Local Theaters Rebound

Reckoning and Reinvention in a Pandemic

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Production still from Theater Alliance's "City in Transition."

In March 2020, pandemic jitters reverberated across the District. By April, a stay-at-home order was in place. In the next 14 months, the leaders and creative teams of two Capitol Hill theater companies and their neighbors to the west and south would deftly navigate operations and creative development amid a national shutdown. They will never be quite the same.

On March 23, 2020, Mosaic Theater Company suspended its season and postponed its world premieres of “The Till Trilogy” and “Inherit the Windbag.” The theater’s announcement harks back to the innocence of the “before times”: “Resuming operations in late summer — when the worst, we hope, will be behind us — seems to be the best path forward…”

Arena Stage cut short its 70th anniversary season. Theater Alliance, midway through the run of “This Bitter Earth,” canceled rehearsals for the season’s final show.

Folger Theatre seemed to fare the best, having closed for the Folger Shakespeare Library’s long-planned renovations on March 2. Still, a partnership with the National Building Museum to stage “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as part of the “Folger on the Road” season was put on hold. 

“The very nature of theater and performance is to constantly be creating and sharing,” said Beth Emelson, the Folger’s associate director of public programs and associate artistic producer. “For theaters, being in the room with actors and audiences is the very essence of the work.” Suddenly, they had to pause: Step back, reflect, and thoughtfully respond. 

Beth Emelson, Associate Director of Public Programs and Associate Artistic Producer, Folger Theatre

Embracing A Virtual Reality

As the shutdown stretched from weeks to months, some theaters expanded their online presence with conversations, engaging their loyal audience members and connecting with new ones hunkered down at home. In April, Mosaic began its Encountering Emmett Series, online events that explored the political and social impact of the death of Emmett Till and the continued struggle for justice and equality. 

Arena Stage launched Artistic Director Molly Smith’s interviews with people she calls “innovative thinkers and creative firebrands.” “It was fun and enlightening to speak with so many people from all over about our reactions to the vital social justice movement and how we were dealing with the pandemic,” Smith said. 

However, moving performances online could be more complex. Although companies often record archival films of their plays, their dissemination is strictly limited by contracts with playwrights, directors, actors and production staffs. Thanks to the contract governing the filming of its 2008 Helen Hayes Award-winning production of “Macbeth,” the Folger was able to release the film for free on YouTube in March. “That was an amazing opportunity for students, teachers and other audiences,” said Emelson. “We‘ve had 250,000 views this year.” 

Other theaters found an answer in creating new works that blend live theater and film. Arena Stage produced “May 22, 2020,” a docudrama that captures one day in the life of 10 local residents living through the pandemic. Area playwrights interviewed the residents and transformed their stories into original monologues — performed by local favorites such as Ed Gero, Nancy Robinette and KenYatta Rogers. “Our purpose as a regional theater reflecting our city is a powerful motivator,” said Smith, who directed the film. “This part of America is unlike any other part of America, and we want to capture it.” 

Fargo Tbakhi and Dina Soltan, in Mosaic’s “Keffiyeh/Made in China,
Episode 1: 60 Seconds.” Photo: Chris Wren

Mosaic tackled the challenge of safely filming a production by taping actors at home in front of a green screen. “We had already held a dress rehearsal for ‘Inherit the Windbag’ before we closed,” said Managing Director and Producer Serge Seiden. “So we bought the lights, cameras and mikes; took them to the actors’ homes with props and costumes; and held a Zoom rehearsal and performance.” (The production can still be viewed free of charge through June 30 on Mosaic’s website.) 

Mosaic also streamed “Dear Mapel,” attracting more than 1,000 viewers for Playwright in Residence Psalmayene 24’s first development project. “We workshopped it and recorded it in a restaurant,” said Seiden. “The process was hybrid and experimental, applying animation to the footage that will probably be part of the live production next year.” 

Theater Alliance broke new ground integrating stage and film production and never looked back. “We didn’t want to dip our toe into digital production if we weren’t going to do it over the long term,” said Managing Director Jen Clements. “It’s a great way to reach more people, including those who have been unable to travel to the playhouse as well as the communities that people involved in the theater can bring with them from great distances.”

Reckoning With Racial Equity

In May, even as theaters were still pivoting to hosting conversations and performances online and grappling with their long-term options, a second crisis shook the nation after the murder of George Floyd. Amid the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement, theaters played a key role in examining systemic racism within the District and beyond.

Folger Shakespeare Library Director Michael Witmore issued a compelling statement on that role. “Calling out completely unacceptable violence against African Americans, including the killing of George Floyd, is only part of what we must do. It is a start,” he wrote. “We must acknowledge, in words and actions, that the fight against racial injustice is essential to what we do as an institution presenting the arts and humanities to the public.”

Theater Alliance burst out of the gate. “We asked ourselves, how do we act responsibly and responsively?” said Clements. “How do we make a choice that’s right for this moment?” The answer: “A Protest in Eight.”

Drawing on Theater Alliance’s own reservoir of writing talent cultivated through its Hothouse series, Producing Artistic Director Raymond Caldwell commissioned young Black playwrights to develop eight 10-minute plays on the legislative changes needed to address our nation’s racial oppression. Their inventive narratives — produced as half theater, half film — illuminate issues such as reparations, stop and frisk, school-to-prison pipelines and more. The company was able to safely film the series at the Anacostia Playhouse with actors who were already working together in a pandemic “bubble” at Howard University and a design team that shared a house.

Arena Stage produced its third film in four months, “The 51st State,” a docudrama inspired by the summer’s protests and the ongoing quest to make the District a sovereign state. The 60-minute film showcases the divergent perspectives of 11 residents — from a first-time protestor to a fourth-generation Washingtonian political scientist — through stories told by 10 local playwrights. “What an amazing and overwhelming time to live in, in the midst of a pandemic with tragedy after tragedy, and yet people coming together for positive change,” said Smith, who directed the film. 

Molly Smith, Artistic Director, Arena Stage

For Mosaic, the examination of diversity and equity extended to its own structures and processes. That may seem surprising for a company that was formed to advance cultural understanding and social justice. But as Seiden explained, “We took the time to examine antiracism in the theater. We honed our values against the ways in which we make decisions. Our focus had been broad, but we educated ourselves, studied ‘How To Be an Antiracist’ (by Ibram X. Kendi), and learned new things about intersectionality. We really put our values to the test.

“Our view had to be replaced with a more specific analysis,” Seiden said. “For example, we discovered that in our work focused on the Middle East, we had never produced a play by a Palestinian without using the lens of a Jewish Israeli, and very few of our productions were written by Palestinians.” At the same time, Mosaic established a form of collaborative leadership: Instead of having a single creative director plan the coming season, Mosaic created a broadly representative core planning team that selects and meets with the playwrights. 

Raising Diverse Voices

In the pandemic’s second year, theaters continued their creative adaptation and response to the burning issues of justice and diversity, even as they prepared for a return to the stage. 

In April, the Folger collaborated with Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company to film “Where We Belong,” a one-person play by Mohegan theater-maker Madeline Sayet (streaming on demand from June 14 to July 11). Sayet based the play on her time studying Shakespeare in England, where she found a country unwilling to acknowledge its ongoing role in colonialism. The play draws parallels between her experience and those of her Native ancestors who journeyed to England in the 1700s. 

Mosaic’s search for a play that speaks directly to the experiences of Palestinians led the planning committee to “Keffiyeh/Made in China” by Ramallah-based playwright Dalia Taha. Comprising seven web episodes — the first premiering on May 11 — the play depicts slices of Palestinian life under the decades-long Israeli occupation. As part of the company’s commitment to authenticity and inclusion, the film’s production team was majority Middle Eastern and North African. 

This spring, Arena began streaming Arena Riffs, its three-part commissioned musical series, created by indie-folk duo Abigail and Shaun Bengson, composer Rona

Siddiqui and Mosaic Theater’s Playwright in Residence Psalmayene 24. The films span themes of the grief and void created by the pandemic, the nationwide reckoning on racial injustice, and finding joy in difficult times.

Theater Alliance premiered “City in Transition: The Quadrant Series,” a film that was originally envisioned for performance at the Anacostia Playhouse and in venues across the District. Instead, it became a fully digital production. 

Four playwrights working in the Theater Alliance Hothouse New Play Development program each developed a narrative specific to one of D.C.’s quadrants, weaving together an exploration of hip-hop culture, the nonprofit industrial complex, gentrification, and changing demographics. As Caldwell explained, “Each of the quadrants is so different, but their symbiotic relationship is what makes our city so unique. City in Transition is both an exploration and a love letter to the city we call home.” 

These four companies, pillars of the theater community, have not only endured and survived the pandemic; they have used the daunting challenges of the past year to fuel their creative insight and energy. As they announce their plans for the coming season, it’s clear that their work will never be the same. It will be even better, whatever the pandemic may bring. 

Barbara Wells is a writer and editor for Reingold, a social marketing communications firm. She and her husband live on Capitol Hill.