Local theater troupes get creative during panedmic

Ben O’Brien starred as Wall in Traveling Players' production of "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" at the Folger Festival at Anacostia Playhouse in Washington, D.C. While Traveling Players had to postpone this year's production of that show indefinitely, it is ramping up other offerings. (Photo by Jessica Wallach)

Northern Virginia theater companies are reshaping offerings and keeping their skills sharp during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite restrictions that have shut down their live performances indefinitely.

1st Stage Readying ‘Virtually’ for Next Season: 1st Stage in Tysons closed its doors March 17 in accordance with governmental guidelines, but its full- and part-time staff continue to receive pay while working from home, said spokesman Emily Wall. The company also is honoring contract fees for all scheduled artists.

1st Stage’s leaders reluctantly canceled this year’s Logal Festival of Solo Performance, scheduled for July 16 to 26, to give the company more flexibility to produce its next show when the theater can reopen, with luck during this summer, Wall said.

That show, “A New Brain” by William Finn and James Lapine, will be directed by Kathryn Chase Bryer. It had been scheduled for March 26 through April 19; the company will announce new dates when possible.

The company postponed its subsequent show, “The Waverly Gallery” by Kenneth Lonergan, which had been set to run from May 14 through June 14, and now will offer it as part of the 2020-21 season.

Company leaders have been posting daily storytelling videos featuring 1st Stage staff and artists on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

“These videos are part of our pledge to be a light during this difficult and uncertain time,” Wall said.

1st Stage also has scheduled virtual happy hours with staff, subscribers and donors so they can reconnect, share information and converse. The company recently announced a series of virtual “Community Conversations” in which its artists and staff members will discuss fundamentals of theater. Topics will include developing new work, the creation and presentation of solo performances, and what performers’ lives are like during the quarantine.  

1st Stage is holding auditions for its 2020-2021 season by video and Zoom conference, and selecting production teams and collaborating with artists ahead of the next season.

The COVID-19 pandemic is straining the lives of economically vulnerable theater artists, Wall said. According to a recent theatreWashington survey, the shutdowns have caused 52 percent of Washington-area artists to lose work over the next six months, and many worry about losing health benefits, as their health insurance is based upon work weeks accrued over the year, she said.

1st Stage has applied for and received U.S. Small Business Administration and payroll-protection support during the crisis. Several foundations have made emergency funds available and the company in coming weeks will apply for support from the National Endowment for the Arts, Virginia Commission for the Arts and ARTSFAIRFAX.

1st Stage leaders still expect to be able to occupy a new space at The View, an approved Tysons development that has yet to be built. They have been communicating with county supervisors and the developer’s staff and do not anticipate a delay in the project, Wall said.

Traveling Players Keeps Up Communications with Students: Traveling Players, an educational theater company for ages 8 to 18, shut down in-person operations hours before final dress rehearsals for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”

The shows, in rehearsal since early January, were slated as the inaugural productions for the group’s new studio at Tysons Corner Center, said producing artistic director Jeanne Harrison. The company hopes to perform those shows this fall.

“Our students had done some truly spectacular work and they are still excited to share it with the world,” she said.

While disappointed by the cancellations, the group is expanding its class offerings and community events. The company has hosted virtual auditions, classes, parties and improvisational jams and recently held a virtual field trip to view the National Theatre’s production of “Twelfth Night,” she said.

“What kids need most right now is connection,” Harrison said. “Theater began as the stories we told each other around a campfire, and while we can’t wait to get back to doing just that, we are having a ton of fun, working with our students from home.”

The company, now in its 18th year, also holds in-residence summer programs at The Madeira School in McLean. Besides training the youths, Traveling Players encourages students to make friends and have fun, Harrison said. Those activities especially are important given students’ isolation from their school friends during the pandemic.

Company leaders during the shutdown have been hosting weekly “Zoom campfire parties” to connect with students and alumni, she said.

The company is preparing its summer productions, although the form they will take is uncertain, and has expanded its school-year class offerings by going virtual.  The group already had scheduled a “Spring Break Acting Intensive” for its middle-schoolers and now will extend its programs for participating elementary- and high-school students.

“Our students were in class three to five hours per day, depending on their age, studying everything from text analysis to stage combat,” Harrison said. “We also made sure to mimic the social aspects of in-person learning.”

The company’s costume shop has been sewing and donating masks during the pandemic, she said.

Traveling Players is accepting donations via its Website, which will fund scholarships for children in need. The group hopes to award more than $30,000 worth of scholarships this summer.

“These kids often have no other options for the summer, and they are critical to our community,” Harrison said.

Vienna Youth Players Focuses on Online Offerings, Original Works: Vienna Youth Players, which performs a musical each summer, on April 23 canceled this year’s production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” but instead may put on a virtual festival or original show, said director Nicole Pradas.

“The brainstorming for our backup plan is still in the early phase,” she said. “One thing is for sure, we are about to focus a lot more on original work.”

Pradas has been engaging with students and their families on Instagram and Facebook and many new students have contacted her after seeing those posts, she said.

“I think whatever we choose to do virtually will have a really positive impact on the participating students and whoever chooses to watch it,” Pradas said.

The town of Vienna still is funding the company and the troupe’s leaders will resubmit a funding request after they determine the extent of the company’s new virtual programming.

“They have been very generous, but I also know that they, too, are struggling with so much of their programming being canceled, so we will see what happens,” Pradas said.

The company’s small staff has been pursuing personal projects. Professional jazz singer Tara Hoffman, who was music director for last year’s production of “The Wedding Singer,” recently moved to Florida and is installing a recording studio in her home, where she will make recordings of her work.

Pradas is studying creative aging and building a Website to provide visual- and performing-arts programming for older adults through her other company, WonderGo.

“My hope is that I can brighten the lives of our older generation with art and dance lessons that they can do at home or in their retirement communities,” she said.

McLean Community Players Delays Show, Surveys Potential Audience: McLean Community Players (MCP) is adjusting to the crisis by shifting its summer show until February and doing more audience research.

MCP depends on core people who have been active for many years in the company or one of its predecessors. These people, many of whom serve on the board, still are exchanging ideas and communicating via e-mail and telephone, said spokesman Cathy Farnsworth.

The company, with significant support from private donors, last fall secured a license to perform a 75th-anniversary production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel” for three weekends this July at the McLean Community Center’s Alden Theatre, said Mike Scott, the show’s co-producer.

The company had to cancel the show because it could not meet social-distancing requirements for its large cast during rehearsals, he said.

MCP postponed the production until three weekends next February and will hold auditions in late October. All members of the original orchestra and production team are committed to that schedule, including directors Kevin and Pamela McCormack.

“A further assessment will be made by the MCP board in the early fall whether we should cancel the production or postpone it a second time,” Scott said. “For now, however, MCP will be taking the preliminary steps necessary to mount the February production.”

The company regularly has been updating its Website and Facebook page and has begun surveying people on its e-mail list regarding the kinds of shows they’re interested in, how often they attend theater performances and where they live.

“The objectives were to gain more of a sense of who our audience is and to keep our name out there,” said MCP president Bunny Bonnes.

Vienna Theatre Company Cancels Show, Readies New Season: Vienna Theatre Company’s (VTC) has scrapped its upcoming production and now is adjusting to the new reality caused by the COVID-19 crisis.

“Basically we are like everyone else, sitting on pins and needles, waiting to see what is going to happen to all the performing and visual arts moving forward,” said spokesman Laura Fargotstein.

The company has experienced disrupted seasons in recent years, she said. The group had to perform limited productions at alternative venues, including the Vienna Volunteer Fire Department and Vienna Baptist Church, when the Vienna Community Center was closed for renovations and expansion.

“Putting a ‘normal’ season on hold is not new to us,” Fargotstein said. “We’re coping.”

VTC leaders were disappointed at having to cancel the spring production, “The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940,” which would have run for three weekends starting April 17. The company will not be able to perform the show with that particular cast and crew because of next season’s scheduling and commitments, she said.

VTC has been sending out e-mails about the group’s next season and staying in contact with supporters, actors, designers and directors. The group also has updated its Website and held board meeting via Zoom.

The group continues to prepare for it planned fall show, Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” which will be followed by Neil Simon’s “The Dinner Party” in the winter and Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” next spring.

Some VTC cast and crew members are staying engaged by participating in online programs offered by other theater companies and entertainment operations. Examples include virtual play readings offered by the City of Fairfax Theatre Company.

“This way, a person can practice their skills in a safe place – their homes – while still interacting with fellow theater folks and bringing entertainment to those who join those projects as [an]  audience,” Fargotstein said.

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