By May S. Ruiz
Theatre saw its early beginnings over two thousand years ago in Athens, Greece when festivals were held in March to honor Dionysus. Today, this art form is staged all year around the globe. And it can be argued that nowhere is it performed more at its magnificence than at the Pasadena Playhouse, the state theatre of California.
In the 103 years since its founding by Gilmor Brown, the Playhouse has evolved from being home to a small troupe of performers, to becoming the ‘star factory’ for film studios and a source of talent for the radio, television, and movie industries, to delivering groundbreaking theatrical experience, authentic community engagement, and life-long dramatic learning under the leadership of Producing Artistic Director Danny Feldman.
The Playhouse continues its mission in the wake of the global pandemic that shuttered all theatre companies, with the unveiling on Sept. 30 of PlayhouseLive – a first-of-its-kind nonprofit streaming platform that brings theater directly to its audience. Members will be able to access a new digital hub for high-quality theater experiences, presenting live and live-captured performances, original series, educational programming, and other industry-related content.
PlayhouseLive will highlight a wide array of theatrical voices through new and revisited work and will break down the physical boundaries of theater walls and open access to audiences all over the world. Distribution channels will include a standalone website, iPhone and Android apps, AppleTV, Amazon FireTV, Roku, Chromecast, and AirPlay, among others. This new digital platform will also serve as an online companion to the work that Pasadena Playhouse and partner theaters create on the stage when live theater performances resume.
Feldman, who graciously agrees to be interviewed by email, expands on the concept, “PlayhouseLive has a little bit of everything! There are some marquee pay-per-view events, there are original series and special offerings just for digital members, and then there is free content as well. In addition, we’ve moved all of our classes online and you can find that on PlayhouseLive as well. The theatrical events will be on for a few weeks while some of the other programming will remain on PlayhouseLive all year long. You’ll just have to check it out to see what we’ve got at any given time!”
PlayhouseLive launches with the premiere of ‘Still.,’ a newly commissioned work written by and starring Javon Johnson, and directed by Donny Jackson. The production is part of the fall line-up of pay-per-view streaming programming. As one of the nation’s most prominent spoken-word artists, Johnson shares his very personal experience as a Black man in America at this crucial time in our history. Blending powerful imagery, witty prose, and beautiful lyricism, Johnson shines in this unforgettable theatrical event.
I ask Feldman how he decided on the performer and experience to spotlight. He explains, “Our Board chair had worked with Javon in the past and connected us. From the moment I saw his work, I was captivated and knew I had to work with this artist. After the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing unrest that took over our nation, I was really looking for a way to respond with a piece of theater. For me personally, art has the unique power to bring to life ideas and emotions that simply can’t be captured on a page or in text alone. So I spoke with Javon about bringing his poetry to life on our stage to respond to the moment. I’m really proud of the piece and we’re all excited to share it with our community and the world.”
Streaming simultaneously with ‘Still.’ are ‘Jerry Herman: You Like,’ a new musical revue dedicated to the works of legendary Broadway composer/lyricist Jerry Herman, and new works from Ojai Playwrights Conference.
There’s also ‘Family Entertainment’ with the Bob Baker Marionette Theatre‘s production of ‘The Circus.’ Filmed in front of a live audience, it features over 100 of Bob Baker’s exquisitely hand-crafted marionettes – where the fiercest and the mildest of animals roam, trapeze performers execute daring, spine chilling aerial feats of acrobatics, and the clowns do what clowns do best. A beloved Los Angeles tradition, a Bob Baker puppet show has been experienced by more than one million children of all ages since the Theater’s establishment in 1963.
Other programs include the pilot episodes of four new series: ‘In Development’ gives an insider’s look at unproduced theatrical works as they are introduced to the world for the first time. The first episode will feature Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman performing excerpts from ‘Iceboy!,’ a new musical by Mark Hollmann, Jay Reiss and Erin Quinn Purcell.
‘Intermission with Hashtag Booked’ features celebrity interviews hosted by LaNisa Frederick and Danielle Pinnock, a comedic duo that started the web series ‘Hashtag Booked.’ Their first guest will be acclaimed actor Alfred Molina.
‘Page to Stage’ goes behind the curtain to explore the theatrical journey from concept on to opening night. In ‘Page to Stage: Little Shop of Horrors,’ the creative team at Pasadena Playhouse takes us from rehearsal to opening night of their groundbreaking revival. It features interviews with George Salazar, Mj Rodriguez and Amber Riley. ‘Page to Stage’ is free to the public.
‘From the Archives’ celebrates the unique impact regional theater has had across generations in shaping American culture. Initial episodes include a silent film featuring rare vintage footage of The Playhouse from the 1930s; a documentary short chronicling the years the Playhouse went dark (1968 through 1984) and the journey of the extraordinary woman who kept the hope alive to bring the historic theater back; and a fascinating look at the historic 1928 production of Eugene O’Neill’s ‘Lazarus Laughed’ which brought 151 actors together to perform 420 roles in a four-act play – a memorable production that put Pasadena Playhouse on the map.
PlayhouseLive will also feature educational Programming, including ‘The Everyday Avant Garde in Black Theatre Making,’ led by award-winning writer, composer, and performer Eisa Davis; ‘Shakespeare Masterclass’ led by internationally-recognized director and actor Rob Clare; ‘Basics of Stage Management,’ led by Broadway stage managers Kathleen Purvis and Andrew Neal, and the return of Adam Epstein with ‘The Contemporary Broadway Musical’ and Janet Fontaine with ‘Playtime with Miss Janet.’
I then ask Feldman to describe the challenge of pivoting from live stage productions to virtual offerings, what went into planning the events for PlayhouseLive, and how he plans to recreate the communal experience of live theatre when we can’t physically be with other people.
“First of all, nothing can replicate the live experience and that wasn’t something we were trying to do in any way,” clarifies Feldman. “Rather, we wanted to provide an alternative experience that merged the worlds of theater, film and television. It’s a hybrid experience and something we had fun exploring. In addition, we wanted to pull the curtain back and expose the backstage world with documentaries, interviews with artists and other behind-the-scenes shows giving patrons an experience they can’t get by sitting in our seats in the theater.”
“This was a massive challenge and I’m so proud of our Playhouse team for pulling this off. Between learning new skills, adapting our existing expertise, and all the COVID complications, we’ve all grown so much since we started this effort a few months ago,” declares Feldman.
An empty theatre must be a lonely sight and I ask Feldman if he has been to the Playhouse since the lockdown began in mid-March. He replies, “Yes! I’m actually here in the building right now! It’s a little haunting seeing the empty theater but it’s actually one of my favorite things. There is an amazing energy inside the empty auditorium. The potential of what is to come is present when you stand on the bare stage. I like to think about all the people and great theater that will inhabit this building when this mess is all over. That’s exciting!”
What lessons can we learn from these extraordinary times, I query. Feldman responds, “I think through the grief and loss of what we had all expected these past few months to be, we can refocus on what is important to us. I have felt myself and others around me change and have a better understanding of ourselves.”
Lastly, I invite Feldman to share any other thoughts he would like me to write. He says, “There are so many people in need in our community right now. And for those who are fortunate enough to be able to support others during this time, I’d just want to advocate for thinking about supporting the arts. If we all band together, getting through this time and don’t support our cultural institutions, is that really the world we want to come back to? We must recognize that in order for us to return to a world that is full of vibrant culture, NOW is the time to invest in our nonprofit cultural institutions. Otherwise, many won’t be with us on the other side of the pandemic.”
Live theatre performances went on even at the height of the world wars. Let’s ensure the survival and endurance of theatre for the next several thousand years after we’ve won the fight against this global pandemic.