The city of Philadelphia relaxed its restrictions on in-person performances with a live audience in September 2020. The permission did not lead to a widespread return to the status quo from local theater companies. Many pointed out that the safety requirements, though necessary to curb coronavirus transmission, were unrealistic given the size of the staff needed to execute a theatrical production—not to mention the size of an audience required to make an enterprise profitable.
“You’re talking about people having to work closely together in a room for hours,” said LaNeshe Miller-White, executive director of Theatre Philadelphia. “There is also the pressure of wanting your audiences to be safe. So even if you make a bubble, and your cast and crew are safe, there is still the obligation to ensure that things are safe enough for audience members.”
What audiences need
With uncertainty still in the air, streaming theater and other forms of remote performance continued to reign. Companies like the South Philly-based EgoPo Classic Theater and the Kensington-based Hella Fresh Theater experimented with plays by mail. Philadelphia Artists’ Collective (PAC), of which Charlotte Northeast is an artistic associate, created a weekly email blast that included an online book club, suggestions for direct action on various social causes, and a reading series for showcasing new short plays.
Engagement and reactions from longtime audience members during the shutdown reinforced to Northeast that theater is a necessary conduit to everyday life. Just as artists sought an outlet for their work, audiences were not content to sit around and wait for in-person performances to return—and they wanted to support the companies whose work they admired in the past.
“The pandemic forced us to re-establish and reprioritize what we wanted to do with our audiences and what they needed from us,” Northeast said. “We’ve learned a lot. We’ve learned what works and what doesn’t. But we felt it was really important to try and do what we could to keep people engaged.”
A new look at the canon
The shutdown also offered a company like PAC, which focuses on presenting works of classical theater, the opportunity to probe which stories were missing from the traditional canon. The company offered streamed readings of Alice Childress’s Trouble in Mind and The Recognition of Shakuntala, an epic play by the 4th-century Indian poet Kālidāsa; the latter was produced in collaboration with Philadelphia Asian Performing Artists. Their new play series centered on contemporary perspectives inspired by classic works.
“All of a sudden, this whole lovely world opened up, and we realized we had a duty to look at the canon in a completely different way,” Northeast continued. “It couldn’t just be from our perspectives anymore. It’s been a big learning curve for us, but I’m really excited about what we’re doing while still maintaining our mission.”
A national audience
Others noted the opportunities for expanded exposure offered by streaming theater. Carrie Gorn, a publicist with more than 20 years of experience in the local market, found herself soliciting media coverage from major national outlets and journalists in far-flung locales.
“It’s been wonderful for people outside of Philadelphia to get a chance to see the kind of work coming out of the community here, because it’s a really high level,” Gorn said. “As a PR person, the world is wide open right now. New York press wants to cover what we’re doing, because New Yorkers have access to it. I have shows that I pitched all across the country—New Mexico, Colorado, California. I love what’s possible right now on an accessibility level.”
That face-to-face feeling
Although digital theater has been somewhat seamlessly absorbed into the artistic framework by the pandemic, a hunger remains for some return to in-person performance. Miller-White told BSR that she’s begun to field multiple calls a week from audience members—particularly those who have been vaccinated against Covid-19—looking for live events to attend.
EgoPo, which Gorn represents, is among the first local companies to dip a toe back into in-person programming. In March, it mounted Samuel Beckett’s Rockaby, a short play about a woman rapidly losing her grip on reality. Performed for a single masked audience member at a time, the staging featured an actor performing live through the window of a residential home.
Reviewing the production for BSR, Jillian Ivey wrote that “it [was] startling, almost 12 months to the day since our lives all changed, to see the lower half of a stranger’s face.” But the demand for such connection was high, according to Gorn. Most performances sold out across the production’s three locations in Point Breeze, Passyunk Crossing, and East Oak Lane.
“Audiences were coming out and saying they burst into tears, because even though it was through a window, that was the first time they had that connection in a year,” Gorn said. “A lot of companies are creating work that’s really of this moment, and that’s exciting and smart.”
The artistic toll
EgoPo is presenting Adam Rapp’s Nocturne (April 27 through May 9) as a drive-in event in a North Philadelphia parking lot. Other companies are tentatively making plans for the summer, when warm weather allows for outdoor productions, or the fall, when companies hope that enough people will be vaccinated for a semblance of normalcy. Still, on the precipice of reopening, some worry about the toll of the pandemic on the artistic community.
“I was an actor, and I remember how little power you have over your career, even in the good times,” said Paige Price, now the producing artistic director of Philadelphia Theatre Company. “I really fear that we are going to lose a substantial portion of the most promising talent we have.”
There may be light at the end of the tunnel, but struggling theaters need help to ensure they can reach the finish line, according to Gorn.
“If you value sitting in a theater, support it in any way you can right now,” she said. “If you can donate the cost of a ticket to a theater, do it now. The theater needs you now.”
Image description: A photo of a Volkswagen car facing the camera from a road in a misty forest. The headlights glow yellow in the fog.
Image description: A scene from EgoPo’s Rockaby. Actor Cathy Simpson, a Black woman with gray hair, looks directly into the camera from her rocking chair in what looks like the corner of a cluttered house. She wears a satiny red-and-blue patterned bathrobe with an orange scarf.