As the Pandemic Wanes, Live Theaters Create New Scenes

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In Potrero Hill, where face masks are a rare sight, theater groups performing at Potrero Stage and elsewhere still speak of testing protocols, face coverings, and capacity restrictions. 

“There are theaters that over and over and over have run through not just the understudy, but the understudy’s understudy’s understudy,” said Aldo Billingslea of the Juneteenth Theater Justice Project, one of nine companies performing at Potrero Stage through PlayGround’s Innovator Incubator program. 

The “intimate” process of doing traditional theater carries with it a high risk of Covid-19 transmission, Billingslea said.  Given revenue losses from shuttering a show due to Covid-positive actors, he argued, these precautions are “not only healthy but prudent financially.” 

Still, theaters that survived the pandemic have largely reopened, featuring plays that grapple with such topical themes as the virus horror show The Act of Care from PlayGround incubator’s The Chikahan Company, as well as lighter and more joyous fare following what Artistic Director Sahar Assaf of Golden Thread called “a really tough two years worldwide.” 

While some theaters report smaller audiences than pre-pandemic times, others, like Golden Thread and PlayGround incubator’s Analog Theatre, have cobbled together virtual and in-person viewers in numbers comparable to 2019 levels. 

Following the murder of George Floyd, The Juneteenth Theater Justice Project, led by Billingslea, managed a “miracle” online collaboration. Theaters from throughout the West Coast worked together to bring to life Polar Bears, Black Boys, and Prairie Fringed Orchids, a comedic social commentary on, in Billingslea’s words, “gentrification and sexuality and Black Lives Matter and Karens and liberals and all sorts of stuff” by Vincent Durham. The reading reached 10,000 households and raised at least as many dollars in donations. Following Bay Area thespian Margo Hall’s counsel, the funds were donated to a collection of Black-led theaters. 

“That collaboration was a home run out of the box,” said Billingslea. 

Other local theaters, however, had to pivot to stay alive. Workarounds created by pandemic-era challenges have become crucial to their long-term strategy. Crowded Fire and Golden Thread, former and current resident companies respectively at Potrero Stage, plan to continue hosting online discussion shows. 

“We love it,” said Crowded Fire’s Herron. “It’s a chance to have these artistic conversations in a distributed way that everyone has access to and it’s a chance to hire a lot of local artists.” 

For Sahar Assaf of Golden Thread, a company focused on Middle Eastern narratives, “one positive aspect, if I may, that happened due to the pandemic [was that it] allowed us to access even communities in the Middle East that usually won’t necessarily see our work.”

Golden Thread attracted artists and audiences from outside the Bay Area by incorporating a virtual component into their in-person event in honor of International Women’s Day.

“We would take a question from an audience member in the room,” said Assaf, “but then someone participating online would say something…it was challenging but so interesting to see that the two worlds could, you know, collide in a beautiful way.”

Others in the community have found pleasure and purpose in digital solutions. Kleinmann noted that while “there really is no substitute for the in-person performance,” the virtual experience of shows simulcast from Potrero Stage is in some ways better, with high-quality audio recorded directly from the theater’s sound system and a three-camera broadcast setup that can get close-ups of actors’ faces. 

For Billingslea, this fusion can be transcendental. He remembers a scene in Shakespeare and the Zombie Plague of 1590 by Eric Hissom and Richard Henry, in which the three witches from Macbeth “were supposed to speak in unison; but there was this wild echo effect that was happening in Zoom. It made it so much more eerie, so much more spooky, this ethereal sound from the three weird sisters really really really worked in Zoom.” 

Laughing, Billingslea remembers another play. For Abominable (or The Misappropriation of Beverly Onion by Forces Beyond Her Control) by Katie May, director Peter Kuo asked actors playing a couple talking in bed to turn their laptop cameras toward one another. The approach offered viewers “a wild sense of shifted perspective and intimacy at the same time.” By combining theater’s shared and ephemeral thrill with the flexibility of movie magic, the artists created something new, something like live cinematography.

This new mode of operation isn’t for everyone. Bethany Herron, Director of Management at Crowded Fire, said the company decided early on that making web shows neither suited them nor was in line with their mission. Instead, they leaned into community work, through Making Good Trouble, an antiracist facilitator program that trains artists for the many new jobs popping up in that area, and the Ignite Fund, a “particularly impactful” grant for designers and technicians, for which Crowded Fire is seeking new donors. 

Thomas Simpson of Afro Solo, a company that produces solo acts by Black people not yet involved in theater, also dedicated himself to community projects, working with formerly incarcerated Black men to develop their stories, among other endeavors. Afro Solo is a nomadic theater whose spring season will take place at Potrero Stage.

For Analog Theatre, dedicated to decolonizing the art physical theater, a form of storytelling based in physical movement, founders and mask enthusiasts Elissa Stebbins and Rebecca Pingree had to accept that virtual work would be “visually wildly different.” 

“We tried some mask things on Zoom,” said Stebbins, “and it’s just, the masks don’t play, they just don’t work when you can’t see the full body.” 

For the virtual Fringe Festival Analog offered a collaboration with Ely Sonny Orquiza of The Chikahan Company and Julius Rea of the Forum Collective “about what breaking the white supremacist structures in theater looks like in real time,” said Stebbins. 

Undergirding many of these pandemic pivots is the theater community’s effort to change itself fundamentally in response to “what really is a civil rights movement,” in Stebbins’s words. 

In a March 2021 View article, Herron shared that “There is a lot of talk about how this is a quiet reflective time for theaters. One of those reflections is to think about how to create more cultural equity and give voice to people who have been oppressed.” 

Those reflections have spurred action, with various groups finding more equitable ways to structure festivals, collaborate with artists, and make work available to audiences.

Playwright incubator and theater community hub PlayGround SF, led by Kleinmann, crafted its upcoming Innovator’s Showcase, comprising the nine companies in PlayGround’s 2022 incubator cohort, to be curated by the artists themselves. 

“Some of them will do work premieres, some of them will do developmental stage readings, and they all figure out together what they need. It’s about creating new structures and that very much, by the way, came out of the Covid pandemic,” said Kleinmann. “Instead of having a larger theater decide what resources to offer and tell you what they’re willing to let you do, instead giving them the stage, giving them the resources of our theater and our technical staff and letting them curate a festival.”

PlayGround offers its shows at no cost, with a request for donations, and presents shows online and in-person with a mask requirement and proof of vaccination. Its increased artist compensation, setting an internal minimum wage of $20 an hour for all PlayGround personnel including performers, higher than San Francisco’s $16.99 per hour minimum wage. 

“How sustainable it will be is obviously still out,” said Kleinmann. Their recent weekend-long FREE-PLAY FESTIVAL attracted “nearly 350 attendees, split evenly between in-person and online, contributing over $3,000 toward artist costs.”

PlayGround has garnered funding from diverse sources, including federal monies from the Shuttered Venues Operator Grant, Payroll Protection Program, and employee retention credits, as well as institutional grants, although Kleinmann expressed frustration with funders’ changing priorities. 

“It’s been hard to fund the arts over the last five to 10 years,” said Kleinmann. “It’s not getting easier.” 

Herron of Crowded Fire echoed the sentiment, adding that as emergency support streams dry up and other fields recover, the theater community continues to struggle. 

“But the largest sector of support comes from individuals,” said Kleinmann. “We would rather have a bigger community each contributing 50 to 100 dollars a year [than] just one person who has to come up with a couple hundred thousand.”

Founded just a few months before the pandemic and until recently restricted from doing the playful body-driven theater at its core, Analog provides artists a paid platform for experimentation, offered free to audiences with a request for donations. Analog has managed to pay other artists for their work, including Fringe Festival collaborators Orquiza and Rea. A combination of grants – small compared to the federal and philanthropic endowments other companies received – fiscal sponsorships and individual donations, including from Stebbins and Pingree themselves, have carried Analog through what Pingree called a “wildly successful 2022.” 

However, Pingree acknowledged, “it has been extremely expensive for me personally.” It’s about “immediately sharing whatever resources” she has and “not having this idea that I need to become some like very successful leader, and then once that’s done then I can turn around and make opportunities for somebody else.” 

Pingree asserted that Analog can only be as equitable as the methods used to build it and is “convinced that it will work and convinced that we will be able to, because of those values, make it pay for itself at some point.” Until then, said Pingree, writing a budget in line with Analog Theatre’s mission “will also be a creative act.”