The pandemic has left theater companies in North Texas to take their work online and outside, and it could change their approach to the artform well after the pandemic.
The Dallas Theater Center’s latest production starts in an underground parking garage lit up by shimmering blue light.
A voice guides the socially-distanced audience through a tunnel and out to the pavilion of the Wyly Theater. Artistic Director Kevin Moriarty says the work was inspired by classic fairy tales.
“So, you’re essentially in the middle of a pop-up book. It has all these elements that I’ve experienced in other places, but I’m not sure that I’ve ever experienced a theatrical story where the narrative continues and you’re in the middle of this hybrid of set pieces and characters.”
There are no live actors in Something Grim(m). The work relies on props, video, sound and light design to tell the story of a child that can grant wishes.
Moriarty says safety restrictions set by the stage actor’s union have challenged the company to come up with different ways to present work.
“What if we could do that, but we also had the ability to have one or more actors weaving amongst the audience as the audience is moving through that,” Moriarty said.
Stage West in Fort Worth has also spent the past year experimenting. In September, the company presented “Everything Will Be Fine” along with Prism Movement Theater.
Audiences sat in their cars, tuned in to a specific radio station, as dancers used a parking lot as their stage.
Executive Director Dana Schultes says the drive-in experience was a first for Stage West.
“When COVID hit, it was extremely jarring, however I wanted to find that silver lining as quickly as possible and use the time that COVID has made possible to learn new things, to try new things.”
The theater company has since invested in new technology, cameras and livestreaming software. Their latest production featured masked actors interacting with audiences through Zoom.
Innovation is exhilarating, but union struggles and economic uncertainty aren’t. On top of that, the pandemic has put a generation of actors out of work.
“That is the negative side of all of this. The high amount of stress this has caused to all of us in the industry. It’s one thing to reinvent the wheel a couple of times, but to have to do it over and over again, it has worn at our psyches and our health.”
She also wonders whether patrons will feel safe in an indoor venue. Stage West is considering making vaccinations mandatory for its staff.
“The ability to ask that all audiences that walk into the building be vaccinated is a harder thing to put forward. However, I do think that we can have vaccine nights where only people who flash their card are allowed into the building.”
Until then, outdoor theater will be the way to go for most companies.
Cara Mia Theater and Teatro Dallas are teaming up for the first time this month to present Soltar!, a procession celebrating the spring equinox with masked dancers, music and puppets.
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“In Mexico, we would call it a fiesta or a carnival,” said Cara Mia Theater executive artistic director David Lozano. “Cara Mia has a collection of 65, 70 masks. The majority of them are Mexican masks used by dansantes in carnivals and days of fiesta.”
Lozano says technology and offbeat settings are nothing new to his company, but the pandemic has brought a deeper appreciation.
“It allowed me to take a step back and just delve myself into the writing and the films and how we can further explore and investigate and find expression for those passions,” Lozano said.
Theater companies have experimented a lot during the pandemic. It may still be too early to say what will stick, but one thing everyone agrees on: there is a real hunger to return to the stage.
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