Better late than never: Theater Week returns

Ardencie Hall-Karambe's staging of #AllLivesDontMatter

In fall 2020, Ardencie Hall-Karambe re-staged her play "#AllLivesDontMatter" as an online film, in response to the Black Lives Matter movement of that summer. (Kaleidoscope Cultural Arts Collective)

After a year devastating to the theater industry, the annual Philadelphia Theater Week is returning this month, April 22 – May 2.

To some, it is an unexpected surprise.

Since it launched three years ago, Theater Week has happened in February when many theater companies typically return to the stage after taking a break from the busy holiday performance season. With the pandemic having shut down all theaters and live performances, many theater artists assumed Theater Week would not happen this year, and turned their attention to future projects.

But in late February, Theatre Philadelphia, which coordinates Theater Week, issued an announcement that the show will go on, if a little later than normal. Instead of a winter theater festival, Theater Weeks would roll out in spring.

“I was always kind of hoping that the spring would just be better pandemic-wise,” said Theater Week executive director LaNeshe Miller-White. “Vaccines are rolling out and we do have a better situation. We have a few shows that are in-person, outdoor shows. So that’s exciting.”

The lineup of about 85 productions is predominately online, but includes a handful of in-person shows that utilize creative ways to do it safely during a pandemic: EgoPo will do the Adam Rapp play “Nocture” as a drive-in, lit by the headlights of the audience in their cars; “Murder by Gaslight” is an outdoor walking murder mystery-comedy by Without a Cue Productions; “White Dress” by Philly PACK is a 10-minute piece of dance theater meant to be seen through an open garage door in South Philadelphia; “MallBodies” by former Philadelphian Michael Durkin is a streaming audio narrative meant to be listened to while walking through a shopping mall, and you can choose any one you like.

Miller-White was expecting about half the usual number of Theater Week participants — about 90 in a good year. She was surprised by how many jumped at the chance to be part of the first Theater Week of the pandemic.

“I didn’t think people would be as excited about doing virtual shows,” she said. “Many companies are not operating at their normal capacities. A lot of people still have staff who are furloughed. They have one or two people — if that — holding up the ship until we get through this. So I wasn’t sure what everyone’s capacity would be to put something together for Theater Week.”

Kaleidoscope Cultural Arts Collective has always put on a show for Theater Week. As the resident theater company of the Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia, KCAC is dedicated to presenting and promoting Black theater in Philadelphia. Part of that mission is Theater Week.

“It aims towards our mission of getting people in the community out to see theater who would normally not come to our shows,” said KCAC’s artistic director Ardencie Hall-Karambe. “It brings people from other parts of the city into our North Philadelphia community. They get to see how beautiful it is. They get to see how beautiful the church is. They get to see some good theater that they wouldn’t be expecting there.”

For the Fringe Festival last fall, Hall-Karambe adapted her play  “#AllLivesDon’tMatter,” as an online virtual production. The play, inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests of the summer of 2020, was described as being about “the breakdown of the social contract between the government and the citizens, giving insight into the heart of Black folks.”

At the beginning of 2021, she had not planned to produce anything new for spring, and instead started thinking about a summer show. When she heard Theater Week would happen this year, Hall-Karambe pulled out a script she had read over the summer by Philadelphia drummer and writer Karen Smith: “First Cousins,” about a family whose secrets surface at a cousin’s funeral.

Hall-Karambe quickly put together an online video production of “First Cousins.” It is, in part, a comedy, with a much different tone than the more politically aggressive “#AllLivesDon’tMatter.”

“Even though I’m a very funny person, I have a tendency to deal with a lot of heavy issues,” said Hall-Karambe. “One of the things our audiences have always asked us to do, is to do things that have a little bit more comedy in them. So this has a little bit more comedy, even though it has a serious note. It will still hit them.”

Another theater company, Laurel Tree Theater, will be part of Theater Week for the first time. The small company, focusing on strong female leads, does not produce a regular season of work. It usually creates work whenever it has both the means and inspiration, often using alternative spaces.

On March 23, the one-year anniversary of Philadelphia’s coronavirus lockdown order, Laurel Tree released a pandemic-inspired production of “A Doll’s House,” whose original, 19th-century script by Henrik Ibsen was re-written for modern characters trapped in their respective homes and communicating on a fictitious, video-conferencing platform, called Bubble.

Laurel Tree’s “A Doll’s House” was supposed to run online for only two weeks, until April 9. Without a base of audience subscribers or the support of a festival, director Kyle Cassidy was surprised when “A Doll’s House” was received better than expected. He extended the run of the film into Theater Week, something he had never considered in the past.

“To be involved in Theater Week you need a theater, which is something we never had,” said Cassidy. “There’s no way we could compete with, you know, the Wilma or the Arden or anything like that in normal times. But when this lockdown happened, suddenly the playing field is leveled. We could put on a production that I think is as good as a production as any of the very well-established theaters in Philadelphia could do.”

Jessica DalCanton plays Nora Helmer in ‘A Doll’s House’ by Laurel Tree Productions. The modernized version of Henrik Ibsen’s play takes place on a fictitious online video conferencing platform called Bubble. (Laurel Tree Productions)

Another theater company, the Strides Collective, formally launched itself during last year’s Theater Week, just before the pandemic shutdown. Having not yet established a following, with effectively just one production under its belt, the collective had to immediately pivot for the pandemic.

The company started making online work, developing a non-linear, multi-media website that told a story of a group of students, all of whom are somehow connected to the arson burning of their school library. The play, called “Ignite,” is told mainly through audio recordings, which the audience could access in any order.

“Ignite” was released in October for a brief online run; the website is now offline. When Strides Collective artistic director Jonathan Edmondson realized Theater Week was coming back, he re-packaged the 56 audio elements of “Ignite” as Spotify playlists.

“I have a soft spot for Theater Philadelphia,” said Edmondson, who had once worked there as an intern. “As a formalized new company, the Strides Collective, just keeping our ties to the community, supporting Philadelphia artists, and serving the community through artistic work — whether that’s delivering a product or hiring actors, designers, and directors from the Philadelphia community — is really important to us.”

Making Spotify playlists of its previous virtual production is a relatively quick and easy way for the Strides Collective to be part of Theater Week. The collective is also busy creating another virtual, audio-based work for this summer called Diamond Peak Studio Sessions, about a music recording studio where the microphones are never turned off.

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