December 30, 2020 at 2:11 pm EST | by Patrick Folliard
The year theaters went dark
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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