In the past seven months, more than 7,000 people in the Washington region have died of the coronavirus. We'll hear from the friends and families of those lost about how they've coped in a time when the most basic grieving rituals are disrupted.
The pandemic has forced the curtain to close on the region’s theater scene. Local theaters and production houses have been closed for months. Artists, actors, producers and other creatives have lost their jobs. Many do not know when they’ll be able to return to the stage or if audiences will return once the season starts again.
But alas — all is not lost! Some of the region’s most popular theaters have adapted, taking much of their content online. But, are these substitutes sufficient? And how will the theater scene look after the pandemic? We’re checking in with our local theaters to learn about the ways they’re trying to stay connected with artists and audiences.
Produced by Richard Cunningham
- Jason Loewith Artistic Director, Olney Theatre Center
- Maria Manuela Goyanes Artistic Director, Woolly Mammoth Theatre
- Ryan Rilette Artistic Director, The Roundhouse Theatre
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5 where I'm broadcasting from home, so welcome. Later in the broadcast we'll hear from some of the people behind the literary journal devoted to women writers of the Washington region that delivers both grace and gravity. But first due to the coronavirus pandemic theaters and production houses across the region have drawn the curtain and closed their doors. Actors, artists, production teams and other creative people are out of work. No one knows when theaters will be able to reopen and when they do they likely won't be able to operate like they always have.
KOJO NNAMDISome local theaters are finding new and innovative ways to interact with their audiences. Today we're talking with Artistic Directors from theaters across the region to find out how they are engaging with their audience during this pandemic and what the theater scene might be like after the pandemic. Joining me is Jason Loewith, Artistic Director of Olney Theatre. Jason, thank you so much for joining us.
JASON LOEWITHKojo, thanks for having me.
NNAMDIJason, how has the pandemic affected the theater industry in general in the Washington region?
LOEWITHWell, it's brought everything to a complete stop and it's put us all into a bit of an existential crisis, right, because what we exist to do, which is to tell stories in a room together with members of our community is no longer something that we're able to do. It's not safe. So we are all scrambling to figure out how best to serve our communities, keep our artists employed, keep our staffs employed and innovate to live to fight another day. It's a complicated messy time.
NNAMDIHow has Olney been dealing with the pandemic, Olney Theater?
LOEWITHSure. We've been doing -- you know, we've put together a few things. We've managed to keep our staff and national players, actors and apprentices on contract. They're teaching what we've dubbed the OTC virtual university. They offer classes pretty much 40 hours a week, everything from story time for young kids to deep dives into play texts with me to costume crafting with our wardrobe supervisor. We're also trying to engage the imagination of the county's best artists with our Streaming Saturday's Series, Artists Envisioning the Future. We had Pulitzer-winner Michael R. Jackson on last week. We've got Obie-winner Clare Barron coming up this week to talk about what's the future going to look like, how are we going to innovate to come back stronger than ever.
LOEWITHYou know, but none of this, Kojo, is a substitute for what it is that we exist to do to be in a room with members of our community. So I think our main work at this moment is figuring out how we can come back stronger in a smart way that employs artists and staff members and engages the community in different ways. This is an opportunity for us to get back to what's essential, storytelling, storytelling in person.
NNAMDIAlso joining us is Ryan Rilette, Artistic Director of Roundhouse Theatre. Ryan, thank you for joining us.
RYAN RILETTEThank you for having me.
NNAMDIRyan, what has Roundhouse been doing during this time to keep your audiences engaged?
RILETTEA few different things, we started with theatre education classes for different groups, theatre education challenges that go out three times a week to different age groups so that kids have projects that they can work on from home and get feedback from our teachers. We also started a program called Playwrights on Plays where we have some of the country's leading playwrights talking to our Literary Manager Gabrielle Hoyt about their work and plays that have inspired them and sustained them overtime.
RILETTEAnd a weekly Quarantini that our Head of Food and Beverage Hudson Tang hosts each week where he talked to some of our local vendors that we use at the bar about their products. And we make a cocktail that everybody can make at home. And then the big thing that we've been doing is ...
NNAMDIOh, I think we lost Ryan Rilette for a second there. But Ryan will be back with us shortly. We'd love to have you join this conversation. Give us a call. Also joining us is Maria Manuela Goyanes, Artistic Director of Woolly Mammoth Theatre. Maria, thank you for joining us.
MARIA MANUELA GOYANESOh, thank you so much for having me. And thank you for bring the theatre into this conversation, Kojo. It means a lot to our field.
NNAMDIHappy to do it. Maria, during this pandemic Woolly Mammoth has joined a number of other theatres to present a play at home, a series of micro commissioned plays. What is that exactly?
GOYANESYeah, so essentially we were thinking about the fact that there were so many artists who suddenly, you know, because artists are part of the gig economy suddenly they don't have work. And so one of the things that we were thinking was how can we band together and actually commission some work that is for our audiences at home to read and enjoy.
GOYANESAnd so five theatres started it. It was Woolly Mammoth, the Public Theatre in New York City, Baltimore Center Stage, the Reparatory Theatre in St. Louis and Long Wharf Theatre in Connecticut to each commission five writers to write a five to ten minute play, and the only guideline was that it just needed to inspire joy. Those plays are available at playathome.org. And they have been downloaded almost 20,000 times, Kojo. It's an amazing amazing thing. And we know that actually there are teachers, who are already teaching these plays. They're up and available and they will throughout this pandemic for people to enjoy.
NNAMDIThat's fascinating. What kind of feedback have you gotten about Plat At Home? Do you have any sense of how large an audience is engaging with these plays?
GOYANESWell, so Romania sort of took the cake last week, because they started downloading the plays and we wondered what was happening in Romania that a bunch of theatres artists were downloading the plays. But we've had downloads from all over the country and all over the world. We know that from those downloads that at least 50 classrooms are using Play At Home. And the other thing just on a more personal level each of us has read some of the Play At Home plays with our staff on Zoom or with our board at board meetings and it does bring a level of creativity and a reminder of, you know, just what it is that we're trying to make in the world. What Jason said earlier is just storytelling and making sure that we're continuing to do that even though we can't gather.
NNAMDIRemind our listeners, you mentioned it before, about how they can join in and act out these plays.
GOYANESYeah. Playathome.org, just visit our website there. You will see a ton of plays. It is not just those five originating theatres now. The Kennedy Center has just gotten involved. Berkley Rep has gotten involved. Theatres around the country and we've already been able to put almost $50,000 into playwrights pockets through this initiative.
NNAMDIWow. We got a tweet from Campbell who says, "I had a play at the Capital Fringe this summer. When it was canceled I started a weekly play reading group of writers and actors called The Quarantine Players with 73 members here in D.C. with actors from all over the country. We'll be launching a podcast this week." Good for you, Campbell and good luck on launching that podcast. Ryan Rilette is back with us. He's Artistic Director of Roundhouse Theatre. Ryan, I wanted you talk a little bit more about the education challenges for students up to 13 years old that you mentioned earlier. How does that work?
RILETTEWell, it's actually all the way through high school. So what we have is three education challenges a week that go out Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays for different age groups. They're each targeted to that specific age group and give them short challenges. Things that they can work on from home and then they can send in their results to our website and we'll post the results of those.
RILETTEI'm not sure if you heard me talking about Homebound. That's the other big project that we've been doing. It's a 10 episode web series created by local playwrights and local actors. All of the actors that we hired for this were actors, who were laid off as a result of our shows that we had to cancel. And it is set now and it is about -- it follows our two lead resident artists as they interact with different actors through the series. And it's set now during this period. And it's a chance for our artists to stay employed and a chance for our artists to be able to feedback on this crazy moment that we're living through.
NNAMDIHow can people access that and what kind of response have you gotten?
RILETTEIt's available. You can go to our website and or to our YouTube page. Both of them have all of our episodes. And it's been a huge phenomenal response so far. I mean, in the last month we have increased our views by about 17,000 people. And we've been getting reviews and coverage in The New York Times and coverage in The Post. So it's been pretty great so far.
NNAMDIJason Loewith, before the pandemic hit Olney Theatre offered a lot of programs for residents interested in acting playwriting and theatre production. Have you transitioned those courses online?
LOEWITHAbsolutely. We have to give folks an opportunity to unleash their creativity with us. So we do have some fantastic acting programming happening. Our casting director is offering monologue workshops. We have some of our education staff offering playwriting workshops. And I think the biggest way that we're hoping to keep people unleashing their creativity is a new program we started called Share Your Story on our website where anybody anyone in the community can go online and record a story of life at home during the quarantine.
LOEWITHWe've put up two stories a week. We've got 11 stories on their so far. They're from folks in the industry. They're from teachers. They're from -- this week is sort of graduating students and early college students. We just added one this week. And then last New Voices, which is a fantastic program we have where students in Montgomery County write, direct and produce their own plays, and we mentor them all through that experience. That is unfortunately not going to be live this year. It's an end of the season thing. It's going to be online at the end of June at Olneytheatre.org.
LOEWITHSo unleashing the creativity of the community around us is extremely important and I think compliments the kind of amazing work that you're hearing from Maria and Ryan that is being offered by other theatres in the DMV and all across the country.
NNAMDIRyan Rilette, is the digital work Roundhouse is doing bringing in more donations?
RILETTEIt is actually. We have a Resilience Fund Campaign right now that has been spearheaded by our board with a $200,000 challenge match. And one of the most exciting parts of that is we have gotten in 150 new donors since we started. That's not normal for a situation like this. Normally you rely on the people that have always come to your theatre and always donated. So it is definitely bringing some new people to the theatre, which is great.
NNAMDIWhat about tickets that were already sold for future productions that may not now happen and for the season? Have you had to refund a lot of sales?
RILETTEWe've actually been -- our patron base has been very very generous to us. We offered everyone three options.
NNAMDIOkay. Hold that for a second. Three options, we're going to take a short break. When we come, Ryan will tell you what those three options are. But you can call us at 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about how local theatres are taking the stage online. When we took that break, Ryan Rilette, Artistic Director of Roundhouse Theatre was explaining the three options being offered to people who have bought tickets for future productions. Ryan, go ahead, please.
RILETTEYeah. We offered people the option. We asked everybody to consider donating the value of the tickets back to help us retain our staff and keep artists employed if they were in a position to do that. But we also said that they could put their money on account for future years or if they needed it we would be happy to make a refund to them, and we have a very generous audience base. Close to half of our audience has donated the value of their tickets back, which has been incredibly helpful for us. So we've been very lucky in that way.
NNAMDIMaria Manuela Goyanes, what kind of financial impact has the pandemic had on Woolly Mammoth so far, and how long do you think you can carry on with being shut down?
GOYANESYeah. Well, let's knock on wood that we'll all be able to produce at some point next season in some way. Some limited capacity probably, but we have been calling our sort of campaign here at this time the Mammothon, because we know it's more of a marathon not a sprint right now. And that this is going to affect both contributed and earned revenue for theatres and most non-profits at least for the next 18 to 24 months. So it's definitely had an impact, because we're trying to figure out what we can afford next season and what we can do and how we can bring the surprising, exciting, exhilarating productions that we're known for.
GOYANESOne of the ways that we actually pivoted was to do a virtual party online and make it a benefit so that folks from around the country could actually tune in and donate as little as five bucks. And we shared some of the songs and different theatre pieces that we were going to be programming in the next year. And it was actually a really great success. It exceeded our goals and also brought in a whole new slew of donors in the same way that Ryan was talking about of people, who are interested in making sure that Woolly Mammoth can come out the other side.
NNAMDIFascinating. Karen in Washington D.C. I think is an actor. Karen, your turn.
KARENHi, yeah. I am actor. And, of course, this is a very scary time and I've been concerned about how to keep up my craft. But you'd be amazed at what has been happening. So the Actor's Center, a local resource, has been offering classes. I've taken six workshops with them, and then I've done three multipart classes. I'm in one right now at Shakespeare Theatre, but the great thing is I said to myself, I don't have to just take classes in D.C. anymore. I've got the whole country because everybody is putting their classes online. So it's bad, but it's kind of exciting.
NNAMDII'm so glad you're busily engaged during this time. Ryan Rilette, care to comment on what Karen is doing and what do you think actors or artists should be doing at this time?
RILETTEWell, it think it's great that Karen is taking this opportunity to continue to expand their craft. I mean, I think one of the hardest things about being a theatre artist is that we work in collaboration with others. And we work in live, you know, space and time. And when we don't have that outlet to us, we can't like a musician just pick up our instrument and play it, because our instrument is ourselves. So taking this opportunity to continue to expand your craft I think is incredibly smart.
RILETTEAt the same time, I'm loathed to tell anyone what to do right now. I think this is -- as Maria said, it's going to be a very long process. And I think people need to do what they have to do to take care of themselves in this moment so that they are ready and able and willing to hop back on and get back on the board just soon as we're able to open our theatres.
NNAMDIHere now is Kate in Maryland. Kate, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KATEHi. First, Kojo, I'm a long time listener and this is the first time call. I'm a great fan. Thank you for holding your program.
KATEI was calling up for a couple of reasons. One is several times your guest speakers would say, "On our website," and then they would neglect to say the website. But just as you did this announcement I heard Round House Theatre. So I'm now on their website taking a look. Thank you. I do see -- my other question was going to be are the materials that you're talking, you know, rated for the different levels. I'm teleteacher. I've doing the paper work side of teleteaching right now.
RILETTEYes. For our education programs, they are. So very specifically we have K through three, four through six and then above that, and each of the lessons are targeted to those specific groups.
NNAMDIOkay. And thank you very much for your call. Kate, glad you were able to find the website on your own. Jason Loewith, we got a tweet from Jeff. What's the plan for production staff? How are you keeping them engaged with their craft because it's so hands on?
LOEWITHQuestion from Jeff. And our production staff I think all of us are looking at great ways to have them -- looking to find ways to keep them creatively engaged. We've got our costume shop is making masks at home for first responders at MedStar Montgomery, our local hospital. Our technical director is offering a great class called "This Old Set" where he goes through the building of one of our favorite sets in the past. We're trying to engage them in as many possible ways, and also keeping them planning forward.
LOEWITHWe are lucky that we've got outdoor space, an outdoor stage with family stage. And we are planning to offer some outdoor concerts in the late summer once the governor allows groups of more than 10 people to gather. So they're working on plans for how are we going to do the sound and the lights and all kinds of things outdoors. So that we can get people back in the theatre going habit, because it's tough. I mean, if this is, again, it's your job. It's what you exist to do. Finding ways to be supportive of the community and contributing is hard and we're doing everything we can to, you know, get our production staff busy.
NNAMDIIndeed. Maria, will the revenue loss from this season jeopardize what you were planning for 2021 and beyond?
GOYANESOh, gosh. You know, this is one of the questions that I think is plaguing all of us right now, because we need to be able to come back with our most surprising exciting work, right? We can't actually suddenly all start to do just one person shows, right? You know, one person shows are great. And some people only concentrate on those. But that's not what Woolly Mammoth does. So we're definitely going to have to be judicious.
GOYANESThe thing that is exciting is Jason mentioned earlier that Michael R. Jackson just won the Pulitzer Prize for "A Strange Loop." Right before the pandemic started, we had announced that Woolly Mammoth was going to open our season with a production of "Strange Loop." And we are going to be letting our subscribers and everybody know today and tomorrow that we are now going to close our season with "Strange Loop." And so my hope is that we will still be able to come back and have great programming next season regardless with how hard it is.
NNAMDIYes, indeed. I guess I have to invite some speculation here. Jason Loewith, what will the theatre going experience in your view be like for audiences when playhouses do eventually open back up?
LOEWITHThat's a great question. And one that I think we're all wondering about, because we're looking at what happens if we do social distancing in our houses? Are people going to have to go through temperature checks to get into the room? Are we going to be playing to 25 percent capacity? Who knows? I think that the peril we face is trying to think only about going back to normal. We have to go back to beyond normal and figure out new ways of doing the work that we do so that people are excited to come back and think that it's going to be an extremely cool experience.
LOEWITHAs Maria said, we can't come back with just the tried and true. We have to come back really big. So we're thinking we have a production of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" that we're planning for next fall. And we start talking about, well, do we want to do 25 percent houses for a rock concert? What if we did it as an outdoor drive in concert and put a big platform over our giant dumpster in the parking lot and had her perform on top of this dumpster? That would be like true to the show and a new way of storytelling. And that would be an exciting way to get people to come back to the theatre going habit.
LOEWITHSo we need to be smart and innovative, because I think you're right. It's not going to be the same. And, you know, for a time people are going to wear masks and there's going to be social distancing. But we need to be as absolutely exciting as possible, and by the way, Kate, www.onlneytheatre.org.
NNAMDIAnd that's about all the time we have. Ryan Rilette is Artistic Director of Roundhouse Theatre. Ryan, thank you for joining us.
RILETTEThank you so much for having me.
NNAMDIMaria Manuela Goyanes is Artistic Director of Woolly Mammoth Theatre. Maria, thank you for joining us.
GOYANESThank you. And thank you for saying my name correctly.
NNAMDIAnd Jason Loewith is Artistic Director of the Olney Theatre. Jason, thank you so much for joining us.
LOEWITHThank you, Kojo. And thanks for shining a light on our industry at this time.
NNAMDIGoing to take a short break. When we come back, we'll hear from some of the people behind a literary journal devoted to women writers of the Washington region that delivers both grace and gravity. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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