Making Theatre at People’s Light During the Pandemic
By Gina Pisasale
It goes without saying that this is a challenging time for those of us dedicated to the live performing arts. At People’s Light, a professional Regional Theatre located in Malvern, PA, our hearts are missing that frisson of live connection – with each other in our hallways, with artists in a rehearsal room, with our colleagues working in synergy, and with our patrons gathered for that distinctive communal experience you can only get as part of a live audience.
Although we are missing that live event of gathering together, we continue to be driven by our commitment to make theatre in a larger sense. In our mission, People’s Light identifies itself as a cultural and civic center with theatre at its core. Positioned in this way, theatre is the stuff we can create, but also a way of generating space for ongoing civic engagement and dialogue with and for our communities. As we build our plays, programs, and relationships, our identity boldly challenges us to invite critical discourse, strive to connect people in a deeper sense of community, and seek out stories that awaken a greater collective consciousness of our American experience.
This current pandemic has transformed our lives in many ways, making us more aware of how to take care of each other. So while we can’t safely produce plays in this moment, our charge to use our artistry and creativity for ongoing civic engagement in service to our communities remains. I am so grateful for our team of resourceful artists, artisans, and administrators who have worked tirelessly to meet this moment and discover new ways our 7-acre campus could serve the community.
Here are the ways that we have continued to make our theatre at People’s Light since the pandemic took hold:
Taping and video streaming Shakespeare in Love and Hold These Truths
When stay-at-home orders were put in place, our exuberant large-cast production of Shakespeare in Love had just begun its run, and the civically inspiring solo show Hold These Truths was just about to begin Preview performances. After monumental efforts that all took place within 72 hours, we were able to secure a filming company and casts and crews adjusted blocking and technical cues to record these productions. Actors performed for multiple cameras, sound operators, and a few supportive family members (all socially distanced), as if for a sold-out crowd – a challenge for stories so full of ironic comedy and where the audience arguably is your scene partner. The films were edited and made available for ticket holders and buyers to stream online. Digital access also came with supporting production materials, and access and educational resources for Hold These Truths was provided schools who had planned to incorporate it into their Spring curriculums.
Feeding our Community
People’s Light also runs The Farmhouse, a restaurant and event venue that is connected to our Haas Main Stage building. When the shut down happened, The Farmhouse kitchen and staff made use of all perishables that would have been wasted otherwise. Boxes of fresh produce were donated to the Chester County Food Bank and a buffet style spread was organized for Paoli Hospital, organizations with which we have developed relationships with over many years. Building on our ongoing relationship with the mushroom growing community in Kennett Square, thanks to Eisa Davis’ New Play Frontiers project Mushroom, Chef Scott Burns and his staff responded to expressed needs and made over 60 box lunches for the mushroom workers.
As our Farmhouse sprung into action, our costume shop staff and other members of our production department responded to needs in our community for personal protective equipment (PPE). Following instructions released by the CDC and guidelines provided by Main Line Health, our staff was able to provide 480 masks a week for Bryn Mawr, Lankenau, and Paoli Hospitals. As we continued to reach out to our community, we partnered with longtime supporter Leslie Roy’s nonprofit organization, Days for Girls, and her team of sewing volunteers to meet the demand. Over 650 masks were made for the Charles A Melton Center in West Chester, members of People’s Light’s New Voices teen ensemble and their families, mushroom farm workers in Kennett Square, Chester County Food Bank, New Beginnings program at Gander Hill Prison, and Kennett Area Community Services.
Theatre Education Programming
People’s Light’s wide variety of education programs also pivoted when on campus classes were no longer possible. Spring Theatre School sessions for ages 5 to 18 went online, “meeting” every Saturday morning for 5 weeks. Teaching artists crafted curriculums full of craft projects, devised dance storytelling, character creation explorations, storytelling with found objects, and acting for film workshops. We also created the Learning Bulletin Board, an online hub of digital educational offerings from affiliated artists and educators, such as Zoom voice lessons and dance exercises, on the People’s Light website. A new bank of Fall Theatre School classes are taking shape now, including on campus outdoor socially distanced Saturday Dance Days for the youngest age group and their parents, and online interactive lessons for older age groups, intended to spark creativity and a spirit of experimentation.
New Voices Ensemble
One of our longest running education programs, New Voices Ensemble serves students from Chester, PA who participate an intensive, year-long training involving improvisation skills building, story-sharing, ensemble building, and creating a new play that culminates in a fully-staged production. Stay-at-home orders began just as students were beginning to rehearse My Dear, written and directed by Resident Teaching Artist and New Voices Program Director, Nadira Beard. The play, based on the teens’ thematic explorations and ideas, is a story of reunions, making good choices in bad times, the strength of family and of forgiveness, and justice and institutional racism. As the summer unfolded, Beard rewrote the script three times, re-setting the story in the time of COVID-19, adapting it for recording with actors social distanced, and finally all virtually via Zoom. The intrepid students chose costumes from their closets, used Wi-Fi hotspots and props delivered contact-free to their homes, and persevered through power outages, noisy siblings in the background, and connectivity challenges. The Zoom recording is being edited, and will be ready to screen in October.
With our stages dark, we sought out ways to continue to put art into the world, to connect with one another, and to support the artists in our community. Having been fortunate to work with many wonderful musicians and singers in recent seasons, we invited and commissioned a number of them to come out onto their porches, their decks, their balconies, or sit beside an open window or an open door and play a song they want to send into the world. Those self-recorded, fun, inspiring, and hugely diverse offerings became part of our series called Porch Songs and were posted on our newly created digital portal, Always On.
Domestic Blitz Video Series
Soon after all of the shelter in place orders came down and we all started working from home, we started having conversations with artists about what this unique experience is like for them, many of whom found themselves in close proximity to their children, parents, relatives, and other loved ones 24/7, trying to figure out how to balance their creative lives with everything else. We created a Domestic Blitz video series, where we hired these artists to offer a snapshot of what daily life is like. These playwrights, performers, and educators responded with poems made from text messages, tours of their toddler-ravaged homes, cooking experiences keeping them sane, films of the cyclical circus of parenting kids stuck at home, and deep reflections on intergenerational relationships.
One of our favorite guest artists who has frequented our stages is musician, actor, playwright, and director, David Lutken, central to the music-infused productions, Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie, Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash, and The Road: My Life with John Denver. He also took on the role of the Stage Manager in our recent wondrous production of Our Town. Every time he comes to town, he also hosts a weekly post-show hootenanny: a BYOI (bring-your-own-instrument) sing a song and sing along with the audience and cast. When the pandemic separated us all, one of our first impulses was to see how we could bring the joy of these sing-a-longs into your living room. After lots of research, trial, and error to digitally connect musicians scattered across the country, we were able to host 4 virtual “Hoots,” 2 in mid-May and 2 during the Labor Day weekend. Viewers sang along from across the U.S. and from London, Austria, and Germany among other distant lands.
While a typical edition of Community Matters includes a live reading of an existing play, our Summer 2020 edition took a new approach. We wanted to know what was going on with our community, in their own words, in these unprecedented times. From May 25 through June 15, we shared a weekly writing prompt every Monday, such as “Write a conversation you would like to have right now,” and “Share three decisions you had to make today.” Many community members responded. On June 25th, a cast of People's Light company members and frequent guest artists then performed a selection of writing submissions, followed by a community discussion facilitated by company member David Bradley. They ranged from humorous to sublime, playful to poetic, but always full of heart and wonder.
In response to yet another publicly visible round of anti-Black violence and the outcry for justice happening across our country, we approached Black artists with whom we had relationships to offer space and a platform to respond to the current moment. From these conversations, a inspiring series of digital commissions emerged that range widely in form and content — from short film to poetry to oral histories to song — but share a creative impulse that emerges from and speaks to this historic moment of activism and reckoning. This series of commissions became one immediately tangible way we could support Black artists and use our public platforms to amplify Black voices, but we know that true change must run deep and be rigorously ongoing. We are committed to the work.
New Play Development Workshops
In May, we took the Zoom platform and held workshops for two of our commissioned plays: Emma, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s popular novel adapted by Joseph Hanreddy, and a new music-infused adaptation of A Christmas Carol by Zak Berkman. Over three weeks, 34 artists (playwrights, directors, actors, stage managers, musical directors, a choreographer, and a dramaturg) Zoomed in from multiple states to read these plays for the first time, ask questions, try out revisions, learn new songs, and learn more about the structures and heart beats at the center of these plays. Even though it was through screens, the joy of returning to artistic work was palpable as it was the first for many since the pandemic began.
While we’re not located in an urban center, we do have a 7-acre campus with ample parking space. As our buildings remain shuttered to the public, our production department turned our back parking lot into an open-air venue for a series of socially distanced drive-in concerts. Since the end of June, nine bands have performed on the newly built concert stage, thrilled to be playing live once again to smiling, dancing crowds who honked their horns for more when sets were done. Members of our staff became the greeters, parking attendants, and food runners during this summer-long Drive-In Concert Series. They were so successful that we will be doing a Fall series beginning on September 20th.
Folk Tales in the Garden
Sensing the desperate need of families with young children, even among our staff, to get out of the house for some kind of event, we created Folk Tales in the Garden, a socially-distanced, outdoor "edu-tainment" offering. Two storytellers narrated and enacted an original world creation story inspired by Korean and First Nations folk tales, full of magic, fart jokes, Beastie Boys references and with lots of audience vocal participation. Families were situated in festively decorated “story circles” that were spaced more than 6 feet apart. It was wonderful to hear little kids and parents laughing together at 10am, 4 days a week throughout August. Some even came twice! Folk Tales was a truly inventive, staff-powered collaboration and we’re hoping to bring it back soon.
Internship Program: A Radical Welcome
Typically, interns apply for summer opportunities, but, often due to space and supervisory limitations, only a few can be brought in for hands-on experiences. This summer however, with theatre internships being scarce because of shut-downs, our Director of Education & Civic Practice, Kathryn Moroney, made the wonderfully radical decision to welcome anyone willing to join us virtually. And so, twenty-five early career professionals took us up on our invitation to participate in our first ever virtual internship cohort. For 7 weeks, interns worked in “mini-companies” to explore People’s Light potential future productions, had virtual master classes and Q&A sessions with department heads and company artists, and networked with each other. According to Artistic Director Abigail Adams, their culminating virtual presentations “gave me hope at a time when hope is in short supply.”
Online Gala and Silent Auction
Like many organizations, our biggest annual fundraiser could not happen live and moved to an online format. Rather than in on one glamorous evening, the event was spread out over a week in June. Company members, staff, and Board members recorded heartfelt and inspiring messages and reminders sent throughout the week with information about the programs for which we were fundraising, as well as short impassioned and often hilarious videos soliciting bids for silent auction items. More than 300 people joined us from across the country, from 13 different states, and the event, which celebrated our commitment to Civic Engagement, exceeded its goal.
Farmhouse take out
In early June, our Farmhouse restaurant was able to pivot towards a take-out model with a new menu and protocols to assure health and safety for everyone involved. And just last month, we were able to transform one of our lawn spaces for socially distanced outdoor dining, with live music from a local singer-songwriter on Friday nights.
People’s Light on the Move
As many are currently unable to gather on campus for many reasons, we have decided to go on the road to meet them. With the help of a sizeable truck that we will be sharing with another performing arts company, The Bearded Ladies Cabaret, we’re hoping to bring pleasure and comfort to isolated neighborhoods, to experiment with new forms of engagement placing community interests at the center of future art-making, and to create job opportunities for BIPOC artists. Offerings will include a reading of and conversation about an excerpt of the play Bayard Rustin: Inside Ashland, inspired by playwright Steve H. Broadnax III’s exploration of the West Chester native, and civil and human rights activist, Bayard Rustin. The truck will also be the stage for People’s Playback, an improvisational form that invites, reflects back, and amplifies individual stories and experiences from community members. The events are upcoming in October and November.
It goes without saying that 2019/2020 was one of the most challenging and unexpected seasons in our 45-year history. One thing we've learned: theatre is unstoppable. Our intrepid artists, artisans, and administrators are constantly innovating to keep People's Light and our community moving forward together. After all, we are a theatre.
It goes without saying that this is a challenging time for those of dedicated to the live performing arts. At People’s Light, a professional Regional Theatre located in Malvern, PA, their hearts are missing that frisson of live connection. However, they continue to be driven by their commitment to make theatre in a larger sense. In their mission, People’s Light identifies itself as a cultural and civic center with theatre at its core. Positioned in this way, theatre is the stuff we can create, but also a way of generating space for ongoing civic engagement and dialogue with and for our communities. So while they can’t safely produce plays in this moment, their charge to use artistry and creativity for ongoing civic and community engagement remains. In this article, they offer ways that they have continued to make theatre at People’s Light since the pandemic has taken hold.