By Kendra Sitton
With COVID-19 restrictions eased, theaters are returning to full (and often fully-vaccinated) audiences. Some theaters tentatively began opening over the summer and the rest of the local theaters are now joining with full 2021-2022 seasons planned.
Some of the recent plays were originally planned for the 2020 season while other theaters made the choice to showcase plays that addressed the current moment.
“Those shows are not lost on us. We might circle back to those in the future but we also had commitments with other shows and we wanted to also make sure that we’re responding to the moment that we’re in – not the moment that we were in two years ago,” said Matt Morrow, artistic director at Diversionary Theatre which reopened in September after a major renovation.
Safety was another concern factoring into the choice of plays this year. OnStage Playhouse chose plays with small casts to limit the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak. Over the summer, the South Bay-based theater staged “Sheepdog” about an African-American female police officer and a white male police officer in a relationship. The play examines how their relationship changes after the man shot an unarmed Black adolescent.
With only 25% of the 70-seat theater allowed to be filled, executive artistic director James Darvas described the play as an artistic success but a financial failure. The playhouse opened to a full audience in September with “Drowning Girls” with a similarly small cast. One tech was needed to operate the water for the ghost story about three women who were killed by a man for their doweries at the turn of the century. The tech was able to add water to the three bathtubs the wedding-dress clad cast stayed in for the duration of the play. In total, five staff members were needed at each showing.
Meanwhile, the audience could wear a mask or prove their vaccinated status.
“I love that a lot of them are showing their vaccination card with pride when they walk in the door. It makes us feel good that we’re doing something for them and that they feel safe,” Darvas said.
Diversionary has an even stricter policy of only allowing people who are vaccinated inside. Unvaccinated people can engage with its work in several live-streamed performances throughout the year.
“We were founded as a safe space and COVID-19 has caused us to reevaluate what that means. Many of our community members who come to Diversionary are immunocompromised due to HIV/AIDS. Making sure that we have a safe space for them and everyone is paramount,” Morrow said.
San Diego Junior Theatre (SDJT) has additional challenges in keeping the cast safe because the kids they work with are too young to be vaccinated. During rehearsals, the children wear masks at all times. Once stage rehearsals begin, the nonprofit is instituting testing.
SDJT’s season begins with “A Year with Frog and Toad,” a warm show about friendship despite differences. Along with a new adaptation of “TheJungle Book,” these musicals were originally scheduled for last year. The group’s newly-selected plays, such as “The Snowy Day and Other Stories” and “Head over Heels” reflect a decision to focus on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion.
In honor of the renovation and the theater’s 36th anniversary, Diversionary’s season is focused on queer history as one of the oldest queer theaters in the nation. Since it was founded in response to HIV/AIDS, two of this season’s plays will focus on that ongoing epidemic including “One in Two” centering three queer Black men which is showing now.
“The title is a reference to a staggering CDC statistic that is still current that says one in two queer African-American men will contract HIV/AIDS in their lifetime. So this is an epidemic that has been ongoing since the ‘80s and Diversionary was founded in response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in 1986, so it’s only fitting that we revisit that issue for our reopening,” Morrow said.
Morrow described “One in Two” as a particularly special return to the stage since the audience is its own character and influences the performance.
“Every performance can be different. That is reflecting the beauty and the truth of theater in that every performance is alive and in the moment, it’s a little bit different and there’s a kinetic energy that is just palpable between the audience and the actors on the stage,” she said.
Darvas said that during live-streamed performances, everything felt beige with no audience interaction.
Actor Anthony Zelig said, “The first time I stepped in front of the audience over the summer with a live show, it was an incredible feeling having that live reaction.”
San Diego theaters showcasing diverse stories while keeping audiences and cast members safe is a triumph for the local arts scene.
— Kendra Sitton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.