It’s a strange, sad, uncertain time for all of us, but especially for theaters, the vast majority of which have been dark since March.
What does the upcoming season look like for theater? Certainly, not a return to normal, and most theaters are looking very cautiously toward the spring and even next fall to produce their delayed seasons.
But many do also have plans for virtual programming and are facing the challenges of pandemic-time as an opportunity for creative thinking and evolution.
In the week’s biggest theater news, Portland Stage Company has announced it has received the Actors Equity Association’s approval to stage “Talley’s Folley,” Lanford Wilson’s 1980 Pulitzer Prize winner, indoors this fall.
Lengthy negotiations and establishment of safety plans went into the permission Equity granted PSC, including testing of its ventilation system, caps of 50 people to a house, masks on anyone who enters the building, no intermissions or concessions, weekly COVID-19 tests for cast and crew, and access to production videos for those who prefer to watch from home.
In a press release, PSC Executive and Artistic Director Anita Stewart said the play itself was chosen specifically for these times. It’s a two-hander romantic comedy, and it’s been cast with actors who are actually married to each other: Kathy McCafferty and David Mason.
“I knew that we needed a show that would be doable in the current conditions,” Stewart said, “and Talley’s Folly, a 90-minute play without an intermission, and cast with a couple who were already socially distancing together was the perfect place to start.”
Previews of “Talley’s Folley” begin Oct. 29 with a Nov. 1 opening. The show runs through Nov. 15.
I know of only two other companies currently planning to present live, in-person theater this fall. One is the Players’ Ring, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, which has announced the U.S. premiere of “Mary and Me” (Oct. 2-11), about a pregnant Irish teen’s conversations with a statue of the Virgin Mary; and “The Savannah Sipping Society” (Oct. 23-Nov. 1), about four Southern women who meet to drink and life-coach each other through their troubles.
Also planning in-person shows is the Footlights Theatre at Falmouth, which ran a show this summer and continues in the fall with “Adam & Eve: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Garden” (Sept. 17-Oct. 3). Artistic Director Michael Tobin said the theater has met or surpassed all Maine guidelines for reopening, “and yes, the actors do perform behind glass.”
Taking another tack entirely – and performing behind another kind of screen – Bangor’s Penobscot Theatre Company has announced an October start for its full and fully online 2020-’21 season, billed as “Digitus Theatrum,” complete with subscription options (“Maine Courses” and “Family Style”).
The fall line-up includes a Halloween radio-style show, “Ghost Postcards from Maine” (Oct. 15-Nov. 18), featuring original Maine-inspired ghost stories by Maine authors; a streamed “magical mystery musical” called “The Glitch Witch,” about the good magic needed when “a dark force threatens to steal all of the light from New England,” and “Exceptions to Gravity” (Nov. 8-29), a streamed performance by the beloved physical comedian (and Peaks Island resident) Avner Eisenberg. Penobscot will also offer smaller “Sides,” which include “Ghost Tours” (Oct. 8-Nov. 1), an escapade with a team of paranormal investigators looking for spooks in the Bangor Opera House.
And a last hurrah of outdoor theater is happening this weekend: on Saturday, Sept. 19 at 2 p.m., Ziggurat Theatre Ensemble brings its summer show, “FAFALO!,” to Portland’s Eastern Promenade, and then again, on Sunday at 2 p.m., to Monson’s Centre Theater.
Elsewhere, many theaters are still holding off on seasons and announcements, pending negotiations with unions and seeing just what will happen next with COVID-19.
At Mad Horse in South Portland, although its 35th season is postponed, Artistic Director Mark Rubin said the company is “exploring alternative formats for presenting these works in the coming year.” Meanwhile, the company plans to launch a schedule of virtual “artist-centered events” starting Sept. 18.
“These virtual chit-chats will give five to seven artists an opportunity to give brief presentations about their work and connect with attendees,” Rubin said.
Mad Horse also hopes to bring back the By Local series (staged readings of locally written works), and to virtually present original Halloween programming and a new devised work. Check with Mad Horse’s website or Facebook page for updates.
Portland’s Good Theater is delaying its next show, “Desperate Measures,” until a safe point in 2021, and until then will continue to post diversions on its Facebook page – including highlights from past shows and Stephen Underwood’s famously gorgeous underwater movies.
It will be spring or more likely fall of 2021 before we can see Snowlion Repertory’s new world-premiere musical, “The Secret Princess” (based on a Mark Twain story), but in the interim, the company plans to offer an Acting for the Camera class on Zoom (check https://www.snowlionrep.org for updates.)
The Theater Project in Brunswick, likewise, has been offering classes and workshops and coaching, plus asynchronous theater games and tongue twisters for kids.
Over at the University of Southern Maine, the Theatre Department plans to engage its students in a range of workshops, including Zoom readings, radio theater, and short theater works and will be posting access to a gallery-style exhibit of their work on the Theatre Department website.
Summer theaters would normally be slowing down in the fall, but over the summer Maine State Music Theater hosted a drive-in movie event and has to date made more than 4,000 masks. And with the help of Ogunquit’s Mainestreet nightclub, the Ogunquit Playhouse on Sept. 24 at 7 p.m. will stream a cabaret-style benefit for the theater called Broadway Gives Back to the Playhouse.
Meanwhile, other theatrical works will be available online, sometimes in new forms.
Maine playwright Carolyn Gage will see her play “The Second Coming of Joan of Arc” performed live and live-streamed this October, at Richmond (Virginia) Triangle Players (Oct. 1-10). And Bess Welden is remaking her one-woman show “The Passion of the Hausfrau,” which premiered over a decade ago, into a six-episode season available for free on YouTube. (She is crowdfunding the series on Indiegogo.)
Since the vast majority of our theater now comes to us in virtual and hybrid mode, the moment’s necessities may well prove the mother of some worthy inventions that otherwise wouldn’t have come to be.
Still, let’s hope we can flatten this thing for real and for good, so that we can come out the other end of it able to come back together in theaters, with no screens between us.
Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.