These Shows Are Made for Walking

Photo of author

By admin

ASHFIELD, Mass. — In trees. On stilts. Atop a roof. Aboard a boat.

Night after night, actors dot the farmland behind a local theater here, using every arrow in their quiver of stage tricks to maintain a safe distance from patrons who walk from scene to scene.

Double Edge Theater, an adventurous troupe based in Massachusetts’s rural hilltowns, was on tour in Albuquerque when the coronavirus pandemic erupted. The tour — with stops planned in California, Michigan, Norway and England — was canceled, and the company headed home to quarantine its members and renegotiate its mortgages.

And then they started to dream.

“We can always be creative,” said Stacy Klein, the company’s founding artistic director, “even in times of loss.”

The result: “6 Feet Apart, All Together,” a new version of the theater’s annual summer spectacle: performed entirely outdoors for masked audience members who move through the show in small groups and are asked to stay apart from one another. All 22 performances sold out.

As the theater world tries to weather a pandemic that has shuttered stages from coast to coast, many companies have pivoted to streaming, and there are a variety of other endeavors, almost all involving nonunion actors, ranging from dinner theater to drive-in shows.

Now several companies are attempting variations on what is sometimes called promenade theater — outdoor productions in which audiences move as they follow the action. The form — a cousin to street theater — has a long tradition, particularly in Europe, but has new appeal in the United States this summer because of the relative ease of keeping patrons apart outdoors.

In Missouri, the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival, which canceled its annual Shakespeare in the Park productions, is instead offering “A Late Summer Night’s Stroll,” loosely based on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” with 15 scenes at different sites in Forest Park. The free production, which runs through Sept. 6, has proved so popular that all 23 nights were booked before the first performance.

And in Rhode Island, the Wilbury Theater Group and WaterFire Providence are presenting “Decameron, Providence,” inspired by Boccaccio’s 14th-century work about young people trying to escape the Black Death; the show is being presented until Aug. 22 at 10 locations on the grounds of a former locomotive factory.

“It would be easy to shut the doors and hunker down until there’s a vaccine, ” said Josh Short, the Wilbury artistic director, “but times like this is when theater and storytelling is so important.”

There are many variations on the theme. In New York City, where any kind of in-person production is likely to attract a crowd, Here Arts Center is offering a downloadable soundwalk, “Cairns,” by the performer Gelsey Bell (“Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812”); participants can listen on their own as they wander through Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery.

And in western New York, Artpark, which ordinarily presents rock concerts at venues including a 10,000 seat outdoor amphitheater, is instead offering “The Art of Walking,” a site-specific, interactive event for no more than 25 people who, wearing sanitized headphones, are guided by two actors on an hourlong walk through a portion of the vast park on the Niagara Gorge. A stage manager follows in a cart with a soundboard, mixing audio.

“It’s an emotional experience now — almost a healing experience,” said Sonia Clark, the executive director of Artpark & Company. “I can be outside; I can see live performance in front of me; I’m safe and it feels good.”

Clark said she has long been interested in European street theater, but that the art form is difficult to finance in the United States. She encountered the work of the Spanish artists Itsaso Iribarren and Germán de la Riva at a street theater festival in Spain; last fall she matched them with a New York-based writer and director, Carin Jean White, and invited the three to create a work for the 150-acre state park where her nonprofit operates.

When the pandemic made in-person collaboration impossible, she wondered if it would be possible to continue, but the team forged a relationship online and created a script that combines poetry, music and physical theater.

This show, like most of these ventures, loses money — tickets are $15 — and Clark, whose organization ordinarily has a $5.5 million annual budget, said “we still have our challenges — it’s going to be rough.” But, she said, “responding to what is happening to us today, in this place, in this community, is the main point of what this is about.”

The Providence and St. Louis events each involve multiple artists from those cities — different troupes on different stages — and both are attempting to respond not only to the pandemic but to the racial justice issues that have consumed America this summer.

“We started looking at Covid-19, but as the Black Lives Matter movement took center stage and social justice issues rose to forefront, it seemed like there was a lot more our artists would need to talk about,” Short said of the Providence project, which costs $10 to attend. “We asked each artist to build stories around idealized visions of the future.”

Stories are told via film, dance, poetry, classical music and cabaret. Each evening, the audience is divided into 10 “brigades” (a name adapted from “The Decameron”) of up to 15 people; each brigade, led by an actor named for a character in “The Decameron,” sees five 20-minute scenes (to experience the whole 10-scene show, you have to go twice).

“The actors are a wayfinder through the night, and through the complexities of what we need to do to keep the community safe,” said Barnaby Evans, who created WaterFire, an arts organization best known for a popular bonfire-themed sculpture event held, in normal years, on three downtown rivers.

In St. Louis, audience members (one household at a time; 16 households per night) will walk about a mile and a quarter through scenes inspired by Shakespeare’s play: a dance company enacting a scene between Oberon and Titania; two violinists playing Mendelssohn‘s “Wedding March” from a bridge; even a burlesque artist who performs with a Great Dane dressed up as a donkey, according to Tom Ridgely, the Shakespeare Festival’s producing artistic director. The first and final stops will be drawn directly from Shakespeare.

Those who can’t get tickets can still sample the project: A new group called PaintedBlack STL has enlisted 14 Black artists to create arches along the show’s pathway, and each one has a QR code that can be scanned to hear some lines from “Midsummer,” and some music.

In Ashfield, where the run ended on Sunday, Double Edge presented eight scenes from a variety of myth-inspired works it had been performing over the years, including some still in development, all linked, Klein said, by the themes of “flight, loss and possibility.” Tickets were $42 for adults; at first, only 36 people were allowed per performance, moving through the scenes in three groups of 13; when it became clear that demand was high and safety was possible, that capacity was increased to 45.

Klein said the feedback has been intense.

“It’s just such an important moment for people to have something live,” she said. “We really appreciated being able to break down the barriers of the mask and the distance — to have people feel that they were together with us.”

Source link

Leave a Comment