By Pat Launer
As a theater critic who typically sees 200 live theater performances in San Diego every year, I started to have withdrawal symptoms when the pandemic shuttered all the local theater venues.
Fortunately, there were many online viewing options available.
BroadwayHD has tons of taped productions (I’m currently working my way through the nine parts of the highly acclaimed “Nicholas Nickleby”; “Elaine Stritch at Liberty” is next).
The National Theatre of London, which usually sends its magnificent productions only into movie theaters (sparingly), is now streaming online, on the NT Live YouTube channel. There’s plenty of serious fare, but don’t miss James Corden’s uproarious turn in “One Man, Two Guvnors,” starting April 2 at 11 a.m., and continuing for a week. New productions will follow every week thereafter.
Now San Diego, a major theater town, has stepped up, intrepidly and inventively, to the challenge. Local theater artists have gotten into the act, providing creative content to keep their audiences engaged and entertained.
Some of these online offerings provide a glimpse behind the scenes, featuring interviews with actors, directors, writers and designers talking about what they do and how they do it.
Most have started at the top, with their artistic directors.
La Jolla Playhouse
The La Jolla Playhouse is launching “LJP Vault,” in which an artist or staff member shares a favorite Playhouse memory, photo or video. On Monday, March 30, at 2 p.m., tune into the Playhouse’s Facebook page, to learn the original dance from the “Screech-In” scene of “Come From Away,” the Tony Award-winning international hit musical (Best Director: Christopher Ashley) that was born at the Playhouse and was continuing to run to packed houses on Broadway since 2017 — until Broadway shut down. Tony-nominated choreographer Kelly Devine and associate choreographer Ricky Hinds will teach you how to do the steps at home, and then take questions. The Playhouse is also in the process of developing new online artistic and education programming, to be announced in the coming weeks. All content will be available on the website at lajollaplayhouse.org and on all Playhouse social media channels: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.
Cygnet Theatre’s social media interview series started with associate artistic director Rob Lutfy in dialogue with artistic director Sean Murray (which snagged a live audience of 200). Next up, on Tuesday, March 31, at 2 p.m., Lutfy interviews Washington D.C.-based playwright Aaron Posner (“My Name is Asher Lev”), whose provocative play, “Stupid F**king Bird,” Cygnet produced and Lutfy directed, to considerable acclaim, in 2016. Other guests on tap: playwright Kate Hammill (Lutfy directed her adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” last summer); acclaimed local directors Delicia Turner Sonnenberg and Jesca Prudencio; actors Cashae Monya, Manny and Melissa Fernandes, Ro Boddie; writer/actor Herbert Siguenza; Jessica John and Francis Gercke of Backyard Renaissance Theatre; sound designer Melanie Chen Cole and more. Each interview lasts an hour, focuses on the artists’ creative journey, what they’re doing to stay creative, and how they think theater will change once the doors open again. Each conversation is followed by a live Q&A. The interviews post on Cygnet’s Facebook page every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
North Coast Repertory Theatre
North Coast Repertory Theatre launched its online conversations with artistic director David Ellenstein in an extended and enlightening discussion with his long-time friend, Oscar-winning actor Richard Dreyfuss, who was scheduled to be the honorary chair of North Coast Rep’s now-postponed annual gala. Especially fascinating was Dreyfuss’ searing comparison between working in theater and film (spoiler: he longs for more theater gigs). The rest of the series includes eminent actors (Judith Ivy, Linda Purl), directors (Yvette Freem) and playwrights (Paul Slade Smith, JT Rogers), as well as high-profile locals. On Friday, April 3, multi-talented San Diego writer/director Omri Schein will talk to David Ellenstein about the new musical, “The Remarkable Mister Holmes,” for which they’re co-writing the book. The show will conclude the 2020/2021 season at North Coast Rep. After that, the cast of “The Homecoming,” which was, sadly, canceled due to the pandemic, will participate in a roundtable discussion about being an actor in a Harold Pinter play. Then, there will be a separate interview with much-admired actor/director Richard Baird, who was in the Pinter production, and many others at North Coast Rep. All are available on the theater’s website.
The new online interview series from Chula Vista’s OnStage Playhouse, “Q2Q @ OSP,” will be hosted by Emmy Award-winning actor/writer Salomon Maya, featuring, as artistic director James P. Darvas puts it, “actors you have seen or will see at OSP.” Darvas will be Maya’s first interview subject; that episode will post on Monday, March 30. Darvas has also revealed the opening production of his first planned season as head of OSP, “The Drowning Girls.” The 2008 Canadian play is a fact-based fantasia that re-creates the “Brides in the Bath Murders” committed by an English bigamist and serial killer (three of his wives on honeymoon) in the early 20th century. The piece opens on September 9. The interviews will be available on the theater’s YouTube, Facebook and web pages.
Other theaters are focusing on new performances by local artists.
New Village Arts
New Village Arts is presenting daily programming, streaming on their Facebook and Instagram channels, from performances (actor/singer Paul Eddy with a “Buddy Holly Tribute”) to a cartooning lesson by the theater’s Director of Connectivity and successful musical director AJ Knox, and a dance lesson (“Tap Fundamentals”) from his talented wife, Jenna Ingrassia-Knox. On Monday, beloved local actor Linda Libby was scheduled to sing original songs and “share words of wisdom.” On Saturday, April 4, at noon, Zack Wolfe will sing songs and tickle your funny bone. Local favorites coming up: Sam Ginn in a “fun talk show” with Steve Smith, and multi-talented Tony Houck singing original songs. NVA is also planning a “Free Streaming Shakespeare Series,” featuring local and national talent.
San Diego Repertory Theatre
San Diego Repertory Theatre has several unique opportunities for your delectation. Comic mastermind, writer, actor and Culture Clash co-founder Herbert Siguenza, who is Playwright-in-Residence at the REP, is posting a video, “Lunchtime with Herbert,” every day at noon on the Rep’s Facebook page, where he shares a virtual midday meal (he was having baby arugula and chicken the day I watched), interacts with viewers, and may read pages from his latest one-man show, “Isaac Asimov, Grandmaster Funk.” San Diego REPresents is an email newsletter that offers a variety of experiences. Issue 2, which posted on March 26, was titled “Creative Spotlight: This is Paradise — Welcome to the House of Joy.” It was an inside look at the glorious, vibrant production that was forced by the corona-crisis to close after opening night (March 11). Videos feature heartfelt comments from the widely culturally diverse participants, and scenes from the play. Now, in a really exciting move, The REP, for the first time in its 45-year history, will make the entire show available for digital viewing. Complimentary access to the recorded production will be available to theatergoers who previously purchased tickets to the show. The general public will be able to view the video upon making a donation ($10 to $100). The video will be available for viewing through Vimeo, a popular video-sharing website that streams on Roku, Apple TV, Xbox, Playstation and more. Dates and details to come.
The Old Globe
The Old Globe is offering a range of experiences, mostly of an educational nature. First, The Globe’s Erna Finci Viterbi Artistic Director Barry Edelstein will lead a special online edition of his popular “Thinking Shakespeare Live!” presentation, a fast-paced, funny guide to the language of the Bard. On Tuesday, March 31, at 6:30 p.m., on The Old Globe’s Facebook page, he’ll offer “Thinking Shakespeare Live: Sonnets!,” a half-hour presentation that gives an overview of the 154 sonnets, then delves into one masterpiece of the form, exploring its language, and how it relates to Shakespeare’s work for the stage. Speaking of the Globe’s resident playwright, audiences are invited to explore Shakespeare’s plays in “On Book: The Old Globe’s Shakespeare Reading Group.” Beginning with the two plays announced for the 2020 Summer Shakespeare Festival at the Globe, “The Taming of the Shrew” and Henry V,” the group will provide an online space to read and discuss Shakespeare’s work with directors, actors and other artists. Beginning Thursday, April 2, meetings will take place every Monday and Thursday at noon on The Old Globe’s On Book Facebook group page. In addition, The Globe’s groundbreaking arts engagement department is presenting “Community Voices,” a playwriting workshop that began Thursday March 26, meeting from 3 to 4: p.m.; and “Behind the Curtain,” a how-to-make theater workshop, which starts Wednesday, April 1, online from 3 to 4 p.m. Both will be available on The Old Globe Arts Engagement’s Facebook page
Some groups are creating new content to divert, amuse and distract.
Write Out Loud
Write Out Loud, whose mission is to inspire, challenge and entertain by reading literature aloud, sent out Irish stories a number of days in March, in extended celebration of St. Patrick’s Day. These were pre-recorded from previous programs. Co-founders Veronica Murphy and her partner, Walter Ritter, along with their stable of outstanding local performers, have since recorded additional stories, ranging from funny to dramatic, including some from children’s books that are equally enjoyed by adults. Most performances are accompanied by a personal note from WOL about, says Murphy, “what they’re doing to stay sane, why we’ve picked a particular story, etc. Some of the emails have also included printed poems that seem appropriate for the times.” Some of these have been video, not just audio, presentations, with more to come. WOL is also exploring online/virtual ways to present their annual NEA BIG READ events (planned for April): a Story Concert titled Desert Lights, a student awards event, book discussions and student creations based on the poetry collection, “A Small Story about the Sky,” by Alberto Rios, the first poet laureate of Arizona. Write Out Loud is happy to be able to pay everyone involved in their recordings and virtual activities. Anyone interested in receiving the free stories can sign up online.
Circle Circle dot dot
Circle Circle dot dot is a group formed to engage audiences by creating original (often site-specific) theater devised from the stories of our community. They’ve been on hiatus for a couple of years, but they’re back now, under the guidance of artistic director Katie Haroff, who wanted to provide “a platform for people who wanted to tell stories about what’s happening to them and others in this moment of COVID-19 and quarantine.” She held an open call for 2-3 person scenes of 3 pages. More than 70 people responded, and the first playlets aired last week on Facebook Live. It was a great success, and Haroff plans to continue the experiment every week. She’s asking for Venmo donations (circlecircle-dotdot; anything from $1 to $5, presumably to infinity), which will go into a pool to be distributed among the actors. The first installment, “The Corona Diaries, Part 1,” featured 12 short works, with Haroff hosting and a rotating cast of eight wonderful actors. Some (Linda Libby, Andréa Agosto, Soroya Rowley) also served as playwrights. The pieces were funny, touching and inspiring. They will post on Sundays.
Moxie Theatre decided to experiment with current technology presenting “ZoomFest,” a series of live video conference calls scripted by playwrights. This series allows folks at home to eavesdrop on conversations between co-workers, family and friends. The performances are live (on Zoom) and the actors are all pros. The first performance, “Safe Distance,” played last Friday, and starred Andréa Agosto, Jill Drexler, Matthew Salazar-Thompson and Timothy L. Cabal (exceptional in Moxie’s recent “Red Bike”). They were participating in a conference meeting of a fictional pressed-juice company, as they navigated the challenges of quarantine (including disruptive pets and kids), company secrets and “how the hell to mute and un-mute yourself.” It was delightful. Audiences pick their price and donate to Moxie on Venmo or on the website. Download Zoom and click the link to, as artistic director Jen Thorn said, “witness the mayhem unfold.” It should be noted that Thorn wrote, directed, stage managed and produced the initial offering, “Safe Distance.”
Logan Squared Productions
For several years, local producer/actor/director Hannah Logan and her partner, graphic designer Ron Logan, under the banner of Logan Squared Productions, have curated and produced the award-winning “That 24-Hour Thing” at the San Diego International Fringe Festival. Now, they’ve taken the effort international, producing the first-ever “Theatre is the Cure Worldwide Online Event,” a response to the pandemic; it kicked off on Friday, which just happened to be World Theatre Day. This is a live, online pay-what-you-can theater event; all proceeds are distributed to all participating artists. Audience members can participate, too, by offering a “prompt” to inspire “Cure” writers. Once you make a donation (at least $2) to email@example.com, you can suggest a location, prop or brief line of dialogue. (There’s no guarantee of prompt usage, though every effort will be made to include all suggestions). Employing those prompts, 15 playwrights will write one original monologue each. Fifteen directors will be matched with a script and one of 15 actors to rehearse via teleconference, culminating in a live event streaming worldwide. In the first iteration, there was a director from Venezuela and one from Australia, two playwrights and a director from Oregon, and an actor from the UK performing from L.A. This week, one actor from London will be performing live (at 2 a.m. her time). Local playwrights for the trial run included Laura Preble, Janet S. Tiger, Liz Silverman and Thelma Virata de Castro. Familiar local actors included Andrew Oswald, Beth Gallagher, Markuz Rodriguez and Kathi Copeland. At the last minute, Hannah Logan had to step in and direct a couple of the pieces (there were 30 the first time), joining local directors Carrie Klewin Lawrence, Adam Parker, Kristin Fogle and others. Get in on something new, spontaneous and fun. As Logan puts it, “Theatre is the Cure” will be held weekly each Friday evening until artists can once again sit together in a darkened room and enjoy the magic of theater in-person.”
May that day come soon! But until it does, we can sit back on our sofas and celebrate the imaginative creativity of our endlessly resourceful theater community. Just remember, it’s said that William Shakespeare, Isaac Newton, Edvard Munch and poet Giovanni Boccaccio were remarkably productive during pandemics or plagues. Genius just might come out of all these efforts.
Pat Launer, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.
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