It was a year in which theater, dance, and other performing art forms went into all but total eclipse, as companies and artists were pushed to the brink to engineer their survival.
So, naturally, PlayMakers Repertory Company closed the year with a November production of The Skin of Our Teeth. In Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer-winning script, the proxy for civilized humanity—an urban family from Jersey—is threatened by never-ending crises.
Director Vivienne Benesch and her creative team leaned into these catastrophes, clearly exorcising pent-up frustrations by staging escalating breaches in nature, politics, and civic life with the concentrated, nihilistic glee of five-year-olds playing “Demolition Derby” with Hot Wheels.
The fizzy, surprisingly festive result depicted what Butoh choreographer Akaji Maro once termed “a cheerful apocalypse.” And that’s the funny, semi-fatalistic vow on behalf of humanity embedded within the production: Yes, we will carry on. Somehow.
That doesn’t, however, mean that it’s going to be easy for the local live arts crew, particularly since companies no longer can predict (or base their budgets) on pre-pandemic business models.
“People are planning things later,” says David Henderson, artistic director at Honest Pint. “Who knows what the COVID numbers are going to be three weeks from now?”
Since resuming live performances, performing arts groups across the area have seen alarmingly low advance ticket purchases followed, at least in some cases, by sizable last-minute walk-up sales.
“It just means we don’t know that—or if—they’re coming,” Henderson says. “How do you budget for that?”
Last week, Theatre in the Park posted a photo on Facebook of A Christmas Carol’s ticket line, stretching from the DECPA box office out and alongside South Street.
“There was an old formula: if I sell this many tickets and get this many engagements on social media, it’s going to equal us not losing a tremendous amount of money,” recalls Women’s Theatre Festival executive artistic director Johannah Maynard Edwards. “But that’s gone now. Everything’s on a case-by-case basis.”
Edwards credits WTF’s switch to a pay-what-you-can model of ticketing with a large part of the festival’s 150 percent increase in revenues this year. “We’ve kind of turned all our ticket buyers into donors and company stewards.”
After a year of “stratospheric growth” in which the festival grew into a truly national effort, Edwards expects slower, more sustainable growth in 2022. “We’ve adopted an ethic of care,” she says, prioritizing care for the festival’s staff and artists above the audience and funders, reversing a popular dynamic in the arts.
To that end, February’s Occupy the Stage festival will be prerecorded, to permit higher production values and lower stress among artists and technicians. (“It’s win-win-win,” Edwards says with a smile. )
Even with a season abbreviated by COVID, exceptional work abounded. Paperhand Puppet Intervention’s 20th-season celebration featured a luminous live show, a vivid coffee-table book, and Marc Levy’s moving documentary, We Are Here. Before that, 600 Highwaymen’s uncanny A Thousand Ways (Part One): A Phone Call helped quarantined audience members overcome lockdown isolation by participating in a story about strangers who are, by the end of the play, no longer strangers.
Up-and-coming director Ana Radulescu piloted noted actor Lilly Nelson through an emotional gauntlet in Burning Coal Theatre’s June production of Girls and Boys, and Mike Harrison and T.J. Swann dueled for the soul of a realtor and a community in Pure Life Theatre’s dramatic version of August Wilson’s Radio Golf.
After playwright Howard Craft and lead actor Gil Faison triumphantly returned to NC Central University in the revival of Craft’s 2002 drama, The House of George, a vibrant septet lead by Aurelia Belford disclosed the struggles of a young Black artist coming into his own in Peace of Clay, a work that Craft co-wrote with playwright Mike Wiley, at Theatre Raleigh.
That show immediately followed Rebecca Clark and Angela Travino, whose work as a young and older Alison Bechdel convincingly bookended the regional premiere of the musical Fun Home. In December, comedian Joseph Richards bared a soul abused by southern Christianity in his confessional solo show, Breaking Up with Jesus.
We close with memories of two artists who left us earlier in the year.
Was actor Jordan Smith well regarded by his community? Judge for yourself. When he was physically unable to use his voice for a year in 2007, a local theater company staged a show of three works by Strindberg, Pinter, and Beckett with him—all featuring riveting central characters who never spoke.
Smith reclaimed his voice and soldiered on, gracing theaters across the region with his signature gravitas and bonhomie, before unwillingly retiring several years ago after medical setbacks. He also supported his art form behind the scenes, with wise counsel and generous financial support before his death in April.
The title of that show above? Silence by the Masters. Smith truly was one.
When I called director Wendy Ward in early July, hoping to get details for her coming season, I expected a wry, cozy chat like we’d had before.
In the past five years, the Durham auteur had quickly risen through the local ranks as a director and teacher of Sanford Meisner’s alternative to method acting, with a reputation for getting unexpected results from inexperienced actors. Even seasoned critics couldn’t spot the two first-timers in her suspenseful production of Jacuzzi in 2016.
But she ultimately achieved her greatest success in incisively devised and deeply researched original works, including I Wish You a Boat, a haunting view of an early 20th-century shipwreck at sea. In her unorthodox Revival, audiences scrutinized a congregation of believers head-on, as the spirit moved among some of them in a midcentury summer tent meeting. In 2019, Ward cast a gleefully jaded eye on the foibles of contemporary culture in Infinite Possibilities, a send-up of tony wellness resorts.
But when we spoke in July, Ward told me she was in the fourth, final stage of pancreatic cancer. She died two weeks after our conversation.
“I saw some of the best acting of my life in her studio,” notes former student Matt LeBlanc, now a creative director in advertising in Los Angeles. “It was the energy she was able to cultivate there: the commitment, the dedication, the hive mind. People found this emotional truth—the public solitude and a connectedness there.”
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