It’s been almost 18 months since the pandemic wiped out the faint amber glow from the hobnail lights on the backstage doors.
Last season, local theater groups offered audiences a socially distant mix of virtual performances, partially open, disinfected rooms, and reduced audience volume, with some taking advantage of the downtime to regroup.
Now they are all ready to reopen to the live audience for the 2021-22 season as theater groups, like society in general, continue to stutter through the lengthy pandemic.
The Gamut Theater offered COVID-aware, in-person performances to a limited audience first, then later outdoors.
“The reopening was so emotional,” said Melissa Nicholson, executive director of the Gamut Theater, who is stressed (the good way) to organize this season in three months instead of the usual eight months.
Last season, Gamut used all of the company’s main characters. This year they are hosting real auditions and using partnerships to open up to other artists.
A few blocks away, Open Stage offered videos, with the line-ups being shuffled a little to allow for socially distant footage.
“The impact [of re-opening] didn’t catch me until I was back on stage with a lot of staring at me, âsaid Marketing Manager Rachel Landon. âI immediately started crying tears of joy. We are grateful to be able to do what we love in front of an audience again. “
Production Artistic Director Stuart Landon said he was “overwhelmed to see people in the room again”.
“After 15 months of absence, the muscles were atrophied,” he said. “It was a bit of a shock and a lot of joy.”
Frank Henley, artistic director and founder of the Narcisse Theater Company, described a sense of “cautious optimism” with further uncertainty about the Delta variant.
“We are still in the age of COVID,” he said. âFor the future, the most important thing is the health and safety of our audience, actors and production team. We are responsible for finding our way in this new environment. “
After last season’s strategic hiatus, the Harrisburg Theater will return to staging productions. Artistic and Production Director Kristi Ondo emphasized the obligation to safely and excitingly welcome the audience to the reopening.
âIt’s wonderful to be back at the production center, to work, to plan and to dream about what’s to come,â she said.
The shows that will come this season will be different from those where we stopped our programs in March 2020 and abruptly pushed our way out the door. And because we all experienced this incredibly strange time, we will inevitably look at the pieces from our own changed perspectives.
With this in mind, every theater will present well thought-out offers that, taken together, promise to expand and round off our thinking.
“When the world opened up again, we were in the middle of planning,” said Stuart Landon. “We didn’t know what the rules for engagement would be.”
This explains the Open Stage one-person fall shows with the themes of healing, moving forward, reckoning, and beckoning.
To quote Monty Python, here is something completely different: “White Rabbit / Red Rabbit”.
Every evening a different actor will coldly read the play in front of the audience without rehearsing or reading aloud. Curious? I also. If you need a little guide on whether to bring your teen with you, please visit the website for more information. If you find spoilers, please don’t leak. The rest of us want to be surprised.
Less surprising – Open Stage has exciting Christmas shows, including the goofy and heartwarming âWho’s Holidayâ.
“I miss making people laugh and making fools of myself, so wearing Cindy Lou’s wig is important to me,” said Rachel Landon, the show’s star. “She can overcome dark places to find joy, love and life.”
Other offers this season are âEvery Brilliant Thingâ in September and âThe Mad Onesâ in February and March.
Of all the plays, the Landons are most looking forward to âFairviewâ, which, in collaboration with the Sankofa African American Theater Company, will crown the Open Stage season in May.
“This is a timely and important piece for Harrisburg,” said Rachel Landon. “It’s about white privilege and the white lens, white fragility, the way we see others, the way our race can contribute.”
Stuart Landon saw “Fairview” in Brooklyn and thought it was “a wonderful experience”.
“I came home and couldn’t stop babbling about it,” he said. “It’s easily one of the ‘top three’ theatrical experiences of my life.”
Issues of connectedness will also crop up during their season.
“After the theater world comes to a standstill, the characters will break through the fourth wall to interact with the crowd,” said Rachel Landon. “This is just as important for the actors as it is for the audience.”
For their main stage plays, the all-female directors of the Gamut Theater worked independently on their own concepts and ended up with pieces with smaller ensembles that played multiple roles.
The director Melissa Nicholson opens the mainstage season in October with Shakespeare’s âA Midsummer Night’s Dreamâ. In November, she directs local playwright Sean Adams’ clever script for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland / Through the Looking Glass.
“It’s a student who is surrounded by strange adult characters,” said Nicholson. “We can look at this game through the lens of the pandemic and attack this crazy world that Lewis Carroll wrote about.”
Specifically, in January, Gamut will host the Shakespeare Theater Association’s annual conference, bringing some of the world’s best theater professionals to Harrisburg.
Like Open Stage, Gamut will work with Sankofa this season. In February they present âEchoes of Voices of the Eighth: Stories from Harrisburg’s Old 8th Wardâ. This continues a series that began before the pandemic and focuses on the largely African-American, immigrant and working-class neighborhood that was razed a century ago to expand the Capitol complex.
Later gamut shows include Virginia Woolf’s âOrlandoâ in March and âThe Winter’s Taleâ in June, this year’s pick for the ever popular âFree Shakespeare in the Parkâ.
Four main stage shows include the return of the Harrisburg Theater on the themes of “Joy, Renewal, Choices and Laughter,” said Ondo. “We wanted to celebrate with uplifting, heartwarming stories that anyone can use after the last year.”
If you haven’t lived in a pineapple under the sea in the past few decades, you’ve heard of SpongeBob. And you may know the hit musical The SpongeBob SquarePants on Broadway. The Harrisburg Theater wants to make the audience happy with this season opener.
âThe script reads in the writer’s notes: ‘Embrace joy.’ No more notes, âOndo said.
Similar to the cartoon, the piece appeals to all age groups.
“This show is about the power of optimism that reinforces that anyone with the right attitude can bring a community together,” said Ondo.
Further highlights are âThe Secret Gardenâ in February and âNow and Thenâ in April, the only pieces in their line-up without Tony nominations.
“This is a relatively new and unknown play, a heartfelt romantic comedy about the choices we make,” said Ondo. âI’m curious what the director will do with it. I think the audience will like it and be surprised by it. “
You may find Narcisses topics on the other end of the joy spectrum, with promises of difficult or ambiguous endings at this challenging time.
The first performance is “Rashomon,” a die-hard psychological thriller set in Japan. Henley described it as a mix of Western culture and traditional Kabuki and Kagura theater, crowned with a layer of African tribal art.
âWise Old Crow Shadow Puppet Showâ is not necessarily something for the little ones, a folk tale to teach the commonality of humanity. As part of Narcisse’s mission, the show will “cross racial ethnic boundaries, tear down the walls that divide us and build bridges that connect the Harrisburg theater scene,” said Henley.
Narcisse has hired local playwrights, performance artists, and the Blacklisted Poets of Harrisburg to showcase original works and push traditional boundaries.
In collaboration with Gamut, Narcisse presents a staged reading of âThe African Company: The Mystery of the African Grove âby Paul Hood. The performance takes place during gamuts Classic festival Celebration. The same author will present another original piece called “Kill Keller,” a semi-autobiographical work about two teenage brothers who moved to Harrisburg with their abusive alcoholic stepfather.
If we keep it local, we can look forward to more original works. Aneesa Neibauer reads dramatic poems âBlacks and Unknown Bardsâ. Local actor and artist James Mitchell will be putting on an imaginative one-man show called “Mi Diego’s Playhouse”.
“We don’t want the audience to go away with answers,” said Henley. “We want them to feel challenged, uncomfortable, and walk away with the kind of questions that cause psychological distress.”
For more information
No matter what games you watch this season, there are a number of ongoing fundraisers that you should be donating to. Help the light at the stage entrance burn a little brighter.
For more information on each of the local theaters’ 2021-22 seasons, please visit these websites:
Blacklisted Harrisburg Poets: www.facebook.com/theblacklistedpoetsofharrisburg
Gamut theater company: www.gamuttheatre.org
Narcisse Theater Co .: www.narcissetheatre.org
Open stage: www.openstagehbg.com
Harrisburg’s Sankofa Theater: www.sankofatheatrehbg.com
Harrisburg Theater: www.theatreharrisburg.com
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