“We’re living in unprecedented times…”
How many times have you heard that in the last two months?
Living in the thick of Los Angeles County, one can’t deny the effects that COVID-19 has had on the LA community, especially within the arts. Before the pandemic, theaters were getting ready to launch their 2020-2021 seasons, clean their venues for incoming Hollywood Fringe productions, and hold long-awaited annual galas, festivals, and workshops. Now? Companies are relying on Zoom and other streaming platforms to continue providing artistic content to the community, including readings, webinars, and even full-blown theatrical productions – some prerecorded, some live!
Because these times are unprecedented, because we’ve never had to bring theater into a virtual space, we’re left with the questions: What is theater now? Is it changing? And what does our future look like now that this has happened?
We (virtually) sat down with Tanya White, artistic director of Santa Monica Repertory Theater, to talk about SMRT’s upcoming 2nd Annual Playreading Festival; the eerie relevance of the Festival’s predetermined theme, #BraveNewWorld; and the reading of AGELESS by Bridgette Dutta Portman, directed by SMRT co-founder and resident director Sarah Gurfield. The Festival, held on May 16th via StreamYard, includes a Special Kick-off Conversation on May 14th, a playwriting workshop, and pre- and post-show discussions concerning Portman’s intriguing piece.
LAFPI: Tell us a little bit about Santa Monica Rep’s mission and why it’s important to you.
Tanya White: Our mission is using theater to tell stories and also engage our community in the process, both in the creation of work and also in the discussion with the artists & production. Whatever it is that we are doing, we always have a post-show discussion.
We’ll be actually talking about why that mission is important at our Kick-Off Conversation next Thursday, preceding our Festival . The panel is going to discuss what theater is and why it matters. I believe that theater is kind of an essential piece of a society that allows people to step out of their own experience and look at something from somebody else’s point of view.
Of course, you have the playwright’s point of view and the director’s perspective of the piece. But what you’re also seeing is walking, talking people who are experiencing things that you can mostly identify with, even if you are different than the character. We all experience the same kinds of feelings. But it’s communal in the fact that we’re all witnessing the same thing. It’s how it’s expressed, I think, that makes us unique.
LAFPI: This is Santa Monica Rep’s 2nd Annual Playreading Festival, spotlighting women artists. What has it been like transitioning from providing the event in-person to providing it online?
Tanya: Before this, we really didn’t focus on recording a live theater event. If we did, usually it’s for archival purposes, not actually to rebroadcast or stream. People are at different levels of comfortability with technology. So that that’s been challenging.
And one of the things we were challenged with before this pandemic was getting the word out about us. We’re a really small group of people, so our capacity is limited. Our audience has largely been people who have followed us for the 10 years we’ve been in existence, which has been great. But the exciting thing is that now we have more reach. The idea that somebody can be anywhere in the world and see this is really exciting. We can say, “You don’t have to be in Santa Monica to come see us!” So having suddenly having a virtual space is great for us.
LAFPI: The theme of #BraveNewWorld was decided well-before the global pandemic. What kind of new questions do you think have arisen that are going to be a larger part of these conversations because of what’s going on right now?
Tanya: Right now, we’re having a shared experience. We’re in the same space and time together. I mean, this is not a recording. To engage at this level, we have to be present. And so maybe the question is, “what is space” versus “what is theater?” But that’s what we’re jumping off from. So what is theater? And does this count as theater?
A question that comes up for sure is “how can we help each other?” Not just on an individual level, but also how we talk about theaters. How do we support each other? How do wesupport arts and each other? I feel there’s gonna be a lot more collaboration, a lot more people working together, because there used to be the feeling that everybody’s competing for the same audience, and the idea that that’s a finite thing. Like, if somebody comes to see a play in Santa Monica Rep, they’re not going to go see something at LA Women’s Shakespeare. So I think it is the question of how open and loving people are to helping each other? How can we cross promote? How do we how do we help each other get what we need to keep doing this work?
Maybe people will start also looking again at who our audience is. Because people do target, right? We look at who we’re reaching out to. Or if we’re selling tickets, we get in front of people who can afford to buy them. But the other day a friend of mine was saying how they’ve been to every museum in the world because they can now, virtually. I mean, access becomes a whole a whole new thing. So now somebody who doesn’t [ordinarily] go see a play has access to theater in this way. We have a Festival ticket where you can participate in a playwriting workshop and a panel with two playwrights, or you can just register for the reading, which is free. You know, we say a suggested donation, but it’s not a ticket price.
LAFPI: What in the programming for the Festival are you most excited for audiences to take part in?
Tanya: The reading of AGELESS. I think we’re using the technology really well (God willing, it works!). I’m really excited about the about how the play translates into a virtual experience, and how we’re using the technology to tell the story. So I’m excited for everybody to log in and be part of that.
And it’s a good play. The subject matter is great and interesting, but it’s a good story. Well-told.
LAFPI: That rolls in right into my next question – Why this play right now?
Tanya: Well, we put the call out to women playwrights to send us stories of dystopia or utopia. We got several plays that we were going to do and, originally, we were set for June. Then we had to pare down and look at taking it online. We decided to do it sooner, not knowing when the stay-at-home order would be lifted, and we picked AGELESS because it had more roles for company members. We always serve our company members first.
And the theme of aging seems to be not just relevant, but especially of interest to women, as well. We’re highlighting plays written and directed by women. And again, it’s a good play. And really that’s always what it comes down to. Also, will it get some discussion going? We like to pick things that we know people want to talk about.
LAFPI: Who should attend this Festival and why?
Tanya: Anybody who’s really interested in examining what our future could look like. Such a great time to do that, when we’re all in a place where we’re reflecting. We have to. We’re alone. And we’re all aging. So I think anybody could come in and find themselves in this play because it follows characters as they age and characters as they don’t physically age, which I think is kind of an LA thing, too. The whole idea of not aging is a big deal.
So, yeah, I really think anybody anybody could enjoy the play. Maybe not young children, but I would say anyone from maybe fifteen or sixteen. But particularly, young women should come, because the play examines so many women. So who should see it? Everybody. Right? Except toddlers. No toddlers! Don’t bring your toddlers to your Zoom.
Santa Monica Repertory Theater’s 2nd Annual Playreading Festival will start with a Special Kick-Off Conversation on May 14th, and officially begin May 16th at 11am. The Festival features a virtual staged reading of AGELESS by Bridgette Dutta Portman, directed by Sarah Gurfield. With a $25 Festival Pass, audiences can participate in the Kick-Off and all events. The reading alone is free with a suggested donation. For more information, visit santamonicarep.org/bravenewworld.html