Get Your Act Together: Washington Theatre Artists are Keeping the Work Alive

Get Your Act Together: Washington Theatre Artists are Keeping the Work Alive
Washington Performance Art Spaces are mostly empty but these groups are making sure audiences are still entertained

If there is one thing live theatre is designed to do, it is to get creative when times are tough! We spoke with some Washington theatre artists about the different challenges COVID-19 presented to their companies and how they are working to keep theatre current and thriving during quarantine. They shared their insights along with suggestions on how to support local theatre in these trying times!

Rebecca Cook

Festival Director

Stage Left Theater, Spokane

Photo credit: Trevin Spencer

Rebecca Cook (she/her) has worked in theatre and film in Spokane as an actress, costumer, makeup artist, producer, accountant and director for over 20 years. She serves as Vice President for IATSE Local 488, President of Spokane Film Project, on the Film Leadership Council for Washington Filmworks and recently launched her own company, Thundering Kitten Productions.

Stage Left Theater continued their original short play festival, 'PLAYWRIGHTS' PLAYGROUND' virtually! Tell us about continuing on that platform and how it’s been going.

All of our original play festivals require planning ahead, so we put out a call for scripts in January, then our Play Reading Committee had a few months to read and rate them. We were originally supposed to perform in July, but it became apparent that live performances weren't going to be an option. Playwright's Playground is always presented in reader's theater format, meaning we use a narrator to describe the setting and actions and there are no props, costumes, sound cues, and the set is just a black box, so it really lends itself to a simple online format.

I discovered one thing that really surprised me when I reached out to other online theater producers. It seems that many of the theater events I saw locally online were actually pre-recorded and presented with a live introduction. I was not smart enough to go that route, so we decided to go 100% live! We also aren't going to release it on demand, but may show the performance later in the season as a special event. We want to try and re-create a live theater experience. If you don't have a budget to hire a professional company that can manage the technical aspects, like us, then the Zoom Webinar is the best option.

We're a small community theater and keeping costs down is really important. It was such a relief to bring on our Technical Director, Paul Watts, who has helped the cast with technical aspects they need at home and helped me figure out our transitions between shows. We have three plays and 15 actors to manage. For fun we're doing a Q&A with the playwrights after the show. Once we fully committed to doing this, it's just been a matter of diving in and problem solving along the way, which is something this industry excels at!

Stage Left has been very vocal about amplifying BIPOC voices. What are some of the changes the company has made?

It's always been a high priority at Stage Left to elevate the voices of marginalized communities. We've made advances every season in trying to choose shows that follow that mission, as well as put diverse people on stage and behind the scenes. With the help of Spokane Theater Arts Council and other community partners, we're working to get our auditions and other opportunities to a wider audience, particularly those communities from which we don't have much representation. We know that the most important step is to prove that we truly are a supportive and safe space. With the festivals we've been offering mentorship to new directors and try to only cast authentically. Out of 59 actors who submitted to participate in Playwright's Playground, only 6% were BIPOC, we know we have more work to do, but of the 15 actors cast, 4 are BIPOC, and 3 are openly part of the LGBTQ+ community. In a city where 85% of the population is white, having 24% of our cast and crew BIPOC is a good start, but hopefully by continuing our commitment to inclusion, we will see that expand. I'm constantly trying to educate myself on being a better ally, especially in the work of creating a welcome and safe space. You don't know what you don't know until you try and learn.

Are there ways that Washingtonians can support Stage Left Theater during the pandemic?

Absolutely!! First, attend and share our events, because you can do that from anywhere right now. Kids' Korner, which is coming up in September, has a whole new format for actors bringing to life the scripts of grade school children and is wildly popular, and in October, we are rolling out a new event called Monologue Masterpiece. And you can always buy Stage Left swag and donate to our nonprofit theater on our website.

Mario Orallo-Molinaro

Executive Artistic Director

Jet City Improv, Seattle

Photo credit: Karen Leann Kirsch

Mario Orallo-Molinaro (he/him) is a proud biracial performer, director and teaching artist. He graduated from Western Washington University in 2013 with a degree in Theatre Management & Theatre for Social Change. Jet City Improv has been hosting online shows and workshops every week during the pandemic.

Jet City Improv has been hosting classes and shows virtually for months! Have those endeavors been successful?

Even though COVID-19 has created major limitations we are evolving and finding ways to still offer classes, virtual shows, corporate trainings, and outreach programming. It has been difficult. I am not going to kid myself. Converting a craft like live unscripted theater to virtual online content has its bumps. But, during unprecedented times like this, we have welcomed the unexpected or the uncertain. We have embraced the core of improv: Saying Yes, embracing failure and collaboration. It has been a learning opportunity for sure!

What advice would you give to other theatre groups that are moving their content online?

Watch other theater makers and online virtual artists! I want to give a major shout out to Northwest Arts Streaming Hub. They are collaborating with other local arts institutions to create online content. I think many of us in the beginning of COVID-19 had to reinvent the wheel. Months later, there has been plenty of online virtual programming to see what works for you. It will be different, just embrace that. It will not be perfect. But, watching other improv theaters create online content has been inspiring!

Improv as an art form is all about collaboration, working together and feeding off of a troupe’s energy. How has that translated for classes online?

Our classes and corporate trainings have highlighted the importance of joy through teamwork and strong communication. Being both a participant and instructor for online education during COVID, I still get reminded that laughter and joy through Zoom is contagious. Right? That even with Zoom as our medium, if someone does something funny, I will get that gift on the other side. That has been a true silver lining. It’s different from being live, but I have welcomed it being different right now. That gathering and holding space together is essential and needed.

Will you tell us about theater for social change? Do you anticipate integrating those philosophies into your work at Jet City Improv? If yes, how?

At its basic core: Theater for social change is using and evolving theater to heal/empower community. A lot of my work has been rooted in empowering BIPOC youth and young adults to TAKE UP SPACE in their communities. When I was growing up, it was scary to “fail” in front of people. Being in an improv space that welcomed failure, making your partner look good and saying your truth, that was powerful. That allowed me the opportunity to TAKE UP SPACE in class, in my community and enhance my inner voice.

Improv is a liberating and radical craft to me. The Black Lives Matter movement is inspiring theater companies to reevaluate how they operate and serve in an anti-racist capacity. I have enjoyed unpacking, rewiring and recreating what improv will be during and after COVID. I know Jet City Improv is doing that work, and we are ready to continue to grow.

How can people help support Jet City Improv during quarantine?

Donate, Donate, Donate! Even better take a class or have your company sign up for a corporate workshop! Now is the time to truly invest in the art community. It is tight! Unlike other countries around the world that received an arts bailout, we are all riding this tough storm. I have seen countless theaters or arts venues close because they just cannot make it out. We need the arts! Also, to add to the crazy sauce, Jet City improv is currently moving locations! So, any financial assistance or donating will help us out a TON!

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