The Show Must Go On: How 5 Summer Theatre Festivals Virtually Adapted to the Shutdown

Special Features   The Show Must Go On: How 5 Summer Theatre Festivals Virtually Adapted to the Shutdown
 
Organizers share how technology, local resources, and a love of the audience drove them to success.
Virtual Summer Theatre_Graphic_HR

When theatres shut down in March, summer festival organizers were just getting ready to put the final touches on their programming. In an instant, their plans were thrown into question by the coronoavirus pandemic and the looming question of when anyone could expect a return to normalcy.

In a way, the pandemic forced theatres to do what they've been doing for millenia: think quickly on their feet. Whether it’s a sick performer, a broken prop, or severe weather, artists are pros when it comes to changing with the times.

So it’s no surprise that organizers were able to quickly adapt to the new world order that included a ban on indoor gatherings and hesitant audiences. The answer, for many, was to move their festival online. But that shift raised even more questions. Here, Playbill speaks to just five of the many theatre festivals tthat adapted in their own way to ensure the shows went on this summer.

Global Girl Power Goes Digital
SheArts, a three-pronged festival normally held in NYC, L.A., and Atlanta (running through August 29), moved online entirely this year with 16 full-length plays and musicals—all written by women.

The key to success for Artistic Director Danielle DeMatteo was taking the use of Zoom to the next level. “When someone has put a lot of production value behind the screen, with a properly representative set behind them, costumes, and fully-rehearsed, off-book actors, it's shockingly compelling,” she says. In addition to Zoom, creators used video cameras, their phones, and other digital devices to record content.

A screengrab from Over Easy by Abaigeal O’Donnell at SheNYC Arts Festivals.
A screengrab from Over Easy by Abaigeal O’Donnell at SheNYC Arts Festivals.

Directors also took advantage of technology audiences might not notice is missing from live theatre. “Some comedies used fun animation, emojis, and iPhone staples to emphasize jokes, which I'm actually going to miss when I see the shows onstage next summer,” says DeMatteo. “Another show did the entire play from the perspective of a screen capture of one person's laptop, so while her friends were talking on a Zoom call on one side of the screen, she was scrolling through text threads and Buzzfeed lists on the other side of the screen—all fleshing out the protagonist's personality.”

One thing DeMatteo learned through the process of moving the festival online was how big the market was for audiences. Beyond America, theatre lovers tuned in from the U.K., Germany, and even Turkey. So, while SheArts hopes to be back in the theatre next year—with the same slate of works—the festival is planning to continue its digital content with a focus on developing works.

“We've found this format to be highly beneficial to the script development process,” says the artistic director. “Without having to pay for a theatre or rehearsal studios, we can get a really comprehensive experience diving into the script and seeing how it reads to an audience.”

Exploring the Immersive Theatricality of the Internet
Typically hosted at various Off-Broadway venues across NYC, Corkscrew Theater Festival moved online this year and knew it needed to take that downtown feel with it.

A graphic by Sheep Eats Wolf from the project <i>Bloom Bloom Pow</i>, created by Genevieve Simon and Katherine Wilkinson.
A graphic by Sheep Eats Wolf from the project Bloom Bloom Pow, created by Genevieve Simon and Katherine Wilkinson. Britannie Bond

“We were never interested in attempting to recreate plays on the Internet,” says Literary Director Haleh Roshan. Instead, the group decided to explore the immersive aspects that the Internet provides in a new festival entitled Corkscrew 4.0. By hiring Sheep Eats Wolf, a film company/creative collective, the festival was able to incorporate interactive elements like chatbots and binaural meditations, all executed at a professional level.

“We encouraged our artists...to conceive entirely new virtual experiences inspired by the worlds of their plays, which could enrich and enhance someone's ultimate experience watching the real play,” says Roshan. Festival organizers hope the public health crisis subsides so that they can present the same slate of works next year in-person.

The building of interactive theatre is a costly and time-consuming endeavor at the best of times. Making it all while socially distant from home was a challenge that Corkscrew was happy to take on, but isn’t necessarily looking forward to making a part of their programming moving forward. “As a small festival, we can't assume we'll have the financial and personnel resources to continue making this content alongside our stage productions,” explains Roshan.

Still, this year’s digital edition showed Roshan and the festival’s Artistic Director Thomas Kapusta and Executive Director Alexander Donnelly that theatre adapts to the times in any scenario. Artists are resilient and still make thrilling work when given the support and tools they need, says the literary director.

While originally slated to end August 20, the festival was such a success that the organizers are keeping the content available indefinitely. Perhaps it’s that interactive element of each 10-20 minute piece that led to audiences wanting more. Either that, or it's “the rabbit hole of plunging deeper into the experience with each click,” adds Roshan.

Regional Beauty Lends Itself to a Virtual Experience
When a festival’s biggest draw—apart from its lineup—is location, a pandemic puts a wrench into things. To make up for its lack of physical audiences, Glimmerglass Festival (usually hosted in New York tucked between the Catskills and the Adirondacks) welcomed opera lovers online with Glimmerglass Glimpses.

Francesca Zambello introduces a Glimmerglass Glimpse
Francesca Zambello introduces a Glimmerglass Glimpse c/o Glimmerglass YouTube

“We’ve found new ways to highlight the details that make Glimmerglass special,” says Festival Artistic and General Director Francesca Zambello. One example of this is the Glimmerglass Lieder film from bass-baritone Ryan McKinny, pianist Kevin J. Miller, and Keep the Music Going Productions. The project, centered around Schubert Lieder, is set against the backdrop of the region. “It really captured the intangible essence of Glimmerglass that draws us all each summer,” says Zambello. “There are moments throughout the entire piece that remind us of what we love about Glimmerglass — a time lapse of the night sky, aerial shots of the Alice Busch Opera theatre, wide shots of Ryan rowing on Otsego Lake.”

Using natural backdrops went beyond New York state, too. Rinaldo, sung by countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen and directed by Louisa Proske, made use of the Sutro Baths ruins in San Francisco.

On top of the performances, Zambello and organizers found new ways to embody the festival’s values of community, conversation, and education. A new podcast discussing equity and diversity within the world of opera, called Breaking Glass, is reaching new audiences that wouldn’t necessarily have heard of Glimmerglass before.

“Our medium may have changed, but our deep belief in the necessity of art continues to grow,” concludes Zambello.

MIlwaukee_Black_Theater_Festival_Logo_HR

A Black Theatre Coalition Builds a Virtual Bridge in Milwaukee
A new theatre festival came to life this summer in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, put together by a cohort of Black theatre artists. Milwaukee Black Theater Festival began August 23 and will run through September 12, featuring three full-length readings and other digital offerings that are aimed at connecting the city to its artists of color.

"We knew that if the time came, we would be ready to host the festival on a digital platform," says Festival Leader DiMonte Henning. "On this digital platform, viewers are able to experience a full festival’s worth of over 60 Black artists showcasing their artistic skills as they respond to three moving pieces that resonate deeply with the Black community."

"The ability to share the stories told in the plays STEW, KILL MOVE PARADISE, and HOME over the internet without losing the beauty of the performance is a testament to the strength of the writing and talent of our casts," adds Sheri WIlliams Pannell, the director of HOME and a festival leader.

Despite social distancing, it’s a move by the community to create something new out of turbulent times in the industry—and one that won’t always necessarily be digital. “The goal is for the Festival to become a centralizing event for the city and its theatre companies. And given where it sits in the calendar, something of a kickoff to Milwaukee’s theatre season every year,” says Brent Hazelton, Artistic Director of the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre.

In addition to MCT, the festival is a collaboration between Lights! Camera! Soul!, Bronzeville Arts Ensemble, Black Arts MKE, MPower Theater Group, and several Black Milwaukee independent artists and arts leaders.

“All content has been curated by a group of Black artists—so we’re also exploring a curation process that doesn’t happen often in a predominately white institution theater,” says Hazelton.

Of course, having a festival launch its inaugural year online poses its own set of challenges. “We’re getting more facile with the hopefully temporary tools like Zoom, and the medium is compelling us to focus more on language, character, and relationship as the core tools of our trade,” adds Hazelton.

As the crisis subsides, the festival still plans to include virtually captured productions moving forward. “There will be patrons who still want to engage with our productions and other content, but won’t feel comfortable coming into the theater,” says Hazelton. Until all audiences are ready the show goes on digitally.

A Digital/Live Theatre Hybrid
An important part of the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center’s Big Sky Summer Theatre Festival, held July 18 this year, is providing a space for NYC-based artists at the Montana venue. But when the pandemic hit, Executive/Artistic Director John Zirkle knew that would be impossible. Bringing anyone from outside their immediate circle would have to be in a digital format.

Rodrigo Nogueira and Danielle Sather perform in <i>You Are Not in Montana</i>.
Rodrigo Nogueira and Danielle Sather perform in You Are Not in Montana. c/o Warren Miller Performing Arts Center

The result was a combination of performers on stage at WMPAC and digital production elements from afar—including actors who couldn’t be in Montana. “I have a new found respect and empathy for those brave souls that work in tech support departments,” says Zirkle.

“My eyes would glaze over as soon as the tech talk started,” adds Festival Artistic Director Asmeret Ghebremichael. “What John’s team achieved blew my mind.” The combination of actors on stage and digitally elsewhere is what really drew in Ghebremichael when she watched the work, to the point where she forgot not everyone was in the same room. “Strong storytelling prevailed...although the technical aspects are intricate, there's a beautiful simplicity that the virtual world allows for.”

The festival itself consisted of three short works that ran between 10 and 12 minutes, selected by Ghebremichael and Erin Ortman, the festival’s associate artistic director. “I was emceeing the evening and ran a tight ship,” says Ghebremichael. Any longer than that, the director says, and Zoom fatigue would’ve set in.

Still, it was important that the works themselves reflected what Ghebremichael calls the “double pandemic,” referring not only to the COVID-19 public health crisis but the systemic racism that has plagued theatres around the world. The timeliness drew in audiences, but it was the new format that captivated them. “What we were doing was so ambitious that sheer curiosity had a big hand in keeping the audience interested,” she says. “Audiences and performers alike love the fact anything can happen during a show—add a bunch of fancy technical aspects, and you’ve multiplied that by a hundred.”

And while planning is on hold for next year, Zirkle envisions a world where this digital/live hybrid of theatre continues, despite the many technological challenges. “It’s...absolutely worth it, especially because of the social distance that it affords in its development,” he says. “We are hoping that more tech companies jump on board and start making the process a little bit more user-friendly.”

While we all wait for theatres to reopen, here's to more virtual offerings letting fans and theatremakers alike continue creating.

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