume programming when it’s safe and healthy to do so,” Smith says. “We plan to follow the Center for Disease Control guidelines and other standards set by theater governing organizations.”
On March 13, the Alliance Theatre announced the suspension of all remaining performances in its 2019/20 season, as well as select programming and special events. In late July came news of the Alliance Theatre’s reopening plans and the production schedule for the 2020/21 season.
The Woodruff Center-based nonprofit theater company’s 52nd season will begin in November with the world premiere of A Very Terry Christmas, a one-woman holiday show featuring Broadway star Terry Burrell (Ethel; Angry, Raucous, and Shamelessly Gorgeous). The Alliance then presents “a reimagined drive-in version” of A Christmas Carol. Staged as a live radio play, the production features a cast of eight actors playing all the roles accompanied by a Foley sound-effects artist, giving audiences a peek behind the curtain into the play-making magic.
In February 2021 the Alliance Theatre will produce a new staging of The New Black Play Fest’s Hands Up: 7 Playwrights, 7 Testaments. Co-directed by Spelman professor Keith Arthur Bolden and Spelman alumna and Alliance Spelman Fellow Alexis Woodard. Hands Up depicts the realities of Black America from the perspective of varying genders, sexual orientations, skin tones, and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Next spring, in April 2021, the Alliance will present the world premiere musical Accidental Heroes: The Real Life Adventures of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. The production features a book by Academy Award winner Marshall Brickman (Annie Hall, Manhattan, Jersey Boys), an original score by Academy Award- and Grammy Award-winner T Bone Burnett (Crazy Heart, Walk The Line), and direction by two-time Tony Award-winner Des McAnuff (Ain’t Too Proud, Jersey Boys, The Who’s Tommy).
“Theater continues to be a necessary town square for essential conversations and a balm for our souls” said Susan V. Booth, Jennings Hertz Artistic Director of the Alliance Theatre, in a press release. “Even in a pandemic, and in deep and necessary civic unrest, still we are human. Still we love, we grieve, we rage, and we commune with friends and family — okay, maybe via Zoom, but still.”
In lieu of live performances in front of an audience, the Alliance is launching Alliance Theatre Anywhere, a streaming platform, which will deliver shows and exclusive content on demand. Subscribing members will receive complementary access to the platform while nonmembers can enjoy access to select free and paid content.
In March, the Alliance joined the Atlanta Ballet and The Atlanta Opera in switching over the company’s costuming department to the production of personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline health workers. At the time, 18 full-time artists and 27 part-time and volunteer staff working from home were reportedly delivering approximately 500 gowns per week. The initiative ended in June. The balance of the masks are for sale on the Alliance Theatre website and are being distributed to groups, including the Georgia Assembly.
Producing Artistic Director
“We were in the middle of a record-breaking On Your Feet engagement when COVID started, but there was no question we had to do our part to help protect the community,” said Aurora Theatre co-founder and producing artistic director Anthony Rodriguez. On March 16, the theater company in Lawrenceville founded in 1996 temporarily closed its doors.
Since then, Aurora Theatre has launched a digital series to showcase talented artists and offer free online activities, such as Cody’s Crafting Corner, Aurora Storytime, and Friday Funday, across multiple platforms. Cyber Stage, a play production series with work designed and adapted for virtual Zoom settings, features professional actors who are alumni of the Aurora Apprentice program.
Aurora Theatre transitioned its summer camps to digital form. Teaching artists hosted sessions for budding actors in grades K-12. All digital campers received a Summer Camp Box, which included goodies and materials for class.
“We have two performance venues and we have cleared seating arrangements in the smaller theater, creating an environment to capture performances on film,” says associate producer Ann-Carol Pence. The prerecorded performances will be offered as a pay-per-view option.
Aurora is talking to local partners about hosting pop-up events in the open air where artists and patrons will feel safe. Beyond programs sparked by the COVID crisis, the company’s strategic plan includes moving forward with making the Lawrenceville Performing Arts Center (LPAC) the company’s soon-to-be expanded home.
“This partnership between a nonprofit arts organization and the city of Lawrenceville will serve as a model for other cities,” Rodriguez says. “We must invest in the foundation of the arts together, so that the arts can continue to serve as the heartbeat of local communities.”
During the first few weeks of March, Dad’s Garage started limiting the number of seats sold for events and canceling the standard second show of the evening. By March 20, the company realized it could not stay open and follow CDC guidelines for large groups. March 23 marked the debut of the digital incarnation of Dad’s Garage on Twitch (twitch.tv/dadsgarageatl), which now includes some 30 hours of live-streamed content weekly, all online for free.
“At first we thought it would be fun to broadcast recordings of shows from our archives during the Friday and Saturday primetime hours,” says communications director Matt Terrell. “It was a lot of fun to live chat with the creators of these shows, and fans got to revisit shows they loved. By June, we ran out of shows from our archive to broadcast.”
Evidently, generating original programming is no problem for the Dad’s Garage mechanics. The Twitch schedule lineup includes children’s shows, singing lessons with an opera coach, and a weekly improv soap opera titled “SCANDAL! League of Supervillains,” which features “super bad guys taking over the world one Zoom meeting at a time.”
During the shutdown, like so many cooped-up souls, Dad’s Garage staff jumped on long put-off home improvement projects. The building in Inman Park has a new roof. The parking lot is restriped. A new wheelchair ramp was installed. Interiors were repainted, exterior walls power washed, and every prop and costume found its place. When it reopens, Dad’s Garage will have top-of-the-line sanitation features including touchless sinks and toilets and an air purification system that removes viruses and other airborne pathogens.
“We will reopen when we reach Phase 5 in the mayor’s plan for reopening the city,” says Terrell. “This is all based on a set number of weeks of declining infections. We are preparing for that to happen in 2021. Even at Phase 5, we will likely have some forms of measures including social distancing in our seating area and building, mask wearing, and touchless payment. We expect that we will be open in a limited capacity (maybe capping ticket sales under 50 seats) in the early phases.”
Co-Artistic Producing Director
“We were thrilled that we were able to complete the full run of our sold-out production of the musical Once before the shut-down happened,” says Lisa Adler, co-artistic producing director of Horizon Theatre. “We were in final rehearsals for the two-person show, The Light, by Loy Webb, starring Enoch King and Cynthia D. Barker, when the city of Atlanta issued its stay-at-home order and restricted gatherings of any size.”
Following the postponement of the remainder of the season’s productions, Horizon turned its energy toward creating content for “Horizon At Home,” an online program that includes “sneak peeks” at upcoming shows.
“In the first virtual Sneak Peek, we performed live at the theater, since up to 10 people were officially allowed to gather,” Adler says. “The production was live-streamed on Facebook and drew a large audience.”
At present, Horizon at Home programming includes On the Horizon Plays, live-streaming performances of outstanding contemporary plays performed on Zoom (August dates TBA); New South Play Festival, a showcase for new full-length plays and shorter pieces by writers from the South, women, and writers of color; Artist Online Shows featuring Horizon artists doing their own things including Cooking À la Lala, a weekly cooking show with Horizon actress Lala Cochran; and Next Generation, which showcased the work of winners of Horizon’s first virtual New South Young Playwrights Festival. Under consideration for the fall and winter seasons are one-person or two-person shows performed either live in the Horizon Theatre in Little Five Points or outdoors with social distanced seating.
“We are monitoring the COVID situation and putting together health and safety plans,” Adler says.
Changes planned for the theater include increased sanitation, temperature checks and health questionnaires for all guests and staff, HVAC filtration upgrades, plastic barriers in the box office and concessions areas, masks required for audience and staff, social distanced seating, and no-touch ticketing and restroom areas.
“Restrictions always birth creativity,” says Adler. “We are exploring all the possibilities for taking our theater storytelling tools into other mediums and locations. Zoom theater, filmed plays, livestream audience interaction, online shows, podcasts, and outdoor performances are all fair game … If the actor’s union begins allowing digital broadcasts of our work (right now they don’t, or they make it prohibitively expensive), we will have new ways to reach audiences who can’t go to our theaters. This can give access to people who are homebound, elderly, tied to family responsibilities, limited in income, or too far away.”
Echoing the thinking of many in the theater community, Adler sees opportunity within the challenge presented by the coronavirus crisis. “Live theater is a special, magical event, and I would love for there to be a post-COVID renaissance for live performance,” she says.
“But the biggest, world-changing event of this COVID time has been the concurrent revolution in racial equity and the call for a new theatrical landscape, which prioritizes and lifts the voices of Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC),” Adler asserts. “A nationwide rallying cry for change won’t be ignored. Audiences will be brought into this process as programming for the next year rolls out. At Horizon, we are hoping to see a truly new normal at many theaters.”
“We had just closed our spring production, School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play by Jocelyn Bioh, on March 8, so we were fortunate in that we were able to avoid expenses that were not offset by ticket revenue,” says Chandra Stephens-Albright, managing director of Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company.
The company’s immediate response following the closure was to cancel a free Spring Play Reading Series scheduled for April and reconfigure a national education program, the August Wilson Monologue Competition National Finals, as a virtual experience in early May. Consequently, rather than traveling together to New York for a weekend of master classes, shows, camaraderie, and competition, 28 finalists from around the country got to know each over the course of a two-day Zoom event. One summer production, Marie and Rosetta by George Brant, was canceled.
“As COVID was not the only crisis that we have suffered as a nation, we made space for artists to respond to Black Lives Matter through our #RealResponses campaign on social media,” adds Stephens-Albright.
Currently, Kenny Leon’s True Colors plans on concluding “She Griots,” an annual series of productions by women playwrights, storytellers, historians, and leaders of multiple generations “as soon as we are able to get back on stage under safe conditions for our artists, crew, staff, and patrons.”
In the meantime, the company launched a weekly podcast hosted by artistic director Jamil Jude, featuring artists, staff members, directors, activists, and community leaders. Kenny’s True Colors is one of several theater companies participating in a project with the Emory School of Nursing to develop theater-specific safety protocols. The company is also taking part in a national audience survey by WolfBrown, which gauges audience readiness to return to live theater productions and under what conditions.
“Now is the time for us to closely examine our mission, purpose, and aspirations at a high level so that we are ready to strike a path forward when conditions allow,” Stephens-Albright says. “We have relationships with the community that span the 17 years in which we have been producing, and our roots in Atlanta’s Black theater community run deeper than that. We have a legacy to honor, and planning for the future is the best way to do so.”
“In early March, we canceled upcoming workshops and other group gatherings,” says Tim Habeger, co-founder and artistic director of PushPush. “About three weeks after that we canceled our summer camp in the new space [in College Park].”
Nevertheless, PushPush continues with the company’s core activities, which are project development, artists’ development, and incubating new work. A series of outdoor film screenings is in the works. A socially-distant outdoor artists market is scheduled for August 15-16. The company is also in rehearsals for two shows in the fall.
“We are exploring some innovative ways to handle these in a socially distant way, from pods and screens to drive-in situations where the performance takes place around, over, and even on the cars,” Habeger says. “We have the room now, and we are always exploring new ways to tell new stories.”
On August 8, Waller’s Coffee in Decatur will host an outdoor reading from JD Hollingsworth’s novel, Frankenstein’s Paradox. In September, PushPush plans on presenting Sounds Like Rain, a “movie-play” written pre-COVID by Dad’s Garage founding member Brian Griffin. Described by Habeger as a “dark comedy about a world where social distancing is the only possibility,” seating for Sounds Like Rain will be limited to 15-20 seats per night. The audience will sit in special viewing pods 15 feet apart from each other and 20 feet from the production.
In October/November, PushPush will present Elephant in the Room, a new play by Atlanta’s Sahr Ngaujah (Fela!, Moulin Rouge) and Jean Marie Keevins (Henson Foundation). The performance will be staged outdoors in the Infinite Games Art Park on the PushPush Arts campus. This special event will consist of short scenes incorporating puppetry, live action, and music, not the full production of Elephant in the Room, which is scheduled for 2021.
“Our 5-year plan ends this year, having accomplished our key goal of finding a new venue with trusted partners on the MARTA line last October,” Habeger says. “Now that a recession and worse is upon us, and ongoing racial disparities have been brought into greater focus, we are calling our response ‘Post-COVID Recovery Planning (Arts Crisis Recovery Plan).’ It’s based on a very long-term period of struggle in the live arts communities where we have an opportunity to rebuild better by addressing Atlanta’s crippling divisions.“
“The short of it is, we shut down immediately, having just started rehearsals for Betties and having one of our renters close mid-run,” says Mack Headrick, managing director of 7 Stages in Little Five Points.
7 Stages runs a summer youth program for teens, “Youth Creates,” in partnership with a theater in Holland. When the program switched to the new virtual reality imposed by COVID-19, Headrick was struck by a remarkable difference.
“The Dutch interact with our students by projecting our Zoom on the big screen in the theater while they share the same physical space,” he says. “It’s a daily reminder of how bad [the United States] screwed it up and what could or should be.”
Headrick does not anticipate opening to the public until 2021. “That could change if numbers start to go back down, but I am not holding my breath,” he says.
This fall, 7 Stages will offer a number of virtual works currently in progress and is looking to partner with area schools as part of the NEA “Big Read” project, which could provide some relief to overburdened teachers and parents. A series of four productions were submitted for grant funding to the Fulton County Arts Council (FCAC) under its “Virtual Arts initiative.”
“We hope to hear about that soon, but those projects are more or less penciled in,” Headrick says. “We’re pretty sure they’ll happen in some form regardless of FCAC funding.”
Looking expansively toward the future, Headrick thinks “the way we make theater in this country is broken. While public support is always going to be a major factor, there are better models out there. This notion of spending all those resources and all that time to get a show on its feet and run for a few weeks only to throw it all away is absurd. I am interested in developing deeper relationships with partner performance companies through which we create a group of co-productions.”
Headrick envisions three or four companies mounting their own shows, then hosting their fellow productions as a tour. “There are lots of things to work through,” he says. “I just know there has to be a better way from a financial, environmental, and social perspective.”
Producing Artistic Director
Synchronicity’s last public performance of Wayfinding, a new play by Whitney Rowland, was on Sunday, March 15. The rest of the play’s run was broadcast online until the end of April. On Monday, March 16, the staff met as a group for the last time.
“Since then, we have been working almost entirely remotely or, when accessing our work spaces, we exercise social distancing with masks,” says producing artistic director Rachel May.
In April, Synchronicity released an archival video of the Family Series production of Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds for online viewing. The company has produced the regular online “Synchro Happy Hour,” during which plays are read online and discussed over a glass of wine. Online teaching and education opportunities include Playmaking for Kids Summer Camps (June and July) and Playmaking for Girls Summer Workshops (July 6-11). A Women in the Arts and Business Luncheon was turned into a virtual panel with over 100 viewers who enjoyed lunch and a bottle of Prosecco delivered for a small charge, and an online silent auction.
An announcement regarding Synchronicity Theatre’s 2020/2021 season, which will be a combination of online, streamed, archival, and live performances, is expected in late July. The company is finalizing its health and safety procedures in association with a task force partnership between Emory’s nursing/public health program and the major theaters in town.
“We will be embarking on a new strategic planning process in the 2021 season, and that process will be impacted by COVID 19 experiences,” says May. “Every organization has to continue to create aspirational plans, outlining how they want to impact the community and do their work. But aspirations must be supported by logic and data, which allow the organization to pivot and innovate as circumstances allow.”
Responding to public safety concerns and published health guidelines regarding the coronavirus contagion, Theatrical Outfit officially closed its doors to patrons and staff on March 16, cutting short the run of the Tony Award-winning drama Indecent. Since that date, the company stage has remained dark while the staff works remotely from home. On Saturday, May 20, Theatrical Outfit held its annual gala as a fully virtual event across multiple social media platforms.
“While the specifics cannot be revealed just yet, the fall season will shift to focus on new work and the launch of Made in Atlanta, a brand new program dedicated to telling Atlanta’s stories,” offers marketing director Ryan Oliveti.
Theatrical Outfit hopes to present three mainstage productions in the 2020-21 season. Plans are underway to shift the beginning of the schedule to an online format while the spring schedule remains uncertain due to the pandemic.
“I believe that COVID will have an incredible impact on the arts scene, both in the United States and globally,” says Theatrical Outfit artistic director Matt Torney. “The extraordinary economic disruption, which will do irreparable harm to both artists and institutions, plus the combined impact of the pandemic and the BLM movement, are causing all of us to ask deep questions about the art we make, the role of art in our communities, and the systems upon which our work is built.”
Torney continues, “I believe that the theaters which will succeed post-COVID will be the ones that have engaged with issues of racial equity and gender parity, re-imagined how their work intersects with their cities and communities, and have reinvented how they use technology to engage with their patrons.”