COVID-19 drew the curtain on live theater, but local companies are expanding their digital repertoires

By Evan Henerson

Whether one is calculating job losses, subscriber revenue or performance cancelations, the toll of the COVID-19 pandemic on live entertainment has been immeasurable. But a shuttered theater or an unlit marquee does not mean the death of creativity. Far from it. Faced with the health department restrictions limiting the number of people who could gather, several of our readers’ favorite Westside theater companies have developed new and innovative ways to bring compelling and topical drama to their still hungry audiences.

Large scale in-person gathering will be safe again someday and theater audiences will return to the theater. Until that day arrives, administrators of The Braid/Jewish Women’s Theatre, Kentwood Players and Center Theatre Group say they will remain as nimble as they are creative. The coronavirus has disrupted a lot of things, but it will never take down artistic expression.

The Braid (formerly known as Jewish Women’s Theatre)

The 13th year of The Braid (which the company celebrated last Sunday via Zoom and appropriately dubbed Bat Mitzvah with the new salon show “I am a Jew”) has certainly been unique in the history of the company formerly known as Jewish Women’s Theatre.

Fortunately, the company’s unique salon-style format – a semi-staged readers theater performance with audience talk backs – has long been suited to stage at venues beyond the company’s Santa Monica stage (which the group had to unfortunately vacate earlier this year due to unsustainable rent costs). But that hasn’t stopped The Braid/Jewish Women’s Theatre from jumping into the virtual world and looking for a new space on the Westside in anticipation of the return of live theater.

Following the March shutdown, the recently rebranded Braid put out the call for stories exploring what community members were experiencing during the pandemic. The submissions poured in and more than 30 “Inside our Times” entries are now viewable on the company’s YouTube page, with the eight-day Passover series being especially popular.

The Braid has also created an emerging artist salon and is offering a new “Inspiring Jewish Stories on Stage” each month which are viewable for free or with a donation. In addition, the company is making several of its past performances available on the Jewish and Israeli streaming service ChaiFlicks.

Ronda Spinak, the company’s co-founder and artistic director, is especially pleased at the ability to reach new audiences. In recent weeks, The Braid staged a performance for a group of four organizations in Cape Cod. The company has also “traveled” a production to synagogues in Manhattan and Chicago.

“None of that would have been possible before,” Spinak said. “The revenues are not what they used to be, but we’re so thrilled to be able to employ actors, give writers royalties and share these amazing stories with communities all over the country. As long as we can at least break even or make a little bit of money, we’re going to be here. We’re not going anywhere.”

Visit jewishwomenstheatre.org to learn more.

The Kentwood Players are determined to return to the stage when the time is right. Until then they’re exploring the realm of digital theater

Westchester Playhouse’s Kentwood Players

The scenery for Christopher Durang’s hit comedy “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” still sits at the ready at the Westchester Playhouse, home of the Kentwood Players, one of the city’s longest running theatrical companies. The production was cast and the company’s full 2020 season was set and programmed, with rights, royalties and scripts purchased and schedules set.

The COVID-19 pandemic and state health department requirements scuttled all those plans. To make matters even more challenging, as the Westchester Playhouse sat idle, the building experienced a pipe leak that caused flooding and significant damage on the second floor. More upgrades and improvements will be needed – everything from air conditioning repairs to a new marquee and roof repairs.

KP will return, theater administrators promise, with venue improvements and the full slate of shows. In the meantime, the company has soldiered on inviting subscribers and members of the general public alike to sample KP’s Virtual Theater Series, a selection of short plays viewable on the company’s YouTube channel.

“We invited new playwrights to submit quick pieces so they could get a feel for their own processes and we could see what people came up with,” said Harold Dershimer, KP’s Plays Committee chairperson who is coordinating the Virtual Theatre Series. “People are submitting scripts of people who are in the pandemic, and they’re meeting for family issues, they’re meeting for online dating, different aspects of how we’re living our life in the pandemic mode.”

The series launched in September with “Zoom Date,” a two character play written and directed by company member Stanley Brown about a pair of seniors preparing for – you guessed it – a meet-up. Virtual though the experience may be, the actors are off book and the production contains staging.

This new format has its challenges, but company members are adapting and working out the kinks of auditioning, rehearsing, performing and filming from their homes. Feedback on the debut production has been encouraging and KP has approved titles through March of 2021.

Other new offerings include the hour-long KP Live series hosted by Samantha Barrios.

“Once we can reopen at a percentage that will pay the bills, then we will,” Dershimer said. “Until then, we’re trying something new and we hope people will enjoy it.”

Visit tinyurl.com/kentwoodplayersyoutube to watch shows online or follow @kentwoodplayers on Instagram for updates.

Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre

Center Theatre Group has embraced the possibilities of pandemic-forced theater with a vengeance. The company’s just announced Digital Stage offerings include a cornucopia of streamed performances, new commissions, favorites from the archives and even productions from the renowned Stratford Festival.

While the company’s downtown theaters – the Mark Taper Forum and the Ahmanson Theatre – remain dark, Culver City’s Kirk Douglas Theatre has been transformed into a film studio to house the new Live from the Kirk Douglas Theatre (KDT) performances available for viewing on demand during a limited window. Some of the Live from the KDT performances are free while others will come with a fee. The series kicks off with The Greek Trilogy of Luis Alfaro and includes new partially staged performances of “Electricidad,” “Oedipus El Rey” and “Mojada.”

“We’re super lucky to have the Kirk Douglas Theatre, which is a space we are in control of, and we can really take great care in the production of theater at a time where the safety of the artists is of the utmost concern,” said CTG Managing Director/CEO Meghan Pressman. “We have gone through so many new ways of learning to turn it effectively into a film studio for live theater.”

The six scheduled Live from the KDT productions are only a sampling of what’s on tap in the months ahead. The Digital Stage platform includes on demand samplings of audio recordings with L.A. Theatre Works. Dig into the Digital Stage+ and you get access to a live-captured performance of “Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake” and five productions from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. With Premium Events, CTG offers three more Bourne titles. The Scenes from the Vault bring back highlights from past productions.

Of course, anytime you offer this much content with well known artists attached, you risk attracting the attention of audiences that range far past the city of Los Angeles or even California.

“We’re aware that this has national and even international audience implications,” Pressman said. “We had to run back in to our website and throw up a PST after the times. This represents an opportunity for people to tune in from other locations in a way that we haven’t had to regularly deal with.”

Visit centertheatregroup.org/digitalstage to learn more.

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