On with the show! Live (and virtual) theater is really happening

·6 min read

Apr. 16—For more than a year, performing arts groups have been struggling to stay afloat, putting plays online and trying to keep the spirit of theater alive. Broadway reopened in early April, with limited, intimate performances for small audiences. Live theater returns to Santa Fe Friday, April 16, in a similar fashion, dipping their toes into post-pandemic waters with "Tongues," a 15-minute scene from a longer work, performed in an art gallery for six people at a time.

"Spring is in the air. People are getting vaccinated. We have to learn how to do live performance again and experiment with what that's like," says Robyn Rikoon, artistic director at the Santa Fe Playhouse.

The Playhouse collaborated with form & concept gallery to present "Tongues," which opens at noon today and continues over two weekends. Directed by Kent Kirkpatrick, the scene comes from Steve Yockey's play, Reykjavík and is performed in Family Room, an immersive installation in the gallery that explores themes of queer domesticity.

"It's such an intimate space for a play about two men who are falling in love," Rikoon says.

Those less ready to gather indoors — but who are still itching to add some drama to their Friday — can tune into the Virtual Theatre Walk at theatersantafe.org. Beginning at 7 p.m., 19 performing arts groups present a variety of short play readings, comedic bits, dramatic monologues, and other electronic theatrical endeavors, as well as information about upcoming projects. Viewers can navigate the clips in any order they want, and the videos will remain on the site after Friday. Groups include Blue Raven Theater, Just Say It Theater, Santa Fe Improv, Teatro Paraguas, Theater Grottesco, and Upstart Crows.

Like theaters around the world, many Santa Fe performance groups have spent the pandemic creating online content. Scott Harrison, founder and artistic director of Ironweed Productions, collaborated with the Santa Fe Playhouse and a film company, Pieboy Productions, on a series of monologues called The Confessions of Clayton Younger, written by Patrick Mehaffy. Harrison plays Younger, a drawling storyteller of the American West. He shoots each "chapter" on his iPhone, works with Mehaffy to perfect his performance, and then sends the finished product to the Playhouse's production manager, Annie Liu, who edits it into its final form. A new installment is released monthly on YouTube. Previous episodes are also available.

"I've never been in a situation where it's just me and my iPhone," Harrison says. "Even if it's a small film, there's a director and a crew. This is a new way to do it."

For some groups, going online has meant attracting larger audiences than they ever did before there was such a thing as "Zoom theater." Almost Adults Productions has been presenting staged readings for years, attracting anywhere from five to 50 people for in-person events. During the pandemic, founder Aaron Levantman put out a call for short plays and received more than 500 submissions. Actors, writers, and audiences from around the country now participate in Facebook Live and Zoom presentations for Almost Adults, which include after-show talkbacks. Viewership consistently hovers at about 70, with an additional 100 people tuning in to watch the videos after the fact.

"We sort of redefined who we are," Levantman says. "We used to do my plays. Now we're doing plays from people all over the world. I think it works so well because staged readings online look a lot like fully produced plays. You can't even tell that actors are reading from scripts, because they're looking at them on a screen in front of them, instead of holding them in their hands or laps."

(See past staged readings and events from Almost Adults at aaronleventman.com/almost-adults-productions.)

Teatro Paraguas (teatroparaguasnm.org) has also embraced Zoom, and has presented plays, flamenco performances, and poetry readings on the popular virtual meeting platform. They have also put several plays on Xerb.tv, a Santa Fe-based tech company that hosts streaming film festivals and performing arts events. Paraguas' artistic director, Argos MacCallum, says that for him, Zoom has its challenges and rewards.

"A big plus is the fact that the performers and audience can be anywhere in the world. The hardest part of Zoom, for an actor, is the fact that there is no audience-performer interaction — no chemistry and feedback," MacCallum says.

Next up for Teatro Paraguas is a Zoom production of Into the Beautiful North, opening Friday, April 23. Karen Zacarias' adaptation of Luis Alberto Urrea's novel is presented in conjunction with the NEA Big Read and the Santa Fe Public Library.

So far, the only Santa Fe theater to announce a full, in-person season is New Mexico Actors Lab (nmactorslab.com). Artistic Director Nicholas Ballas selected four plays, working with the loose theme of "What is truth, anyway?" The first production, opening Aug. 5, is The Lifespan of a Fact, a theatrical adaptation of essayist John D'Agata's 2012 book, which explores his years-long negotiation over the boundaries of literary nonfiction.

NMAL will present its first pandemic-era theater season in its new permanent performance space at 1213-B Parkway Drive. Managing Director Robert Benedetti says, "We'll have distanced seating. We'll keep the loading-dock door open before, after, and possibly even during performance. Masks will be required. We may even take temperatures. But we hope that most people will be vaccinated by then. August seemed safe."

Online events are unlikely to disappear. It's not a bit leap to surmise that the Santa Fe Playhouse is going live because someone has to jump in. But they also premiered a radio show this week, The White Liars, by Peter Shaffer. The tale of trickery between a fortune teller, a musician, and his agent, is now streaming for free at santafeplayhouse.org.

"It's very exciting to do something with other people in a room, but none of us should forget the lessons we've learned during the pandemic," says Managing Director David Carter, who directed The White Liars.

"A radio play costs almost nothing to produce, and we can go from concept to finished piece in two weeks. We learned that we can provide art to a wide range of people — not just 99 people in our building. We want to continue doing that. Live performance is always our goal, but for people who can't get to Santa Fe, or can't go to a theater for any other reason, now we have options."

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