Celebrating Philly theater artists’ advocacy in a year of pandemic-limited performance

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Zuhairah McGill Artistic Director First World Theatre

Zuhairah McGill, founder and director of First World Theater Ensemble. (Courtesy of Zuhairah McGill)

If 2020 were a normal year, around this time the Barrymore Awards would have been announced, honoring the best of theater in the Philadelphia region in a ceremony produced by Theatre Philadelphia.

Of course, 2020 has not been normal. In March, all theaters shut down for the pandemic. Though a few productions were staged in the early months of the year, and later a smattering of companies attempted online performances, effectively there have been no theater performances to see, judge, or honor.

If nothing else, theater people are indefatigable. In lieu of the Barrymore Awards, Theatre Philadelphia is hosting an online celebration of Philadelphia theater during the COVID season. On Monday evening, hundreds of theater professionals are expected to come together in a digital space, not to hand out awards but simply pay tribute to jobs well done during a difficult time.

“We’re looking at virtual performances, we’re looking at advocacy methods, we’re looking at nontraditional ways folks have done theater, either outdoors or virtually,” said LaNeshe Miller-White, the new executive director of Theatre Philadelphia. “Everything the community has been doing in the last season.”

The online event Monday evening will start with an hourlong, prerecorded video assembled from material submitted by 75 local theater producers. Afterward, participants in Zoom can enter a handful of virtual rooms to network and socialize, just like a real awards ceremony.

Theaters may have been dark for more than eight months, but theater companies have been bustling. Many quickly pivoted to put their educational programming online, and swiftly invented educational programming from scratch to be able to keep their audiences engaged.

Some companies — particularly mid- to large-sized companies — have taken this forced downtime to assess how equitably they operate. The online celebration is highlighting particular organizations for their activism this year:

The Hum’n’bards, a small troupe making original musicals that debuted at the 2016 Philly Fringe Festival, launched a fundraising campaign as the first theaters began to close across the state, on March 12. The Philadelphia Performance Artists’ Emergency Fund was the first fundraising effort out of the gate when the pandemic hit, raising more than $14,000 for cabaret and drag performers.

In May, the City of Philadelphia announced deep budget cuts that would eliminate the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy and zero out its contribution to the Philadelphia Cultural Fund.

When that news hit, Power Street Theatre organized a 24-hour rally called #SavePhillyArtsAndCulture. The online marathon of activism included speeches, Zoom dialogues and performances. Ultimately, the OACCE was dissolved by the city budget, and the Cultural Fund was restored at reduced levels.

“Theatre Philadelphia: A Celebration” will also spotlight the First World Theater Ensemble, which launched a series of town hall meetings over the summer, in-person and online, to address systemic racism in Philadelphia’s theater industry.

At first, artists and theater professionals of color gathered to share experiences of racism they have encountered in the industry. Then, a second town hall brought in leaders of some of Philadelphia’s larger companies, including the Arden and Philadelphia Theater Company, to talk about strategies on how to systemically support theater artists of color in their careers.

“These institutes tend to keep using the same people,” said Zuhairah McGill, founder and director of First World. “Unknown people of color never get the opportunity to work in regional theater because [companies] want to stick with the same people they know. They stay safe. It’s time they come out of their boxes and discover these new artists.”

McGill founded New World in 2000, the resident company of the Community Education Center  on Lancaster Avenue in Powelton Village. Town halls have always been part of its mission. Aside from staging a performance season, McGill has coordinated forums on subjects such as suicide prevention, AIDS and police brutality.

In the past, First World hosted town halls when the ensemble felt there was a particular need in the community. Now, McGill said, she wants to more regularly hold such discussions, perhaps every summer.

“This has been our makeup for 20 years,” said McGill. “We do theater on issues of social justice, but we are a community of the people, by the people. We are not a theater company who will put on a show and go away until the next season.”

McGill has never won a Barrymore Award, although she was nominated as an actress in 2002 and was part of last year’s sweep by the Arden Theater’s “Gem of the Ocean.” This year, she will be spotlighted during the Theatre Philadelphia tribute on Monday. Miller-White wants to continue to honor companies and artists for their advocacy work on an ongoing basis.

“The artists’ connection to advocacy is important to keep top-of-mind when we’re coming back, and funds are starting to be distributed again,” she said. “Theater artists have been able to have a voice in that this year, because there has not been the normal rat race of a season of producing work. I want to continue spotlighting that.”

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