Zooming In: How Rhode Island theater turned to digital

Now that we’re approaching nine months of theater’s absence here in Rhode Island, it seemed like a good time to take stock of how the performing arts have managed to stay creative while their venues are dark. Initially, it appeared as though many were willing to simply wait out the pandemic, but once it became clear that getting audiences back into spaces was going to require a vaccine, more and more companies decided to throw their hats into the online ring, and the results have proven innovative and invigorating.

The Players at the Barker Playhouse were already producing some of their best work when they had to close, and they haven’t let the pandemic slow down their momentum. Their presence on social media has remained consistent, thanks to their savvy social media director Erin Field, and they’ve produced two successful audio productions this season: an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People directed by Vince Petronio and H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds directed by Kevin Thibault. Both were polished listens perfect for the podcast generation, with fantastic vocal performances you could enjoy from wherever it is you were listening. I thought the use of foley in An Enemy of the People was especially effective, and I’m looking forward to seeing the streaming production of “Dancing Lessons” by Mark St. Germain that Barker has coming up in December. It’s directed by the amazing Christin L. Goff, and stars the talented Tylar Jahumpa and Gabriella Sanchez.

Filming inside theaters for future streaming isn’t easy, but it certainly helps create more of the theatrical feeling that many of us were missing when we first tried to navigate how plays could work on platforms like Zoom.

Mixed Magic Theatre has created its own one-of-a-kind soundstage within its theater, and they recently released a stellar production of Misery’s Fiend: Frankenstein featuring a top-notch cast, including Jeannie Carson, Rudy Cabrera, Kerry Giorgi and Michael Puppi. Over the summer, Mixed Magic, along with the Contemporary Theatre Company in Wakefield, were producing some of the best outdoor theater in the state, and it’s heartening to see them continue to produce the kind of multimedia curations and conversations along with the behind-the-scenes talents of stage manager Polly Feliciano and sound designer Terry Shea. Artistic director Jonathan Pitts-Wiley and co-founder Ricardo Pitts-Wiley have the advantage of having made themselves at home with new work for decades, which means there’s plenty to reexamine and put on film, including rousing original music and outstanding performances.

Burbage Theatre Company also dove right into digital, conducting conversations with its resident company members as part of its “In the Next Room” series, with interviews featuring Burbage’s artistic director Jeff Church. The company also released its first digital fundraiser: In The Next Zoom. Normally, they host a Big Time Celebration every year that’s become a must-do theater event, but the artists at Burbage didn’t lose any of that irreverent hilarity by bringing their work online, and in fact, I thought the scenes that made up the event were some of the best short new work I’ve seen in a while.

This is only a small sampling of how theaters in the area are keeping themselves active while keeping audiences at a safe distance.

I have to admit that as the senior theater critic here at Motif, I feel a little guilty taking this long to acknowledge some of this work. I found myself having a hard time reconciling the idea that digital theater was the only kind of theater we were going to be getting for a while, even as my own theater was producing new content every day.

Oh sure, I thought, I’m happy to make it, but do we really have to talk about it?

That was the wrong way to think. As long as something is worth making, it’s worth a conversation, and I hope to foster more of those conversations as we look forward to a vaccine, but keep ourselves and our loved ones at home for the near future.

In the meantime, we’re seeing what the possibilities are for building new audiences, expanding accessibility and challenging ourselves to see theater in a new way. Whether it be by having insightful conversations about Shakespeare with GAMM’s Tony Estrella or getting ready to listen to Psych Drama Company’s upcoming The Lion in Winter.

Just today, I got invited to a play reading of Leonard Schwartz’s The December Rabbi presented by RISE Playhouse, and I found myself glad that we can still count on Rhode Island traditions like a new Lenny play or the yearly spectacular of Trinity’s A Christmas Carol, which will be free to view for anybody who needs some holiday cheer.

Early on in the pandemic, there was a question of whether theater could survive being separated from its in-person audiences for a few weeks, let alone for over a year, but we’re now seeing that while the stages may be dark, the talent is as bright as ever.