Typically, actors don’t build their own sets — especially at home in their garages. The Covid-19 pandemic fueled a lot of out-of-the-box thinking, however, especially for D.C. area theaters.
The Zoom-commissioned play “This is Who I Am” by playwright Amir Nizar Zuabi is one inventive instance of creative workaround. Presented by Woolly Mammoth Theatre at the end of 2020, the virtual play was written and produced entirely for Zoom, featuring two actors live at their computers each evening. Actors were responsible for assembling sets and running video, among other production tasks.
“This is Who I Am” tells the story of an estranged father and son, separated by continents, who join each other via video call to cook a meal in remembrance of the son’s deceased mother. The virtual play is one of heartache and shared pain, but also fierce love and longing — emotions especially relevant during the past 16 months.
For Maria Manuela Goyanes, Woolly’s artistic director, the real crux of the piece is how it was presented. The play is a virtual collaboration with four other theatre companies around the country, including PlayCo in New York City; American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon. Each theater worked closely to coordinate schedules and present the virtual play to their respective audiences.
“It was thrilling — the kind of access this opportunity gave us,” Goyanes says.
Finding New Opportunities
According to Reginald Douglas, associate artistic director of Studio Theatre, the pandemic created an opportunity to deepen, not pivot their work. Like Woolly, Studio quickly innovated ways to reach new audiences and develop fresh work for the 2020-2021 season, commissioning the largest number of plays in the theater’s history.
The world premiere of the audio production “I Hate it Here” by Chicago-based playwright Ike Holter is one such work. Commissioned as part of “Studio in Your Ears,” a newly launched audio play series, “I Hate it Here” shares stories from supposed friends and family living during a pandemic. The Covid-informed piece examines how people do (and don’t) deal with a world on the brink of destruction.
“The big lesson of the past few months is that the medium may be different, but the commitment and the vision remain steadfast,” Douglas says. “We may be using the internet as a platform now, but the stories we tell remain urgent reflections of what it means to be an American today.”
As part of “Studio in Your Ears,” “I Hate it Here” was streamed and available free-of-charge on Studio’s website. Launched mid-2020, the stageless (and screenless) series helped deepen and grow Studio’s audience base, reaching 6,000+ people in 48 states.
“This is what’s kept me going,” Douglas says. “The thrill of creating [new] work that connects and brings people together, particularly in moments we are all struggling.”
A Hyperlocal Focus
Throughout the pandemic, serving the community also remained a priority, and a challenge, for many D.C. theaters. For Woolly Mammoth, it was just one more opportunity for creative adaptation. Together with Howard University, N-Street Village, Theatre Lab and THEARC, Woolly launched the Connectivity Core Partner program, a collaboration to produce cross-sector programming throughout D.C. The program is a response to heightened isolation due to Covid — and our nation’s call for racial equity.
The program just presented “Homegrown,” its first performance and Woolly’s first live show since before the pandemic. Hosted by THEARC in Congress Heights, “Homegrown” featured residents of Ward 7 and 8 performing spoken word and poetry, prepared under the direction of visiting artists from Woolly.
“I’m [always] here to talk about antiracism, but I’m also here to talk about the hyperlocal impact of systems of oppression and how we can actually create real community,” Goyanes says. “Our success is tied to our community’s success, and we’ll keep making this hyperlocal focus a central part of our mission.”
Shifting the Perspective
Programmatic innovations are just part of the story. Theater directors also needed to shift how they worked with staff, and in some cases, how they viewed the entire sector.
For Ryan Rilette, artistic director of Round House Theatre in Bethesda, this meant really putting staff’s health and safety first. In an industry with a “show must go on” mentality, which typically prioritizes creative work above all else, shifting to a staff-first mindset was a big transition.
“Let’s not worry about what is happening with the business. Let’s talk about our people, because without them, there is no business,” Rilette says. “That has really shifted our work culture in a big, very positive way.”
Prioritizing well-being also means a better work-life balance, an issue theaters have struggled with for years. Actors typically work as freelancers, picking up multiple gigs at the whim of different theater’s schedules. Long hours and low pay are the norm — and job security, especially during crises like the pandemic, is dubious.
The sector’s business model is a challenging one, Rilette admits, and he hopes the pandemic can serve as a catalyst for a more sustainable approach to employing artists.
Maria Goyanes agrees, wholeheartedly. She’s been wrestling with how to [sustainably] support the actors under her charge, a problem she admits existed long before the pandemic.
“I have the livelihood of so many people under my care, and I don’t want to let all these people down,” she says. “We’re a nonprofit, a service organization.”
Stepping into the Future
As D.C. theaters launch into their 2021-2022 seasons, they’re using lessons learned during the pandemic to continue innovating change — like the recent decision to require proof of vaccination from audiences. Woolly, Studio and Round House all followed suit, joining a cohort of more than a dozen local theaters.
“We finally decided [maybe] this is the right thing to do, so we’ll figure out how to make it happen,” Ryan says. “It’s the only way to keep everyone safe, and that’s been our number one priority since the pandemic started.”
In terms of the sector itself — aside from welcoming audiences back in-person — Rilette is excited for potential future innovation. He hopes theaters will take the economic and social turmoil of this year to heart, and work toward growing more reflective of their communities so that theatre looks “more like a library or a church.”
“I want us to look like a crowd on the streets, or like the subway,” Rilette says. “Everybody coming together to share a space and hear a story. That should be our goal.”
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