Last month, we dipped our collective toes into our new Oregon Pandemic Theatre series by describing the visionary work that went into a production at George Fox University, which bypassed the difficulties of so-called ‘Zoom Theatre’ and gave audiences a splendid approximation of live performance art amid pandemic restrictions.
But what about the productions that don’t have the resources to completely reinvent a streaming platform in order to pull off this kind of pandemic theatre? How are other companies responding to a shutdown that’s closed venues and halted productions all over Oregon?
For Struts & Frets Theatre Company, based out of Rickreall, the transition has been difficult but successful.
Operating since 2016, when its co-founder Hannah Fawcett was still a drama student at Southern Oregon University, the company was already well into the swing of its production schedule when the COVID-19 pandemic ground everything to a halt.
There are obvious limitations to theatrical arts because no one is able to actually rehearse or perform together before a live audience. Fawcett said that this poses numerous challenges for actors trying to create engaging, live theatre.
For one, dramatists are keen to point out that “theatre” is an art form that specifically refers to live, in-person stagecraft. Pre-recorded readings or even livestream performances don’t technically meet this definition. The trick then is in finding ways to make those remote methods as close to the real thing as possible.
Of course, laggy internet poses its own problems for audiences and producers alike, but the real obstacles come from physical interactions or moments in a script that are impossible to achieve as-intended when actors can’t be on the same stage.
“Of course it’s really silly to buy into the story and the plotlines when you’re just sitting in a room by yourself,” she said. “But the things for me personally that are most successful is when people really lean into it. Yes, we are all in our little boxes and look like the Brady Bunch, but we’re going to tell you a story and try and entertain you for a little bit.”
In moments that call for a kiss or embrace, for example, an emotional look may work better. This challenges actors to think of new ways to convey emotions to an audience that will see it weeks later through their computer screens.
Struts & Frets was helped, in part, by the fact that it utilizes a “core of familiar actors” for all of its productions, meaning some of these performers already had the first-person experience working together that other troupes in the COVID era haven’t been able to form.
Aside from the physical and technical limitations brought on by the pandemic, there are also legal and procedural hurdles that most people outside the dramatic world don’t think about.
For instance, companies that had already secured the rights to perform certain works found themselves suddenly unable to put on the shows that they’d planned on and often already budgeted for. Many playwrights or firms rescinded their authorization because they didn’t want their works performed during lockdowns. This led to a scramble to find new plays that could be adapted easier to remote formats and secure those rights.
That’s why a cursory look at theatrical performances all over the country will show you that there are really only a handful of scripts in circulation right now, aside from self-produced ones. That performance of Silent Sky by Lauren Gunderson at George Fox is just one of many such shows happening all over the nation. The play, with a thematic line of dialogue that includes the phrase, “afar but not apart,” was one that seemed to fit the most seamlessly in the COVID era for people all over the country.
Despite the challenges posed by pandemic theatre, S&F Theatre Company has seen success during its two pandemic-era productions. The first was a rewritten version of A Christmas Carol, featuring acclaimed actor Patrick Paige. Paige not only adapted the play, he also recorded himself reading for the part of Jacob Marley.
“It upped the ante a bit and made people really push themselves to make this a fun and engaging piece,” Fawcett said of Paige’s collaboration with Struts & Frets.
The show sold out so well that ticket sales crashed S&F’s website for a little while, she pointed out humorously. Proceeds from that performance were donated to The Salem Cinema, a charitable component that the company always tries to include in its productions. A prior performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, sent part of the proceeds to First Book, a charity that works to expand early childhood literacy.
“We always donate a portion of the gate to an endeavor that’s represented in the story that’s being told,” Fawcett said. “Midsummer was family-friendly, so we donated to First Book.”
The Salem Cinema donation was out of a desire to support another local arts institution during a time when forced closures have hit many local businesses hard.
“Everyone is struggling right now,” said Fawcett. “(Our mission is) not just art for the sake of creating art but it’s art that’s philanthropic.”
The second play that Fawcett’s company put on during the pandemic was Dear Brutus by J.M. Barrie, an homage/parody of Shakespearian themes and plots. It was also produced as a pre-recorded Zoom reading, where costumed actors read their respective lines and simply logged in or out of the streaming queue to signify whether they were onstage or not. Audience members paid to watch via streaming on the S&F website during Valentine’s weekend.
While power outages across the Willamette Valley stalled many customers’ ability to stream the show, the company was able to easily extend the window of time for electronic ticket holders to see the play.
While S&F has been able to weather the storm of uncertainty from the global pandemic, others haven’t been so fortunate. Fawcett said that this period of time will really test Oregonians’ commitment to supporting local arts, particularly dramatic ones.
“I think people forget that performing arts are hurting right now,” she said. “We can all turn on Netflix and all our favorite TV shows are still there but we don’t really think about how it’s gonna look in a few years when local art troupes go away because of how much they were hurt by all this.”
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