Making Theatre in Uncertain Times

. June 12, 2020.
Linda Boston as Ella Fitzgerald and Augustus Williamson as Louis Armstrong in “How High the Moon.” Image courtesy of Ricardo Santiago.

Michigan theatre companies reinvent themselves in a time of change

Despite obstacles and limitations, people have responded to current events by making art. With COVID-19 making live theatre impossible, and amid protests over police brutality, Michigan theater companies are redefining theatre. “Challenges can prove opportunities for continuing to reflect, inform, and promote change,” says Lee Stille, EMU’s director of Theatre.

Despite obstacles and limitations, people have responded to current events by making art. With COVID-19 making live theatre impossible, and amid protests over police brutality, Michigan theater companies are redefining theatre. “Challenges can prove opportunities for continuing to reflect, inform, and promote change,” says Lee Stille, EMU’s director of Theatre.

New ways to connect

Many theatres in Michigan are “going dark” for the rest of 2020, but they are looking at other options for engaging their audiences. David Blixt, an Artistic Associate of the Michigan Shakespeare Festival, says, “We’re posting a series called ‘Artists in Their Own Residences,’ and exploring audio versions of plays.”

Ann Arbor’s Spinning Dot Theatre, which presents global theatre for and with young people, is adjusting to an online format. “Youth summer camps will be run virtually,” says founder and Artistic Director Jenny Koppera. “Our repertory company will be experimenting with smaller formats and flexible-venue outdoor performances later this summer as theatre around the world experiments with new forms.”  

Musical theatre venues, The Dio in Pinckney and The Encore Musical Theatre Company in Dexter, are releasing virtual mini-concerts (here) and regular messages from their actors and creative team (to receive, sign up for their email list here.) Meanwhile, Theatre Nova in Ann Arbor is following the Governor’s Safe Start plan but is also preparing a plan for how they will open once it’s safe.  

Linda Boston as Ella Fitzgerald and Augustus Williamson as Louis Armstrong in “How High the Moon”. Image courtesy of Ricardo Santiago.

Embracing online platforms

Plowshares Theatre Company, the only professional African-American theatre company in Michigan, is exploring online programming. Artistic Director Gary Anderson started a podcast called Black Theatre Matters, formerly a blog highlighting black theatre companies in the US, Canada, and the UK. “It’s frustrating because as a storyteller, you want to have an audience to hear you tell stories. Theatre is ‘tell me’ storytelling, as opposed to film and TV, which is ‘show me’ storytelling. How are you going to fight against the penalty of presenting something language-based in an image-based media, but also find a way of impacting your audience?”

Purple Rose Theatre’s Artistic Director Guy Sanville agrees. “The bottom line is that until we can gather 150 people in a confined space, breathing the same air, we can’t produce a play. We are creating online classes and opportunities to connect with our audiences. We will not be presenting plays online; movies and TV do that. We offer a communal experience.”

The Ogreling
Emily Levickas as Mother and Matthew Webb as the Ogreling in “The Ogreling.” Image courtesy of Leisa Thompson.

Reacting to social issues during the pandemic

Theatre artists are also responding to the murder of George Floyd and the protests against police brutality.

“They’re acutely interconnected”, says Anderson. “You see the devastating impact COVID-19 has had on the African-American and LatinX communities, and you realize why it’s disproportionately affecting those people. The underlying conditions which make them vulnerable to the disease are related to living while Black in this country — the stress, the food deserts — all this is interconnected… It’s imperative we provide a platform for people who feel they are unheard and unseen.”

Ashley Lyle, who created Black Literature and Art Queens Network (BLAQN), is making content around both issues. “In the wake of COVID-19 and the fight for Black Lives, I created a podcast, Black Queens On Stage, that gives a platform to black womxn performers to share their talent when they’re ignored or given issues from white-owned venues. We also discuss inequity in the performance world.”

 “With the global focus of our company, we’ve always sought to reshape otherness and find commonalities between us on the shared spinning planet of ours,” says Spinning Dot’s Koppera.

Shakespeare in Detroit’s founder Sam White provided both introspection and passion. “Shakespeare in Detroit is responding to the pandemic by creating digital content on our YouTube page: readings, DIY videos, and educational modules for our students. The latter are coming down the pike. As far as how we are responding to the injustices that have been happening in the country for 400 years and that continue to this day? We are one of two theater companies that are actually led by a black person in Metro Detroit. I am practicing radical self-care and taking care of my mind and body as the brutality impacts people who look like me. My goal is to take care of myself so that, when we can gather together again, I can continue our work at SiD as an organization that was founded eight seasons ago because we wanted to see a more kind, inclusive, and creative organization that reflects Detroit onstage and off.” 

Pausing for safety and reflection is the Michigan theatre community’s current path, but the state’s creative minds are looking to the future. “We will be back when science says it’s safe for our actors and audiences,” says actor and director Lynch Travis. “I can’t wait for that first curtain to open.”

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