The title character in The Cube, a daring new piece of meta-theater inside the Latino Cultural Center, wonders why human beings need to examine their existence and long for connection to other people, unlike other members of the animal kingdom.
“Did you come to be entertained? Were you expecting music and dance?” the disembodied voice asks. “I hope I have not disappointed.”
The Cube doesn’t, but the show is that rare beast: live theater that can be attended in person. Limited to three performers and an audience of one — with the option to bring a guest or two — the run is sold out.
Expect the scarcity to continue until at least fall.
Because despite their best hopes and lots of planning, Dallas performing arts groups are in the midst of announcing a further uprooting of their 2020-21 seasons.
Winter and spring theater and dance shows booked before the holiday-fueled surge in COVID-19 cases are sliding off the schedule in droves. Many companies don’t expect to be back on their usual stages in front of live audiences until summer at the earliest, later in the year more likely.
“I’m done trying to spin sunshine,” says Jeffrey Schmidt, artistic director of Theatre Three, the second longest-running stage troupe in Dallas.
Schmidt had tentatively scheduled productions of a Regina Taylor musical play for February and March and the classic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for April and May inside Theatre Three’s Uptown space at the Quadrangle. Those are off, replaced by a virtual show from Taylor. Schmidt still hopes to put on The Music Man outdoors in the summer.
“I think of those early months as kind of pandemic innocence as we all kept feeling we could get past it, which might have happened with organized leadership that never came,” says Bruce DuBose, producing artistic director of Deep Ellum’s Undermain Theatre, which had hoped to mount a live subscription series this spring but will take the programming online instead.
Schmidt, DuBose and other local company leaders, like their counterparts across the country, have been getting by filming productions for distribution over the internet. For Theatre Three, the returns have been diminishing. “We can’t make money off of these,” Schmidt says.
Audience for virtual shows diminishing
About 1,000 people paid to see Theatre Three’s streaming version of The Immigrant last June, according to Schmidt, but the numbers dropped to half of that for the Halloween show It Came From Theatre Three and was down another 50% for the Christmas virtual production Twas the Night at Theatre Three. The budgets have dropped from $20,000 to $2,000 per show.
Like Schmidt, Dallas Theater Center artistic director Kevin Moriarty employs performers represented by the Actors Equity Association, which has issued reopening guidelines and is granting permission for its members to appear in live productions on a case-by-case basis. Dallas troupes aren’t even bothering to apply at the moment because the rate of COVID-19 infections precludes approval from the union.
“The virus has to be under control — no more than five cases per 100,000 population,” Moriarty says, and that’s just for starters. Also required are 14 days of a sustained decrease in cases and a positive test rate below 5% for a week. In addition, there are a slew of safety rules.
As a result, the Theater Center is about to announce radical changes to the rest of its season, which has already been altered at least twice. The next production, Something Grim(m), is an art installation piece set to open Feb. 19.
The socially distanced audience starts in the parking garage of the Wyly Theater and wanders around elements of the outdoor show: wall text, graphic art, physical objects and video projections of filmed actors enacting the story, according to Moriarty.
Dallas Theater Center experimenting
“It’s our exploration of how you get people out of their house and into a civic space without actors and live audiences breathing the same air in the same room,” he says.
DTC plans to follow Grim(m) with a filmed version in late April of Tiny Beautiful Things, originally scheduled to be performed live, and then another new outdoor work with live and recorded elements in May or June. Still in the planning stages, it would require approval from Actors Equity.
That would be followed in July by the musical Working outdoors, possibly in Annette Strauss Square at the AT&T Performing Arts Center with a reduced, socially distanced audience. Moriarty hopes to be back inside at the Wyly in August for the premiere of Dallas playwright Jonathan Norton’s Cake Ladies.
Even if everything goes right with the COVID infection rate and herd immunity from the vaccine, the audience would likely be masked and limited to 150 or 200 of the Wyly’s 600-seat capacity. “I am optimistic,” Moriarty says. “What I’m leaning into is the vaccine.”
Fort Worth’s Stage West Theatre, another Equity house, is working with outside groups to present shows live and on Zoom because it can’t currently get clearance from the union to mount its own, according to executive producer Dana Schultes.
“We definitely have some fantastic Stage West-produced projects in mind for late spring and early summer and beyond,” Schultes says. “However, due to AEA’s lack of any realistic/affordable guidelines for in-person work, we remain in a holding pattern.”
She hopes to be up and running by June with a one- or two-person show and then with up to four performers for productions in August, October and December. “We would use social distancing and masks or whatever meets CDC guidelines at that time. All of that is contingent upon the vaccine rollout and AEA. We expect that true normalcy won’t arrive until 2022, maybe 2023.”
Performing Arts Center touring shows
Debbie Storey, president and CEO of the AT&T Performing Arts Center, a hub for touring productions including Broadway shows and the TITAS/Dance Unbound series of national and international ballet and modern companies, is working with a similar timetable.
But, Storey says, she’s already getting calls from artists who want to book future shows. She cites National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci’s prediction of the potential for herd immunity by fall. “There’s a renewed energy.”
At the same time, ATTPAC’s calendar has become a moving target as artists search for later dates before announcing postponements or cancellations. That includes touring Broadway shows that had hoped to resume with Hadestown in May and the Elevator Project series of productions by local groups slated to begin in March after repeated delays.
Since the shutdown last spring, ATTPAC’s main venue, Winspear Opera House, has hosted only three performances, including a Nov. 20 show by David Parsons Dance as part of the TITAS series.
Besides a number of safety precautions, like keeping performers and the audience separate at all times, the 2,200-seat Winspear was limited to 660 people for Parsons. But the show only sold about 400 tickets, with 325 patrons actually showing up, according to TITAS director Charles Santos.
“Artists and audiences have accepted the fact that this is the state we’re in,” Storey says.
Santos is about to announce postponements of already rescheduled dates for the remaining six TITAS performances. He hopes to re-book three before the end of the season and push the other three to 2020-21, starting in the fall.
“A lot of us are hedging our bets. If we’re wrong, we’ll make changes,” Santos says. “It’s a time of big challenges for leadership.”
Streaming shows for now
From Avant Chamber Ballet to Uptown Players, those leaders are relying on filmed, online productions to entertain their audiences until conditions for live shows improve.
Kitchen Dog Theater, for instance, is shooting its next production, Last Ship to Proxima Centauri, for streaming in February and March. It is considering whether to produce another world premiere in June for its New Works Festival, the Dallas-set Good Latimer, just virtually or also live with a reduced in-person audience, according to co-artistic director Tina Parker.
The company, trying its best to celebrate its 30th season, has leaned into the opportunity presented by forced change to commission four new plays for the festival as digital productions, including one from Ruben Carrazana, writer and director of The Cube.
“We’re on a crazy new adventure,” Parker says. “But if it’s not safe, we’re not doing it.”
For The Cube, the tiny, masked audience sits on stage inside a square cordoned off with curtains. As the ominous HAL-like voice questions human purpose and motivation, images of the natural and man-made worlds flash on three sides.
The curtain rises halfway through the 30-minute show to reveal Carrazana at a desk. Projecting his face on the back wall, he explains his childhood shyness and how theater brought him out of his shell, which he took for granted until the pandemic.
The lights then go up on Nigel Newton playing a soothing ambient composition on vibraphone, soon joined by dancer Emily Bernet reaching out and bending as if she’s searching for something. However briefly, we’ve been entertained.
Extra, extra: Spring wave of outdoor productions coming
Spring could bring a new wave of outdoor theater, dance and music shows as the AT&T Performing Arts Center again makes Annette Strauss Square available to Dallas companies at reduced fees, as it did last year.
Avant Chamber Ballet artistic director Katie Puder says her company will return to Strauss after rolling out a series of online productions. Puder says she’s hopeful about presenting The Nutcracker at Moody Performance Hall in December followed by a full spring 2022 season.
Smaller local groups like ACB are able to plan on the fly since their productions have fewer moving parts. Still, most of the major Dallas theater and dance companies don’t expect to be back up and running with live shows and in-person audiences anytime soon.
Cara Mía Theatre and Teatro Dallas, resident companies of the Latino Cultural Center that have had some success with limited in-person audiences inside and outdoors, are collaborating on Soltar, to be presented outside the center on Saturdays in April.
It will feature live music, dance and audience participation, according to Sara Cardona, Teatro Dallas executive artistic director.
Starting March 12 for a limited audience, Teatro Dallas also will present a series called Desmodernidad, a Mexican slang term for chaos or the disintegration of modernity, pairing music groups with a filmmaker, performance artist and dancer. The events will take place outdoors at Ash Studios in South Dallas, the Mexican Consulate near Love Field and Artstillery in Oak Cliff.
Meanwhile, Cara Mía is hoping to present its annual Latinidades festival with two world premieres inside the center toward the end of the season. Depending on the state of COVID-19 infections, executive artistic director David Lozano says the shows could move outdoors or be filmed for streaming. “Pivoting is the hardest part.”
Echo Theatre, based at the Bath House Cultural Center, plans to open its 2021 season in April with a filmed version of the noir-inspired, two-character The Other Felix. The twist is viewers will have a choice of watching at home or screening it at outdoor venues on Saturday nights, according to managing artistic director Kateri Cale. She envisions returning to live shows in September.
The artistic directors at Cry Havoc Theater Company, Dallas Black Dance Theatre, Imprint Theatreworks, Kitchen Dog Theater, Ochre House Theater, Soul Rep Theatre Company, Texas Ballet Theater, Undermain Theatre and WaterTower Theatre, among others, say they are planning to continue presenting virtual shows until at least late spring or early summer. In some cases, live productions may not resume until fall or later.
Currently streaming through Jan. 31 are Soul Rep’s slave drama Do No Harm and Things Missing/Missed, Undermain and the Danielle Georgiou Dance Group’s avant-garde look at a disintegrating relationship. On Monday, Cry Havoc opens Once Upon a Moon, based on darker, lesser-known fairytales.
Last fall, Kitchen Dog somehow managed to pay off a new building it purchased in 2016, with plans to turn it into a permanent home. Like other groups, it has created drive-in events since the pandemic started.
Its next virtual series, Craft: Art of the Hooch and the Pooch, pairs bartenders giving cocktail lessons with Kitchen Dog company members dissecting scenes and songs from past productions.
“I miss seeing people,” says co-artistic director Tina Parker. “When you’re live and in the room, that’s what takes theater to the next level. People are hungry for it. People want to be back together again.”