Live theater is a dangerous place.
We know it as a place where audacious ideas and forms – The Seagull, Death of a Salesman, Angels in America, A Strange Loop – saunter their risky walks across the stage. But it’s also a high-wire act, where a catastrophic misstep by an actor or by technical support can deflate the fictive dream or even – as we saw in Spiderman, the Musical – endanger the life of a performer. And during the present plague, even the most conventional productions take risks which were unimaginable a year ago.
So why is Keegan Theatre doing two shows live, in rep?
“The undeniable draw of art happening live — that thrill, that spontaneity — is what drove our decision to produce the rep this way,” Artistic Director Susan Marie Rhea says. “We were inspired by the possibility of returning to theater happening…happening in real time, with full theatrical production values behind it, with designers and artists creating a world on our stage, and actors performing the show live each night.”
Make no mistake: you will not be invited to sit in Keegan’s comfortable Church Street Theatre to watch Lisa Stephen Friday’s one-actor musical Trans Am or Drew Anderson and Dwayne Lawson-Brown in From Gumbo to Mumbo. Instead, these performances will be live-streamed to you on Keegan’s website, starting Thursday, November 12.
But instead of filming the productions and polishing them through editing – a step which Rhea says the company may take later – the company will stage them and let us watch.
“Performing live means there is that potential for something galvanizing or surprising to happen at any given moment — that’s one of the many things we find so exciting about theater, and we hope audiences agree,” Rhea says. “To me, there’s something about watching a show that is happening in real time, knowing that you are seeing something unfold RIGHT NOW. Performing this rep this way is as close as we can get at the moment, I think, to the real thing.”
Friday’s show is the story of her trans journey, featuring the music of Lisa Jackson and Girl Friday. From Gumbo to Mumbo tells the tale of two young Black men – one from New Orleans, the other from DC – trying to reclaim their identity in the face of a culture that seeks to deny it. Keegan has staged this show before (DCTS’ Kayla Harley called it “an expressive, creative and innocently explicit drama” in this review), but Rhea says the new version will be geared more toward adults.
Why these two plays?
Well, Friday had been slated to play the title role in Keegan’s planned production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. When Covid struck the production down, Friday pitched Trans Am.
“Lisa expressed to us an interest and eagerness to work on her one-person show in lieu of Hedwig during the interim, and to work with us to create a live, streaming experience,” Rhea says. “She blew us all away with her story — and the power of the performance and craft she used to tell that story. The show felt ready/primed for a longer-form product, and we were excited at the thought of helping bring that to life.”
On the other hand, the company selected Gumbo, which won a “Best of Fringe” Award at the Charm City Fringe Festival, based on its previous success. “The show is so unique, compelling, and relevant, and we wanted more people to get a chance to experience it, and to let these two artists expand on the previous product in terms of design support and possible adult audience reach,” according to Rhea. “Put simply: it was too good not to bring it back, and Dwayne and Drew were excited at the thought of giving this another run at Keegan — working from their original script and having the freedom to add or adjust to speak to what’s happening around them, and in the world, today.”
Of course, one question overshadows all others in contemporary productions: how will the company assure that the artists are safe? Rhea says that Keegan is following CDC-recommended guidelines.
“The communal spaces — the green room, restrooms, stage, and backstage — will be cleaned and disinfected thoroughly between performances. Because we’ve isolated those shared spaces, this safety measure will be manageable in the time we have between shows. Additionally, as part of our COVID facility upgrades, Keegan has purchased antiviral air filters and is now using medical grade air filters in the building.”
“[A] range of other COVID safety measures are in place as well,” she adds. “[T]emperature checks, masks when not performing or when working on the tech side of things, and directives around handwashing and sanitization.”
But Keegan is also benefitting from the singular advantage of having two shows which, combined, have only three actors. “Because the casts are so small…each show will have its own dressing room for the duration of the run,” Rhea explains. ”The communal spaces — the green room, restrooms, stage, and backstage — will be cleaned and disinfected thoroughly between performances. Because we’ve isolated those shared spaces, this safety measure will be manageable in the time we have …
“Trans Am and From Gumbo to Mumbo also share production teams/designers,” Rhea adds. “We’ve striven to keep the number of bodies that need to enter the space to a minimum by combining efforts and minimizing the artists involved.”
The safety protocols might be easier to manage if the two shows ran separately. But Rhea thinks that the advantages of running them in rep is worth the extra work. “I liked the idea of the two shows sharing a space,” she says, “of thinking about the two shows as being in conversation with each other, in a way — sharing a design team, and finding both the theatrical commonalities and areas of difference between the very different storytelling approaches and artists.
“I wanted to see what would happen, and what creativity might be unleashed, if we put one team of extraordinary designers together, collaborating with these amazing storytellers, to see what they would discover in terms of shared design — and how the two stories could potentially push each other creatively or find unexpected overlap,” Rhea explains.
Here’s a reminder to those of us who have grown used to seeing (or listening to) theatrical productions via our computers any time we wished: Trans Am and From Gumbo to Mumbo are being performed live and can be viewed only on each day of the performance – just like the old days.
Thu, Nov 12 at 8pm, Fri, Nov 13 and Sat, Nov 14 at 10pm, Sun, Nov 15 at 7pm,
Fri, Nov 20 at 7:30pm, Sat, Nov 21 at 10pm, Sun, Nov 22 at 3pm,
Fri, Nov 27 at 10 pm, Sat, Nov 28 at 7:30pm and Sun, Nov 29 at 7pm.
$30 per household
From Gumbo to Mumbo:
Fri, Nov 13 and Sat, Nov 14 at 7:30pm, Sun, Nov 15 at 3pm,
Thu, Nov 19 at 8pm, Fri, Nov 20 at 10pm, Sat, Nov 21 at 7:30pm, Sun, Nov 22 at 7pm,
Fri, Nov 27 at 7:30pm, Sat, Nov 28 at 10pm and Sun, Nov 29 at 3pm.
$30 per household