Audio dramas. Online choose-your-own-adventure experiments. Live performance over the telephone. And, of course, Zoom.
In late summer, Seattle theaters began to roll out their answers to an unnervingly big question that’s threatened to swallow them since March: How are we going to do what we do in the middle of coronavirus?
In the early days of the pandemic, when theaters realized the 2,500-year-old art form at the center of their business model was on indefinite suspension, they collectively entered a kind of race: Who was going to make live performance — or some semisatisfying version of it — work?
“I don’t know how many plans and iterations we went through,” said Laura Lee, managing director of ArtsWest. “Mat [Wright, artistic director] and I would have a meeting and be so inspired, saying ‘this will be great!’ Then we’d go back and look at budgets, calendars, what it would mean for our audience.” Then they’d start over again.
It was a little bit of a race with each other (there would be glory, and potential revenue, for the first ones to crack the code), but it was mostly a race against themselves: For theaters with fixed costs and not a lot of savings, sitting around and waiting for the coronavirus to go away wasn’t an option.
Over the spring and summer, many theaters made stabs at quick-turnaround programming: webinars with teaching artists, Q&As with theater professionals, talk-show formats like Seattle Repertory Theatre’s series of Creative Conversations between artistic director Braden Abraham and artists like Cheryl L. West (“Pullman Porter Blues”) and David Byrne (“Here Lies Love”).
Many, like Gus Menary, the new artistic director at Book-It, jumped to the idea of filming stage productions, or using old archival videos of previous productions, and streaming them like National Theatre Live has been doing in London. He ultimately rejected the idea.
“We’re not filmmakers,” he said. “Wandering into a different artistic discipline on the assumption it would be easy to make that transference isn’t fair to people who’ve spent a lifetime perfecting their craft: ‘We were baking cakes but now we’re making shoes! It’s the same thing!’ No.”
Plus, there were thorny union issues and the frank fact that most filmed theater doesn’t look good. “National Theatre Live can make that transfer,” Menary said, “but they’re pouring millions and millions of dollars into that thing.”
This fall, several local theaters are offering some kind of digital programming. The three below have announced some of the more ambitious local plans so far: theater using the internet, theater using sound, and theater using the pandemic itself.
ArtsWest’s online experiment
After their many “plans and iterations,” Wright and Lee hit on an idea: a series called Theatre for an Empty Space, a reference to the colossally important British director Peter Brook, whose 1968 book “The Empty Space” argued that theater does not need machinelike sets or armies of artists; just one performer, one audience member and an empty space can instigate a moment of theater.
“Our goal was to provide some kind of content for our audiences,” Wright said. “And give our community of artists a chance to get a little crazy and try some new stuff — those who want to. Some of our artists are really hurting right now, not just from COVID, but also what’s going on in our culture. To them, we just wanted to say: ‘We love you and we’re here for you when you’re ready.’”
On to the crazy stuff: ArtsWest’s series has begun with “Temporary Occupancy” (now open, no closing date), in which you begin touring the website for Vicarious, a bizarre-sounding hotel that claims to “offer you an escape from the confines of your own mind.” Soon, you’re voyeuristically looking in on the hotel’s occupants and the adventure branches in several directions, which might include communicating with a rogue chat window.
ArtsWest has also commissioned a Zoom series from Seattle theater artists Lamar Legend and Shanna Allman (details are vague at present) and a new musical by local actor and musical-theater writer Justin Huertas (“Lizard Boy”) for whenever we can recongregate.
Meanwhile, Wright and Lee said, ArtsWest has begun a program of rigorous internal scrutiny about its own role in systemic racism and white supremacism in U.S. culture and has begun reading and discussion groups with its board and volunteers, which it plans to elaborate into quarterly anti-racist training available to everyone, including patrons, in the ArtsWest community.
More info: artswest.org
Book-It Repertory Theatre’s audio dramas
As a kid growing up in Oakland, California, Book-It Artistic Director Menary got deep into old-time radio shows: “Gang Busters,” “The Shadow,” “Dragnet.”
After considering and rejecting a few ideas about how Book-It should proceed through the pandemic, Menary realized that instead of adapting books into stage plays — as Book-It usually does — the theater could adapt books into audio dramas.
“It seemed like a no-brainer after the fact,” he said. “And it’s an opportunity to work in some worlds that would be difficult to explore onstage — it’s easier to make planets explode in audio, and it’s harder to bring a blimp onstage, harder to travel from India to Tibet.”
So Menary tore up the original season and came up with a new one, starting on Oct. 28 with “Childfinder” by science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler (adapted by Shermona Mitchell), about a telepath who breaks with an organization of telepaths she’d been working with.
The rest of the mainstage audio season is: “The Canterville Ghost” by Oscar Wilde (adapted and directed by Brandon J. Simmons); “Mañanaland” by Pam Muñoz Ryan (adapted by Gillian Jorgensen and Jordí Montes); “The Effluent Engine” by N.K. Jemisin (adapted and directed by Jéhan Ósanyin); and “The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes,” a part homage/part parody by Tibetan writer Jamyang Norbu (adapted by Bilal Dardai).
Book-It is still working out the precise logistics of recording, but knows that will involve three highly sanitized, air-filtered sound booths in Book-It’s home theater in the basement of Seattle Center House.
More info: book-it.org
On the Boards’ telephone performance
Rachel Cook, artistic director of On the Boards, has also been watching her peers around the country diverge down different paths of the big experiment: analogue, digital, the mail (like the postcards made by Seattle-based artist Kristen Kosmas).
“Everybody’s gravitating to different aspects of these new forms or rough drafts,” Cook said. “It’s like investigative journalism — following your nose on hunches. We’re doing that with 600 Highwaymen.”
On the Boards is trying a few things (including some kind of coronavirus-safe installation by Seattle artist Timothy White Eagle and turning the parking lot across the street from the theater into an outdoor movie venue with films co-curated by folks at Wa Na Wari, Northwest Film Forum and Henry Art Gallery), but its first big project is “A Thousand Ways” by New York-based 600 Highwaymen.
“Ways” is an optimistic piece, predicated on the idea that the virus will go away, and progresses from isolation to gathering. Act One (Sept. 9-27) is a phone call for an audience of two: You and a stranger call a number and meet a narrator, who guides the conversation. Act Two is the encounter: You and another stranger enter a room and sit at a long table with only a glass of water between you. Something happens — we don’t know what yet. Act Three is the congregation: When (if) it’s safe to do so, you and other strangers who’ve been through the first two acts meet in a group.
“A Thousand Ways” sounds vague but powerful, because it has an advantage over almost any other performance. Its life (from phone to room to group) is timed to something that intimately affects almost all of us: the life cycle of the epidemic, our isolation and how strange it seems now to have intimate experiences with strangers.
For most of us, the moment we can gather safely just to quietly watch something (a movie, a play) will be one of the most significant events of our year.
“A Thousand Ways” knows that — and times its third act for that profound moment.
How will it all work? Who knows?
“This is the year of the rough draft,” Cook said, quoting an essay by Tacoma artist Christopher Paul Jordan. “It’s a really good analogy for the time we’re in.”
More info: ontheboards.org