By May S. Ruiz
The unprecedented stay-at-home orders that were put in place mid-March following the coronavirus outbreak caused a closure of all businesses deemed non-essential. Venues where people usually gather, like theatres, had to shut down practically overnight; events were cancelled and performances were rescheduled.
For A Noise Within (ANW), however, the show goes on – virtually. Speaking with me by phone, Producing Artistic Directors Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott disclose that work doesn’t stop despite the lockdown.
“We’re essentially doing everything that needs to be done from home – lots of Zoom meetings with the various departments, the executive committee, the board. It’s a different kind of busy but it’s busy,” says Rodriguez-Elliott.
Stay-at-home orders notwithstanding, ANW recently held their first-ever virtual gala. Elliott explains, “A lot of planning went into holding a virtual gala in lieu of having our fundraising annual dinner on stage event. In the past, obviously, the money raised from the dinner on stage went to the educational department. This year it’s a little different because there are other challenges, so it was an overall ask to our supporters that they be a part of the gala. We didn’t know what to expect but it actually went very well – we hit our goal, which was wonderful.”
Describes Rodriguez-Elliott, “People were able to join Facebook Live for the event. People who purchased tables for the event pre-COVID donated it back to the theatre. That was really incredibly generous. And then pretty much all the activities that we usually would do during the dinner on stage were all done virtually. We had a paddle auction which lasted 48 hours, we had performances of scenes from ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ which people were able to view through Facebook Live and also through Vimeo. Geoff and I paid tribute to the honorees, as we usually do every year during the dinner on stage event. Everything that we would have done at the dinner on stage, we tried to duplicate except that it was all virtual. It was a different experience but it was a wonderful way to stay connected. It’s not a substitute for being together in a room but it was a playful way to do it. I think people appreciate the opportunity – I know we do – to connect even if we’re doing it in a little box.”
“You’re trying to be as normal as possible virtually,” I comment. And Elliott, who thankfully hasn’t lost his sense of humor, quips, “As normal as possible for people who are abnormal generally.”
After two months in lockdown, Californians are slowly coming out of isolation. But our world will be vastly different from life as we know it. Even when restrictions are lifted for theatres at last, our new normal will probably involve wearing masks in public spaces and distancing in large gatherings. So how will theatre companies navigate this uncharted territory?
Rodriguez- Elliott says, “Various scenarios for the fall and spring seasons are one of the many things we talk about with our staff, with each other, and with Michael, our executive director. We’re crunching numbers and looking at half capacity – for instance, having every other seat, every other row. And if that were the case, we could have longer runs. We think that’s what’s going to be the scenario for a while in our line of business. We’ll just have to see how it plays out. We’re looking to Gov. Newsom as to the different phases of reopening and we’re paying close attention to the advice of the experts. It’s a day-to-day situation which changes constantly.”
“And we expect that when all is said and done, there will be very specific guidelines that we’ll follow – whether they’re based on national directives or at the local level – about places where people assemble in terms of what you can and can’t do,” Rodriguez-Elliott adds. “As Geoff said we’re trying to determine what that might look like for us. Traffic-wise, how do you get people in, how do you get people to the bathrooms, etc.”
I inquire how they’ll handle the season schedule and Rodriguez-Elliott asserts, “The schedule that we announced is what we’ll uphold and anticipate we’ll be following. That said, things are shifting on a daily basis so we have to be able to adapt to that. We’re looking at multiple contingencies, various plans that would address changes in our ability to get into the space, or in the number of audience members that we’ll be able to accommodate.”
“What message do you want to impart to your audience,” I ask. “We will honor tickets and subscriptions, if and when the schedule changes,” replies Rodriguez-Elliott. “Also, people can help their local arts organizations during these very challenging times by either contributing if they’re able to or by purchasing a subscription.”
“I want to add one thing that picks up on something Julia said earlier,” Elliott interjects. “We’re not going anywhere. We’ll be back healthy and strong. There’s something about live theatre that can’t be duplicated. We’ve been in caves, and rooms, and around fires, for tens of thousands of years telling stories to each other and relating the human experience. And that’s something that’s always going to be with us. We personally are in a very good place – we have a lot of support and supporters. At this moment in time we’ve been able to keep our whole staff on without having to furlough anybody. We have a full staff working from home. Who knows what the future holds, but that’s where we are right now. But we’re feeling pretty confident about it.”
“We have a lot of online content,” continues Rodriguez-Elliott. “We’re hosting classes online. Our ‘Summer with Shakespeare’ (SWS) program is going virtual this year, which should be interesting. We’re doing as much as we possibly can until we can get back into the theatre.”
From June 15 through July 17, students attending SWS can access the dynamic and immersive classes safely while under the tutelage of professional artists working at ANW.
“Connecting with our community has always been a key component of A Noise Within,” pronounces Alicia Green, Director of Education and Community Outreach. “With health and safety at the forefront of our strategy, we decided to transform our schedules and programming so we can engage with our students from their homes. The online program has been designed so that it can continue to provide unique exposure to a variety of classic plays and guide students through the intricacies of the world of theatre.”
As in years past, the classes will cover a wide range of topics to enrich students and teach them about all aspects of stagecraft and what goes into a stage performance. Campers will learn about swords/stage combat, magic, mask work, voice work, stagecraft and design, and movement. Beyond expanding traditional theatre skills, SWS helps students with public speaking, builds their self-confidence, and connects them with pedagogically trained professionals.
“We’re offering several options for each of our tracks,” Green says. “It’s very flexible so that anyone can do it, and we make it work for every student. With everything being so unknown, we want to make sure to do what we can to provide top-tier theatre education while understanding that a full five weeks is not viable for everyone. Our program is structured so that families can choose what works best for their family, whether that be one week, or three, or attending our entire five-week camp. We want to give children the chance to be creative and collaborate with their peers while still being safe.”
There are three tiers of the program broken down into age ranges. Track 1 is for students aged 14 through 18, Track 2 is for students aged 10 through 13, and Track 3 is for students aged 6 through 9. Each track is curated specifically to the age group and can even offer class credit for certain schools. The summer acting camp culminates in a final performance that will be livestreamed on YouTube to share with students’ friends and family.
“Students and families can expect the same quality they have always known with Summer with Shakespeare,” assures Green. “But now we are able to welcome families from across the country and incorporate technical elements via the magic of the digital age we didn’t have available before. Classes are both live and pre-recorded (utilizing platforms that are still engaging even when not live) and the schedule is flexible to allow students breaks from screen time and also provide ease of sharing computers and space. We have built in unstructured fun time to allow students to engage socially. While it’s not the same as being in the same room together, the social component of camp and youth is so important that we did our best to replicate it online!”
By now, parents have spent over eight weeks essentially home-schooling their children. They can take a break by sending their kids to ‘Summer with Shakespeare’ online camp (enroll here). Come fall, maybe schools will reopen and we can slowly get back to normal, whatever that looks like. We may even be able to once again see a play – A Noise Within’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ would be a great escape from our new reality.