Suspension of disbelief

In an industry defined by live performance, theater companies get existential about their role as artists in the age of social distancing

Local Theater Company’s annual new play festival, Local Lab, was canceled the day it was set to launch.
Courtesy Local Theater Company

In late March, all 20 or so of the staff and associate artists on Local Theater Company’s team huddled together virtually on Zoom for the first time.

The fundamental questions were of the same brand that people all over the country — and world — were asking themselves, their family members, their friends: How are you? What do you need right now? 

But for the Local Theater team, there was a larger, unspoken, more existential question hovering like a specter during that first Zoom meeting, a question that Local and other community theater companies are still trying to answer. 

“The big conversation that’s happening I think in many theaters is when you take away our desire to assemble, or even just the art of assembly, the art of gathering people, what is our role as theater artists?” says Pesha Rudnik, Local’s founding artistic director. “And every theater is answering that differently.”

A recent article from Playbill listed a number of regional theaters (Chicago, London, Fort Myers, Florida) offering digital streams of performances, but the approach is varied. Some organizations are providing limited access to streams while others have no cap; some are free while others ask for a modest suggested donation, and still others charge fees that resemble live theater ticket prices. 

Throughout Boulder County, it would seem the first step for theater companies was simply staying connected with patrons.

Jesters Dinner Theatre in Longmont has opened the time capsule, sending daily newsletters with reviews, photos, playbills and other memories from performances past and encouraging patrons to consider the future by purchasing a gift card or making a tax-exempt donation. Others, like CenterStage in Louisville, are offering online classes and fundraising events (see page 27 for more on CenterStage’s virtual cabaret).

For Local Theater Company, that first Zoom huddle gave birth to a daily writing prompt for patrons called CO-Lab Daily. Every morning at 6 a.m., from March 30 to April 30, Local sends a creative prompt: write a six-word story; create a COVID-19 haiku; share something that people can’t know from simply looking at you; finish the dialog from this scene. People share text, videos, photos; there are no parameters on how much or in what form a person shares, nor is there a requirement to commit each day; “use it as you will,” Rudnick says.

“People are participating from all over the world,” Rudnick says. “There are people in London participating … from New York to Georgia to Chicago; it’s just wide-ranging. And that’s fun for us to look at how we’ve always felt, which is that all theater is local.”

The driving force behind CO-Lab is two-fold: human connection and creative expression. There’s no need to be a professional creative to engage in this endeavor. 

“It’s a truly democratic platform for anyone who wants to express themselves,” says Nick Chase, Local’s associate artistic director. “So what you’re seeing is just the word or the image or the sound that someone has created and we don’t necessarily know the person behind it, which makes it such a unique, interesting sort of patchwork.”

See it for yourself: You can scroll through the current responses now on Local’s website. The goal is to take some of the responses and “roll out a sort of presentational view” on social media, Rudnick says, though she’s not entirely sure how that will look just yet. There’s one response in particular — prompted by asking patrons to rant or rave about something that makes them passionate — that Rudnick can’t get out of her head. 

“You know who you are (or actually you don’t),” the response begins. “Reply = the single arrow at the top of the email. Reply to All = the double arrow at the top of the email. Look at your email right now. Go ahead. We’ll wait. See the difference? That difference is everything!” 

“I keep thinking about that as a short monologue or a soliloquy,” she says with a laugh. 

CO-Lab Daily seems to be the beginning of Local Theater Company reimagining itself and its relationship to the community. Despite the revenue loss and the inability to showcase work that the company had spent months preparing, Rudnick sees opportunity in the chaos.

“I understand [companies] who are stepping back and saying, ‘I don’t know what the role [of my theater company] is right now. Our job is to be in the business of assembly,’ and other people are saying, ‘Hey, let’s jump in and fill the time,’” she says. “There’s no right answer, but I know that for Local, not to sound scripted, but our mission is to produce new American plays. And to let that focus shift to our audience and recognize that they have stories to tell and to develop, it feels right to provide a platform for that on a daily basis … Why not let that be accessible to others?”

Sally Powell-Ashby, a longtime patron of Boulder’s theater scene, shares a joke for Local Theater Company’s CO-Lab Daily prompt. Local sends a prompt to your inbox at 6 a.m. each morning through April 30 as a way to connect, create and encourage during coronavirus-related closures.

Accessibility is one of the pleasant surprises our new online world offers. Sally Powell-Ashby has been participating in the CO-Lab Daily prompts and enjoys the chance to express herself. But an unexpected benefit to online gathering for Powell-Ashby has been the ability to hear it all.

“I am losing my hearing and so yes, I have been a theater-goer for so many years and yet I miss so much now when I go to the theater,” she says. “I can often hear other people laughing, the rest of the audience laughing, and I’m blank because I can’t hear the punch line. So in a way this new format is really helpful for me. I’m hearing everything and being able to read everything.” 

Powell-Ashby’s experience highlights other issues in accessibility: For individuals who are neurologically atypical, online theater experiences offer an ability to take breaks, adjust the volume or ask questions. Online experiences take away the need to leave the house, for those who are homebound, and bring theater to those who couldn’t afford it before. 

BETC/YouTube One episode of Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company’s Ghost Light Series was an online table reading of Luke Sorge’s ‘Purgastory.’

And yet there’s still the loss of community that theater has historically created through physical gathering. As helpful as the internet is when we can’t gather in-person, we are social creatures, drawn to experiences we can share in close proximity to one another. 

“It’s certainly an introspective moment for American theater, as it is for many industries,” says Stephen Weitz, producing artistic director of Boulder Ensemble Theater Company (BETC). “The purpose of theater even in the best of times is a more fully realized human experience. I think most theater artists feel like we want to continue to do that even when we’re disconnected from our audience.”

BETC has continued to engage its patrons with its Ghost Light series. For those not fluent in theater, a ghost light is a single bulb left burning whenever a theater is dark. The Ghost Light Series has presented a clip from the play OSLO, which BETC was set to perform before the coronavirus-related closures, using a model set and Weitz’s son’s toy dinosaurs. Then there have been interviews with playwrights, a table reading of Luke Sorge’s Purgastory, and a video of the BETC staff talking about their most embarrassing moments on stage.

“Mostly I feel it’s more of a social effort,” Weitz says. “As far as what does that tell us about what is theater going forward, I think that is a murkier question. This is my personal tea leaf reading: I don’t see a new theater that is rooted in video and any of the things we’re currently experiencing in our new Zoom culture. It’s so contrary to the essence of what theater is and what makes theater theater. We cant beat film and TV. I’ve been saying this over and over as the technical pressures of theater grew and grew.”  

For Weitz and the BETC crew, the main focus now is on building a contingency plan: how to keep employees receiving paychecks, how to reorganize future performances, how to reimagine what a theater setting might look like in a world where people are bound to be nervous about large gatherings for quite some time.

“I don’t think we’ve made a decision in terms of who we’re willing to be — it’s the question we aren’t ready to answer yet,” Weitz says. Our strategy is contingency planning. Let’s say hypothetically we can start our season on time as planned, here’s what that would look like. What if that can’t happen until November with our second show? What gets shuffled? We’re trying to think of each production as a bubble that can be removed or moved or replaced. That’s kind of the way we’re thinking. We’ve had to go back to the drawing board and say we probably don’t want to open with a show with 10 people and a big tech requirement because we’re going to be strapped for cash.”

Like Rudnick, Weitz believes that each individual theater company — each individual artist — will have to answer for themselves how they are willing to change moving forward.  

“First, people have to demonstrate there’s a model for theater to be a video house of some kind, or a distance art organization of some kind that economically works,” Weitz says. “If people can demonstrate that and replicate it, then you can be a pioneer in that subset.”

But Weitz worries that what we’ll have to witness first, before the rebirth of theater into any new forms, is a “culling of the field,” the death of theater companies that can’t bounce back from this financial crisis. It’s a problem the arts have faced again and again — we simply expect artists to share their craft for free. 

“The arts exist in this country primarily on the sweat equity of the artist,” he says. “So when you encounter a situation where the artists have been taken away, then you lose art.

“People keep asking, ‘When will we be able to get back to normal?’” Weitz says. “As a citizen and artist, I don’t really want to get back to normal. The goal should be to get back to better. I think it’ll be fascinating to watch how different countries respond to this and what they invest in as a society.”