by Kitty Felde
One of the last things I did before the world shut down was make a trip to NYC to see theatre. Three shows in five days! Now I wonder now whether I’ll ever step into a black box space again.
So what does that mean to us as playwrights?
In the immediate sense, productions, workshops, readings have all been postponed to 2021 or relegated to Zoom calls with imperfect internet connections and crappy audio.
But what about the long term?
Budgets have been slashed at institutional theatres as they try to survive. Grant money is disappearing or being refocused on organizations that feed and clothe and medically care for people. According to the Los Angeles Times, only a third of season ticket holders were willing to donate the cost of this season’s Center Theatre Group season tickets to help keep the Music Center alive. Just 15% of single ticket buyers willing to donate their ticket money.
When theatres open again, will audiences be willing to sit inside an enclosed space, shoulder to shoulder with strangers, likely wearing a mask for several hours? Will they even have the money to spend on it?
I think it’s time for us as theatre artists to quite literally think outside the box.
One of my favorite theatre experiences was a live reading of my play “Queen of the Water Lilies” in a Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens, the actors and audience under the trees on the very site where the play takes place. It’s perhaps the least-known National Park, the site of a water lily farm and home to a woman who fought the Army Corps of Engineers to preserve what has become the last remaining tidal wetlands in Washington, D.C. Before the show, the audience could stroll around the water lily ponds, see the turtles sunning themselves and hear the frogs calling to each other. In the middle of the show, a snowy white egret flew overhead – perfect for the play where one character rages at an egret from an earlier generation. It was true theatre. With a healthy dose of sunscreen.
It was immersive theatre in the best sense of the word. We could do it again today, just spacing the audience and actors six feet apart.
We can also create an intensely intimate kind of theatre, the kind that can play out inside your head.
Audio is incredibly powerful. As someone who spent way too many decades in public radio, our bread and butter was creating audio stories that would create “driveway moments” where our audience would sit in their cars until the story was over. We can do this with fiction as well, creating stories that don’t need that black box, just a good pair of headphones.
It was an exciting challenge last summer, creating THE FINA MENDOZA MYSTERIES, an audio drama that takes the audience into the bowels of the U.S. Capitol where dead Founding Fathers come to life, out to a Long Beach cemetery for a Dia de los Muertos picnic, and even to the National Zoo to see the baby tigers. In truth, we barely left my front yard.
We even found a way to tape a new episode in the middle of coronavirus with actors recording themselves on smartphones and emailing me the voice memos.
You can hear more about the project in this video we taped for the Bay Area Book Festival.
I’m not the only one thinking outside the box.
Playwright Ellen Struve has turned her front window into a stage for an extravagant shadow puppet play. She wrote the script, created the characters out of bits of paper and old Fresnel gels, and enlisted her children and husband as musicians and puppet wranglers. Lucky audiences in Omaha can stop by her front yard for a free performance.
A few years ago, Moving Arts created a series of short play performed inside cars. In a post-coronavirus era, it’s more likely that we’d drive our own cars to an outdoor space where theatre would be performed. Perhaps we would download a particular app to listen to the dialogue.
We are creative people. Perhaps this new normal will force us to truly think outside the box.
What will you create?