After COVID-19 forced the UA Department of Theatre and NWA’s local theater companies to cancel productions this spring, the organizations have adapted and innovated, determined that the show must go on.
When the pandemic hit in March, TheatreSquared, the Arkansas Public Theatre, and the UADT delayed, then canceled, all remaining productions slated for their 2019-2020 seasons. These included the ArkType New Play Festival at the UofA, and six total unproduced plays at T2 and the APT.
To protect student and audience members, the UADT is switching to a remote production format for the rest of 2020, said Director of Production Weston Wilkerson. In remote shows, cast members will perform via Zoom from their homes, sometimes employing creative backgrounds.
Student Spotlight shows that highlight the work of design students will include panels where they can present renderings of their creations, Wilkerson said. The Student Spotlight Series showcases plays written, directed, and/or designed by UADT students.
“Ideally, it would have been nice to wait until the spring,” Wilkerson said, “and then we could have gotten more of a normal opportunity if things go well with the COVID mitigation. But then we would have had a season that we couldn’t produce.”
The season will kick off Thursday with a Student Spotlight production of “Thrift Store Junkie” by Brendan Beseth, an MFA playwriting student. Zoom performances will be free to join, but viewers must reserve spots. Wilkerson said the online productions will not be intricate or extravagant, but will instead center on giving students opportunities to gain production experience.
“We decided as a department to focus on the learning outcomes for the shows,” Wilkerson said, “as opposed to spending a lot of energy and resources to try and make our online shows look like a normal show. We debated, and just felt as a faculty that that, while certainly interesting and useful, began to draw us away from really what our priorities were.”
T2 has taken a different approach, rearranging the schedule for its 2020-21 season to include live performances of all planned plays. The schedule will incorporate plays that were cut from the spring and summer with shows that had been announced for the upcoming season.
T2 Executive Director Martin Miller said his team is determined to present all the shows it promised its patrons, because each one was chosen for a reason. Through a mix of donations, Paycheck Protection Program Funding, and grants, the company has been able to retain all its staff and—as permitted by safety regulations—prepare for the return of theatergoers, Miller said.
“We’re just continuing to invest in our people,” Miller said. “Continuing to ask the question of ‘How can we be an agent of positive change at this moment, when there’s so much need for that right now?’”
Beginning with an October encore performance of one-woman show “Ann,” whose run was cut short by T2’s March closure, all shows will be available to live-stream with a paid ticket. The in-person theater capacity will be limited to about 20%, and guests will sit six feet apart. “Pass Over,” the second fall play, will be performed at a currently undisclosed outdoor venue, Miller said.
“We’re definitely being careful about creating contingency plans, and then contingency plans for the contingency plans,” Miller said.
As T2 prepares for a hybrid model, the APT is preparing for a busy spring. Like the UADT’s administrators, who plan to return to in-person shows in January, the APT team is banking on conditions being safe enough to stage live productions in the new year.
After attempting to reschedule shows throughout the spring and summer, the APT canceled all 2020 live shows in July. The APT’s leaders decided to follow in the footsteps of their Broadway colleagues, who also canceled all performances for the year, said Executive Director Joseph Farmer.
Instead of its original season schedule, the APT is now slated to present eight plays in eight months beginning Jan. 14, a first for the 35-year-old company. The schedule includes three of the plays canceled last season, and five that were scheduled for 2020-2021.
“When we do come back, we’ll come back with a vengeance,” Farmer said. “As it stands, that is our plan right now: looking to January and keeping an optimistic outlook.”
The APT, which relies mostly on volunteers for its operation, has no plans to live-stream its productions. Farmer said limited resources were important considerations.
Miller, Farmer and Wilkerson said, despite the drastically altered and unprecedented nature of the upcoming season, they are excited to see actors on stage and patrons enjoying new theater experiences again. Miller said the hardest thing about the shutdown has been seeing T2’s seats empty.
“This is an interruption, and it’s challenging, and it’s preventing tens of thousands of people from buying tickets and coming to see a play,” Miller said. “Even though that presents an income challenge, the harder thing is just knowing that all these people could have had these amazing experiences and they’re not having them right now.”