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The year theaters went dark

From boom to bust: D.C. stages shuttered by COVID

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2020 theater, gay news, Washington Blade
Arena Stage turned to film during the pandemic. Led by out artistic director Molly Smith, Arena created two capsules from the age of COVID-19. (Photo courtesy Arena Stage)

In early 2020, DMV theater was pretty much booming. Actors, directors, and designers were busy with many looking forward to a year filled with work and exciting projects. But all that was about to change.

First, a look back at some highlights from before things ground to a halt. In January, out actor Justin Weaks starred in Studio Theatre’s hard-hitting “Pipeline,” a play about young African-American males and the risks that surround them. Out director Alan Paul staged Round House Theatre’s production of “Spring Awakening.” In February at the National Theatre, talented out actor Nick Westrate took on the title role of Britain’s George VI in “The King’s Speech” a touring production that was rumored to be Broadway bound, but of course, that didn’t happen.

On the last day of February, I saw gay writer James Baldwin’s “The Amen Corner” at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, a beautiful, powerful production featuring a superb African-American cast expertly staged by Whitney White. This would be the last performance I’d enjoy with no thought of viral menace lurking in the house.

March 4 found me traveling to Broadway (no travel restrictions had been put in place) to see “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” with Laurie Metcalf and Rupert Everett playing the famously combative Martha and George. Just days later the show was shut down after a Booth Theater usher tested positive for COVID-19.

Soon after, I saw my last live performance — Olney Theatre Center’s “The Amateurs,” a lovingly rendered (black plague-set!) work by out playwright Jordan Harrison. By this time, people were a little nervous. While no one was wearing masks or social distancing, an audience member’s hacking cough could draw side-eyes and nervous glances. The show closed days later.

And then theaters went dark.

On the assumption that things would return to normal in a month or two, local companies scrambled with rearranging their seasons – spring shows were pushed back to summer or fall, or even later. In the meantime, local artistic directors and their teams were introducing ways to keep audiences engaged. And that’s how theater met Zoom.

Using Zoom, Theatre J hired some of their favorite artists to teach online classes for theater lovers throughout summer and into fall. 1st Stage, the Tysons, Va.-based company, introduced a series of six weekly free Virtual Round Table Discussions with varied theater professionals through November.

The reality changed, but the show went on.

Out singer/songwriter Be Steadwell cancelled her tour but as part of Strathmore’s “Live from the Livingroom” series, she performed via Zoom from a bedroom in her parents’ Northwest D.C. home where she was quarantining.

Arena Stage turned to film. Led by out artistic director Molly Smith, they created two capsules from the age of COVID-19 – the first, a docudrama of personal snapshots drawn from a single day; and the second, a revealing piece exploring young people’s thoughts, reactions, and experiences over the first three months of the pandemic. Signature Theatre pivoted to film and the outdoors with “Signature Vinyl,” an 80-minute concert directed by out director Matthew Gardiner.

After the death of George Floyd in late May, theater faced a racial reckoning.

In August, Studio Theatre commissioned seven black actors (including out actor Jonathan Burke) who attended the 57th anniversary March on Washington to create artistic responses that bore witness to their experience at the event and captured their feelings as Black men living through ongoing violence and protests for racial justice. It’s called the March and The Breath Project.

In September, non-binary actor Temídayo Amay won the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Supporting Performer in a Play for a delightful turn as quirky Gifty, in Round House Theatre’s production of Jocelyn Bioh’s “School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play.” The honor was presented via Zoom (the in-person May event had been cancelled due to COVID-19). Although this year’s awards were adjudicated through a binary lens, they were presented through a gender inclusive format. Next year will be different.

By Labor Day, most theaters saw the writing on the wall. The longed-for reopening wasn’t happening. That decision hinges on strict union rules and when audiences feel comfortable spending hours seated in auditoriums. We’re nowhere near there yet, a managing director has confided off-the-record.

There was an exception, however. In November, GALA Hispanic Theatre reopened its doors with a genuine live, in-person, indoor production of “El Perro del Hortelano,” or “The Dog in the Manger,” a comedy by the 16th-century Spanish playwright Lope de Vega. Thorough precautions were taken – masks, socially distanced-seating, dramatically improved air filtration, etc., all in adherence with the mayor’s guidelines. Safeguards extended beyond front of the house. In fact, they can be seen onstage where plexiglass walls separate the actors from the audience compliments of out scenic designer Clifton Chadick.

December held new and varied fare. Ford’s Theatre shared an abridged version of its beloved “A Christmas Carol” via public radio. Theater J presented an online reading of playwright Patty Abramson’s “Abomination,” the story of three queer, closeted, Ultra-orthodox Jews who take on a conversion therapy organization.

And through Jan. 3, Woolly Mammoth presents the premiere of Amir Nizar Zuabi’s “This Is Who I Am,” the moving story of a father and son in different worlds – Ramallah, West Bank, and New York City, respectively. For each performance, the actors talk and cook a Palestinian dish in real-time via Zoom. It’s staged by out director Evren Odcikin.

As the pandemic rages on, companies continue to explore further ways to keep audiences engaged – streaming, donating, and in some cases buying tickets. The majority of theater professionals aren’t working or are woefully underemployed.

With numerous exciting new projects and vaccines on the horizon, the year closed out on a slightly optimistic note. But for now, live theater remains indefinitely shuttered.

Non-binary actor Temídayo Amay won the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Supporting Performer in a Play. (Photo courtesy Amay)
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Theater

Meet Theater J’s new managing director

David Lloyd Olson strives to create equitable, inclusive space

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David Lloyd Olson is Theater J's new managing director. (Photo courtesy Theater J)

Beginning in mid-August, David Lloyd Olson will be Theater J’s new managing director. As such, he’s charged with getting butts in seats, but there’s more to it than that. He explains via phone from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where he was vacationing last week, “My goal is to create a space that’s equitable, inclusive, and everyone is supported with the resources they need to create the best art possible in their current circumstances that means I’m doing my job well.”

Housed in the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center (EDCJCC) on 16th Street in Dupont Circle, Theater J, the nation’s largest and most prominent Jewish theater, is slated to reopen in late September. While new hire Olson will focus on financial matters and marketing, veteran artistic director Adam Immerwahr is responsible for what happens on stage. Neither of the co-executives reports to each other but rather to EDJCC’s CEO Dava Schub. “It’s a leadership model that works,” says Olson, “because you don’t have the business leading the arts.” 

Olson likes Schub’s vision for creating safe space at EDCJCC for LGBTQI+ and people of color, especially Jews of color, and her belief that more energy is made when a company is housed in a community center. “It meshes with my idea of what a theater should be more than a transactional relationship, but rather creating dialogue with community and using the platform – literally our stage – to participate in the conversation with the community.” 

Additionally, Olson’s getting on board with Theater J allows for a geographical reunion with his husband Jonah Richmond. Over the last two years, Olson has been managing director at Quintessence Theatre Group in Philadelphia while Richmond has remained at the couple’s place in D.C. and worked at EPA. Olson says “Philadelphia was a great experience but it was tough going back and forth. It’s good to be home.” 

Olson’s career has been mostly Washington area-based, and his vitae boasts stretches at GALA Hispanic Theatre, Arena Stage, the Shakespeare Theatre Company, and Pointless Theatre. 

While at University of Maryland, he spent a lot of time making theater with fellow theater majors. Olson was curious how to lift fellow artists and identify resources that would assist them in reaching their greatest potential.  

He was interested in directing, acting, and puppetry (UMD is Jim Henson’s alma mater). After scoring a terrific success performing in the Fringe Festival with “Sleeping Beauty: A Puppet Ballet,” a beautiful, well received piece, he became part of the Pointless Theatre where he took on the role of managing director, producer, and nonprofit administrator.

With puppetry, the work speaks for itself. If the puppeteer is doing their job expertly, they fall away and the puppet takes center stage. Similarly, very much of what Olson does as managing director is behind the scenes — essential to the production taking place, but audiences don’t see him. 

Growing up in the suburbs of Atlanta, young Olson was part of a Jewish community that frowned on his sexuality. He later found acceptance at Adas Israel Congregation, the Washington synagogue where he married his husband in 2014. 

As a kid, he was encouraged to be as assimilated as possible. Despite being partly of Mexican ancestry, there was no Spanish spoken at home “It’s reflective of the national conversation we’re having now,” he says. “Same goes with heteronormativity. The idea that the more you can pass as a straight white man, the more opportunities that come your way.” 

At Theater J, the job of storytellers is not to say one side or another is right but to tell the story of what it means to be Jewish, says Olson. Differences might include religious practices, ideology, and one’s stand on Palestinian self-determination. But ultimately, he thinks, though divided, a community can remain unbroken. 

Looking forward, Olson is eager to see Theater J’s in-person, fall season opener “Becoming Dr. Ruth” starring Naomi Jacobson, a local actor he greatly admires, and staged by talented out actor/director Holly Twyford. He’s also excited about Theater J’s Yiddish Theater Lab dedicated to commissioning English translations and adaptations of Yiddish plays to be presented as readings and possibly productions.

In closing, he adds, “I pinch myself every day about how lucky I am to work in theater, to be among great artists and part of a community.”

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Theater

In-person, virtual, and outdoor theater options abound

Your favorite D.C. stages are busy this season

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Theater Alliance's producing artistic director Raymond O.Caldwell directs ‘The Blackest Battle.’

In the before times, summer at the Kennedy Center meant a big Broadway musical national tour or two. Slipping into the unmistakable box’s cool, darkened red Opera House for a show during the dog days of summer is a treat I’ve enjoyed since I was kid. 

But because of the pandemic, this summer the landmark’s indoor spaces remain dark. But there’s still a lot happening. The Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage has moved outdoors to the Reach, a collection of pavilions and open areas adjacent to the original building. In this striking, open-air, riverside plaza, you’ll find loads of free entertainment ranging from live music and film screenings to dance lessons, yoga sessions, and arts markets. 

While it’s too late to enjoy early June’s “The Wig Party: A Capitol Drag Festival,” there’s still much to see in-person and via livestream. Here are a few selections from the Millennium Stage program.

The DMV’s authentic Afro-Latinx experience “Adobo Gigante” (July 22-24) returns with a midsummer weekend of programming. There’s “Raga at the REACH” (Aug. 5-7), a three-day festival focused on presenting the vibrant culture and heritage of India through live music, dance, film, and local arts vendors. And in late August, it’s “On Deck: Women Shedding Through Boundaries” (Aug. 26-28), an all-inclusive festival featuring women in action sports and music like skateboarding and jazz. Visit kennedy-center.org for more information.

Elsewhere around town, companies and artists are presenting heaps of new, original work, featuring both familiar and less familiar faces. 

Local out playwright George Purefoy Tilson’s new one act “Holler” premieres virtually on Sunday July 18 at 7 p.m.

Set in the hills of coal country, it’s the story of four siblings who cling to fading memories while wrestling with a haunting secret. The virtual production is directed by talented Evan Casey who is also included in the five-person cast along with Bernadette Arvidson, Emilie Zelle Holmstock, Larry Levinson, and Timothy Sayles. 

“Holler’s” opening is a fundraiser for CCI Health & Wellness Services, an organization that supports the most vulnerable in local communities. For more information visit bit.ly/hollerpremiere. Subsequent streaming opportunities will soon be made available via link on the “Holler” Facebook page.

For summer of 2021, Spooky Action Theatre presents “Happy, Beyond…Happy,” a short play virtual reading series inspired by a list of “happiness words” that do not directly translate into English. 

Through July 18, the two readings are playwrights Marie-Claude St-Laurent and Marie-Ève Milothelmed’s “Collect Call,” the story of sisters and their rocky relationship; and Emma Gibson’s “Adam + Rose,” a play about separation and love. Both readings are directed by esteemed gay director José Zayes. Spookyaction.org 

Through July 25, Studio Theatre is streaming award-winning playwright George Brant’s “Tender Age.” 

Directed by Henry Godinez, the one-person play stars New York actor Bobby Moreno as Martín, a young father who faces a moral reckoning after going to work as a security guard at a local Walmart-turned-detention center for children separated from their families at the nearby Texas border. Studio-theatre.org

Theater Alliance ends its digital season with playwright Psalmayene 24’s “The Blackest Battle” (July 31 – August 29), a revolutionary hip-hop musical that puts an original spin on urban violence. 

Set on the Fourth of July in the not-too-distant future, it portrays a world where reparations have been paid to African Americans yet Black on Black violence rages on. But despite the bellicose atmosphere, two members of warring rap factions manage to fall in love.  

“The Blackest Battle” is directed by Theater Alliance’s out artistic director Raymond O. Caldwell, and features a seven-person cast including talented out actor Jade Jones as Bonita. Theateralliance.com

Tyson’s 1st Stage is presenting its annual Logan Festival of Solo Performance, only this year it’s happening outdoors at busy Boro Park (8350 Broad Street, Tysons, Va.).

The festival opener is “Opera Soup” (Aug. 21 -29), a family-friendly amalgam of music and lively storytelling written and performed by accomplished opera singer Lori Brown Mirabel.

And for just two special performances (also at Boro Park), Mirabel performs an autobiographical solo piece “Charmed Life” (Aug. 27-28) in which she tells not only her own story, but also pays homage to famous opera artists who have gone before, and specifically to the Black women opera singers of the past. 1ststage.org

At Olney Theatre Center (OTC), the shady campus with its open-air amphitheater, the Root Family Stage, is ideal for safer, in-person offerings. 

Beginning in late July through the end of August, OTC presents the weekly Friday night Andrew A. Isen Cabaret Series pairing some of the D.C. area’s best musical talent. 

The duos include Awa Sal Secka and out actor Bobby Smith (July 23); Ines Nassara and Tracy Lynn Olivera (July 30); Donna Migliaccio, and Nova Payton (Aug. 6); Rayanne Gonzales and local gay performer Rayshun Lamarr who appeared as a contestant on TV’s “The Voice” (Aug. 13); Greg Maheu and Vishal Vaidya (Aug. 20); and finally, Malinda Kathleen Reese and Alan Wiggins (Aug. 27). 

On two consecutive free admission Wednesday nights in August, OTC presents “Olney in Drag,” a two-part extravaganza where audiences are asked “enjoy a drink as these fabulous drag queens shine brighter than the stars in the evening sky.” The first show (Aug. 18) features Brooklyn Heights, Betty O’Hellno, Ariel Von Quinn, Evon Michelle. 

The second show (Aug. 25) includes Kristina Kelly, Vagenesis, Tiara Missou (David Singleton who appeared in “Elf the Musical” at OTC), and Echinacea Monroe (terrific out actor Solomon Parker). Olneytheatre.org  

If keeping kids entertained figures into your summer in the city, why not add some in-person youth theater to the mix?  

Bethesda’s Imagination Stage is borrowing Olney Theatre’s outdoor space to reprise “Paper Dreams” (July 31 – Aug. 15), a dance-based performance about friends who live inside a wastepaper basket. A collaboration with Mons Dansa Dance Company (Barcelona, Spain), it’s directed by Claudia Moreso and remounted by Imagination Stage’s Kathryn Chase Bryer.  Admission is free. Imaginationstage.org  

Glen Echo Park’s Adventure Theatre is presenting “Fairytales in the Sun,” two original works performed in-person on the park’s outdoor campus. 

Running through Sept. 6, “Fairy Tales in the Sun” features two one-act plays: Lara Yang’s “The Flood in the Future,” the tale of a young girl who learns some vital life lessons about sacrifice and cooperation; and Michelle Lynch’s “From Cinders to Ella,” a play about forging your own happily ever after. Both are directed by Stan Kang. Adventuretheatre-mtc.org

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Theater

Chamber Dance Project is back with ‘Tear the Edge’

Four premieres by four choreographers at two prized D.C. venues

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Alexander Sargent lifts Christian Denice rehearsing Four Men. (Photo by Mariah Miranda)

‘Tear the Edge’
Saturday, July 17 (11am and 6pm)
Chamber Dance Project
The Amphitheater at the Washington National Cathedral
3101 Wisconsin Avenue, N.W.
$30-$40
Chamberdance.org

In an exciting return to live performance after 24 months, Chamber Dance Project (CDP), Washington’s contemporary ballet company known for bringing dancers and musicians together on the same stage, is presenting new work titled “Tear the Edge.” 

Comprised of four world premieres by four choreographers, “Tear the Edge” will be performed in two prized Washington venues, the ballroom of the Perry Belmont House in Dupont Circle on July 14 and 15 (sold out) and twice at the All Hallows Amphitheater at the Washington National Cathedral on July 17 (tickets available). 

Included among the CDP’s company are two gay artists — Christian Denice, a dancer and choreographer who spent most of his professional life at Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal, and dancer Alexander Sargent, a May 2020 graduate of the Juilliard School in New York. 

In one of the new pieces, “Four Men,” choreographed by CDP’s dynamic artistic director Diane Coburn Bruning pairs Denice and Sargent in a duet.

While two men partnered in dance isn’t an earthshakingly new development, it can still feel fresh and powerful.

Denice, 33, a physical and nuanced dancer, likes the athleticism of two men working together. He also likes how it “allows you to push boundaries, and expand your idea of a dancer. Stripping away specific gender roles can be exciting. Male dancers aren’t usually lifted off the ground.” 

Sargent concurs – it’s a very different experience from biological men and women dancing together. 

“With men, because the way our bodies are built, we’re able to take more weight, force, and pressure. There’s more freedom in the back and forth of energy transfer. And that’s something I really enjoy.” 

While on the subject of biology and gender roles, Sargent, 23, adds, “I look forward to a world where every cast call reads ‘seeking dancers.’  The reason men and women dance the way they do is because they’re put into that space when they’re five years old and put in that box ever onwards. It’s trained not inherent.”

In addition to dancing, Denice is choreographing two new pieces. Admittedly, he says, it’s been challenging. There hasn’t been a lot of time for Denice to work in person with the dancers. 

Nonetheless, Sargent is impressed with Denice’s ability to get things done. “It works because Christian has a well-developed lexicon of his own; visually he creates a very distinct language. Of course, we would love to have weeks to build this piece, but on the flip side building it so fast gives it a ‘Mad Max’ energy. No pauses. No stops. It’s pedal to the metal and go.”

The prospect of performing indoors before a live audience — something neither of the dancers have done since before the pandemic — is particularly exciting. Denice describes it as a return to what feels very familiar but at the same time, “we’re bringing something new — what we’ve learned during experience.”

He continues, “For me, the last year has been very internal in terms of my artistry. The performance energy was removed. I’m eager to see how I’ll relate with audiences again.”

Both Denice and Sargent discovered dance through their sisters (think Mike who sings “I Can Do That” in “A Chorus Line). 

As a very energetic 10-year-old, Denice fell in love with dance watching through the window of his younger sister’s class. Similarly, at six or seven, Sargent, a D.C. native, became enthralled with dance while watching his sister dance in “The Nutcracker,” and soon after enrolled at the Washington School of Ballet. Two years later his sister stopped, but he continued.  

After “Tear the Edge,” Sargent plans to return to New York where he dances but also operates a photography and videography studio that specializes in performing arts (his primary source of income during the pandemic), and Denice will spend some time being a new uncle in San Diego before heading back east to teach dance at Johns Hopkins Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. 

Neither dancer ascribes sexuality as the singular driving force in his art. Sargent thinks perhaps that’s because he’s come of age at a time when being gay isn’t quite the same pain point it once was.

Denice, says “Not so much as a dancer, but as a choreographer I’m inspired by the queer art community. There’s a lot of beautiful things happening there. It’s a part of what I want to express creatively.”

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