Four Pandemic-Postponed Plays Return
On March 6, 2020 SXSW announced the cancellation of their annual festival and other events quickly followed. All other events. Austin Playhouse had kicked off rehearsals for Paula Vogel’s Indecent on March 10. By March 15, we had joined the world’s theaters in postponing our production and pivoting to online content. I was directing the production and we had managed one rehearsal with musicians, two choreography sessions, and a couple days of staging. Three years later, our company is back together in the rehearsal room, once again working on Vogel’s stunningly beautiful play. And on Friday, we realized that we were finally staging beyond what we’d been able to do in 2020.
While we were rehearsing Indecent, several notable local companies were gearing up their spring season offerings. Jarrott Productions was prepping Mother of the Maid, Penfold Theatre Company was about to open Vincent, and Zach Theatre was in rehearsal for Roe. All four productions were put on pause when live performances shut down, and all four will finally be performed in Austin this spring.
In celebration of reaching this milestone, we checked in with Dave Steakley (Producing Artistic Director, Zach Theatre), Jenny Lavery (Director of Zach’s Roe), David Jarrott (Producing Artistic Director, Jarrott Productions), Ryan Crowder (Producing Artistic Director, Penfold Theatre), and Nathan Jerkins (Co-Artistic Director, Penfold Theatre) about what it’s like to finally produce these works for Austin audiences.
Ryan Crowder is currently starring in Vincent, alternating the role of Theo Van Gogh with Nathan Jerkins. Crowder spoke to the impact of postponing the original production. “We were one week from going into tech. So Nathan and I were off book, the set was already designed, the costumes were designed, everything was just preparing to be loaded into the space so that the show could open. And we had to make the difficult call to shut it down. And so it's been waiting in a little box for three years to be brought back out into the sunlight and we were fortunate to get almost all of the original team to come back and work on this new reincarnation of the show, which has been really rewarding.”
David Jarrott expressed the difficult choices many companies faced with the shutdown. “At that time, the play had been on our horizon for over a year, and we had a good deal of time and money invested in the production, with costumes and set pieces already constructed and ready for load-in. We kept in touch with our actors and design team for the ensuing weeks, months and years, always trying to figure out when/where we could produce this beautiful, contemporary story of Joan of Arc, as told through the eyes of her mother. We considered outdoor venues, non-traditional theatre spaces—various scenarios for getting this play in front of an audience, while keeping everyone in our company and our audiences safe.”
So why are these plays all coming back now? Many theatres have been back to live performances for over a year. Austin Playhouse returned in December 2021 with three, one-actor shows. Indecent is a much bigger production with musicians, seven cast members, and a large design team. We needed the time to feel secure that the production would be well supported. But there was never a question of “if”, just “when”.
Jarrott had a similar reason for their timing. “When we returned to producing live theatre in the spring of 2022, we knew we had to start smaller in scope—and Mother of the Maid is a big sprawling show with a lot of moving parts. But we still were dedicated to eventually producing it! The script is just too beautiful and moving to have canceled completely, depriving our creatives and our audiences of this experience.”
Nathan Jerkins spoke to the impact of this timing for Vincent. “To bring it back to life feels really good. And it also feels like a nice bookend. Obviously Penfold has been open for a little while again, but to do this show now—it having been the show that we were working on when everything shut down—it feels like a good closure to this time.”
Indecent spans decades and tells the story of Sholem Asch’s play The God of Vengeance. The play was a success in Europe and performed in Yiddish in New York for years before an English translation opened on Broadway and was shut down for “Indecency.” With the resurgence of anti-semitic attacks in this country, the play feels as much, if not more relevant than when we approached it in 2020.
Roe tackles a more contemporary political landscape and has also been impacted by recent events. Steakley said, “Lisa Loomer rewrote parts of the opening and ending of the play because Roe v. Wade was overturned in the time between the shutdown and our production. The context for this play feels even more vital now.”
Lavery remarked on the cultural and political shifts since the production was originally planned. “Much has happened since 2020 regarding this story: a 2020 documentary was released where Norma McCorvey, in a deathbed confession, stated that the Pro-Life movement paid her to switch sides, but she was never pro-life; Sara Weddington passed away at the end of 2021; and in 2022, Roe v. Wade was overturned by the Supreme Court.”
Steakley added, “The conversations around women's health and reproductive rights are at the forefront of many Texan's minds, especially here in Austin. The Texas abortion ban has made it very difficult for many Texas businesses, including ZACH, to attract top leadership to our state, especially women and BIPOC candidates, and that has many Democrats and Republicans upset. In addition, the serious complications this creates for a myriad of women's health issues, regardless of political affiliation, is a life or death situation, and it is appropriate and necessary that we produce Roe as a forum for meaningful dialogue.
While worldwide closures are in the past, productions are still being impacted by the pandemic. Last summer TexArts’ The Full Monty lost the last week of their run. Just last week, Different Stages’ The Tavern closed early due to COVID among the cast. For performing arts groups, COVID is not yet the same as the common cold and the economic realities of decreased ticket sales from changes in audience habits are driving home the likelihood that “recovery” could be going on for several years. Still, it’s important to acknowledge this landmark event in Austin theatre and to celebrate that the stories we put on hold in March 2020, are back.
Indecent is about resilience. It’s a celebration of the power of theatre and of stories to sustain us in the darkest times. I’m filled with joy and gratitude to be back in the room with these amazing, talented, and kind artists. And I’m incredibly proud of our community for finding a way to bring back all these stories that were paused three years ago.
Penfold Theatre Company's Vincent by Leonard Nimoy runs through April 8, 2023
Tickets and Info HERE.
Zach Theatre's Roe by Lisa Loomer runs through April 30, 2023
Tickets and Info HERE.
Jarrott Productions' Mother of the Maid by Jane Anderson runs April 21 - May 6, 2023
Tickets and Info HERE.
Austin Playhouse's Indecent by Paula Vogel runs April 21 - May 14, 2023
Tickets and Info HERE.