Because of COVID-19, live theater shut down from Broadway to Omaha to Los Angeles. As marquees and footlights remained dimmed and auditoriums empty through the spring-summer, the scramble to secure sustaining funds became more fraught than ever and remote programming responses emerged in lieu of in-person events.
“We’re learning new ways to make/share theater and to respond on a moment to moment basis,” said playwright and Great Plains Theatre Commons Community Connector Ellen Struve.
Streaming is how we mostly experience theater now, both as one-offs or entire runs. The boundless possibilities of online theater gives the old adage “All the world’s a stage” new meaning. The Tri-Faith Initiative commissioned Omaha playwright Beaufield Berry to write One More Chair as a remote performance piece for the virtual grand opening of its Tri-Faith Center last fall.
The venerable Omaha Community Playhouse’s signature cash-cow A Christmas Carol went totally remote in recognition of the fact massive crowds could be a super-spreader, switching to a antiseptic digital run.
A sign of the times is evident in the Omaha Entertainment & Arts Awards (OEAA). Nominees for outstanding actor, director and play from this past season are mostly for work produced in 2019 since few 2020 productions actually made it to the stage. The OEAA award show takes place Feb. 28th – virtually, of course.
The Playhouse, Rose Theater and Bellevue Little Theatre managed some in-person shows by the fall, enabled by large performing spaces conducive to social distancing and all manner of precautionary protocols to reduce potential infection exposure.
Each has a full winter-spring slate.
“One of the primary reasons The Rose decided to attempt in-person work was to continue investing in professional artists in our community,” said Executive Director Matt Gutshick. “We are proud we kept all our full-time jobs and have continued to pay artists for their time and talent through the pandemic. We need more organizations to similarly invest in our local artists, who have seen many of their regular gigs simply come to a stop.”
The Rose starts ’21 with How to Build An Ark: Searching for Joel Sartore by Ellen Struve on Jan. 22. Its run ends Feb. 21, followed by Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus: The Musical (March 19-April 25) and Disney’s Descendants (May 28-June 20).
The Playhouse is also focused on the local arts eco-system. “We’ve done everything in our power to keep our art alive during a global pandemic,” said the theatre’s director of marketing Allyson Wagner. “We moved productions outdoors. We offered free online content. We re-imagined our lineup. We shifted to one-person and small-cast shows. We implemented rigorous in-theater safety precautions. And when COVID cases began to surge, we closed our doors and moved our productions online.”
OCP’s spring schedule:
The Last Five Years
Feb. 26 – March 21
March 19 – April 11
The Drawer Boy
April 9 – May 2
April 30 – May 23
Gutenberg! The Musical!
Feb. 12-March 14
May 21 – June 20
The Candy Project Presents: Gutenberg! The Musical!
June 4 – 27
Opera Omaha got off to a rousing start with the return of Jun Kaneko’s Madama Butterfly production before COVID concerns forced postponement of the ONE Festival. The company’s adaptive responses since then included Miranda, “the world’s first live virtual reality steampunk opera” in September in collaboration with LUMA, Tri-Cities Opera and Enhance VR. Said Executive Director Roger Weitz, “It re-imagined world-class theater for a socially distanced age by bringing online audiences face-to-face with highly detailed 3-D avatars controlled in real-time by opera singers performing in a studio in Binghamton, New York.”
Instead of a traditional season the first half of 2021, Weitz said, “We will present Opera To Go neighborhood pop-up concerts. Look for new, large-scale outdoor programming in late spring.” Their January virtual offering, Modulation, was a digital co-presentation of Prototype, Carolina Performing Arts, L.A. Opera and Opera Omaha. “This self-guided exploration of these distanced times created by 13 of the most provocative and diverse voices in the contemporary music idiom will lead viewers through the themes of isolation, identity and fear – all connected by breath.”
Nearly all Omaha Performing Arts Broadway touring shows in ’20 were canceled, save for Les Miserables and A Bronx Tale, which OPA Executive Director Joan Squires said “had a significant impact on OPA and the artists we present.”
OPA plans opening 2021 with these crowd-pleasers:
To Kill a Mockingbird
Fiddler on the Roof
The Black Lives Matter social justice movement has prompted arts groups to issue statements of support and to adopt diversity-inclusion measures. Just as stage companies and presenters rely ever more on social media platforms to connect with audiences, they utilize social capital to gain agency in this pandemic-ridden and conscience-woke time. Thus, OPA launched Voices AMPLIFIED – a multidisciplinary remote series on arts and social justice. One session explored themes in August Wilson’s Fences with a panel discussion by local actors.
“In solidarity with the BLM movement, Opera Omaha curators Melanie Bacaling and Chabrelle Williams introduced a new community panel discussion series, Amplifying the Black Experience (ABLE), in conjunction with the digital premiere of the new chamber opera dwb (driving while black),” said Weitz.
The pandemic forced cancellation of the annual Great Plains Theatre Conference’s PlayFest in May, but served as a restart for the organization’s new identity as Great Plains Theatre Commons. GPTC’s added programming included the Connect series. Everything’s remote-based for now. GPTC anticipates hosting the daytime PlayLab portion of its spring conference online. Any in-person events are on a wait-and-see basis.
Meanwhile, the still homeless Shelterbelt remains in “a holding pattern,” said executive director Roxanne Wach. It nearly signed a lease for a new home before the pandemic. “COVID has kept us from producing for longer than I hoped,” she said. UNO Theatre is delivering performances on different virtual platforms. It’s added a familiar artist, Hal France, to lead its new musical theater program. Creighton University Theatre adapted its fall production of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost to a virtual format. The Blue Barn Theatre and Brigit St. Brigit Theatre Company enjoyed a banner 2019 (Red Summer and Bernhardt-Hamlet, respectively) before dropping the second-half of their seasons. They remain closed due to small venues that make safe social distancing impractical. They anticipate a strong 2021 once health-safety conditions permit.
Blue Barn producing artistic director Susan Clement-Toberer sent a message to members-donors expressing what’s at stake and in store during this dissonant, adapt-or-die time.
“For these wild times, we have imagined adventurous new ways to bring the power of story back into all our lives. We have also dreamed up better ways to harness your Blue Barn membership to extend the reach of our art and sustain the lives of artists. In the very real uncertainty of the coming year, our season accepts disruptions and adaptations to shifting circumstances as givens.”
Blue Barn’s new Bonfire Series, sans dates yet, is referred to as “the shape of things to come” with its sampler of both old and new theater works featuring small casts and performed on the theater’s back patio, with audiences warmed by fire pits.
All That Fall by Samuel Beckett
An auditory experience without precedent. Blindfolds optional.
Before After by Knapman and Price
A musical about a second chance to get things right the first time.
Buffalo Women by Beaufield Berry
Juneteenth, newfound freedom. A Black cowgirl musical comedy.
Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill
A most deranged tea party as imagined by this noted playwright.
For Black Trans Girls… by Lady Dane Figueroa Edidi
A choreopoem. A fantasia. Love and justice for a new generation.
R33 by Sarah Brown, after Shakespeare
What would you sacrifice to overcome tyranny?
Brigit St. Brigit expects to mount God on Trial and Extra, Extra on a TBD basis in 2021.
Anastasis Theatre Co. is conducting story circles over Zoom. “We are working with a group of formerly incarcerated people to develop an online piece telling their stories.” said co-founder Haley Piper Haas. “We hope to adapt Stories on the Brink online in the spring. We hope to return to in-person theater next fall.”
Performing Arts Repertory Theatre and SNAP! Productions remain on hiatus, as does the Performing Arts Collective at the Union for Contemporary Art. With COVID still raging and mass vaccine delivery months away, theatermakers and goers continue adapting as conditions warrant. Check theater web