Theatre Horizon casting for households to create virtual pandemic performances

With Theatre Horizon’s Norristown stage dark, the company’s latest idea for pandemic-era entertainment: What if the audiences did the performing?

Theatre Horizon

Theatre Horizon is pictured in Norristown, Pennsylvania. (Matthew J Photography)

Theatre Horizon is looking for a few good households.

The theater company in Montgomery County has closed its Norristown stage for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic, and like theaters everywhere, it is inventing new ways to perform and engage with audiences.

Its latest idea: What if the audiences did the performing?

“Art Houses” is a new initiative to partner with households to create work that is specific to the lives of that group, who will then perform the piece in their home for an online audience.

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The households can be families, roommates, friends or any configuration of people who share a pandemic bubble.

“I’m hoping to rep the true range of what people are experiencing right now,” said artistic director Nell Bang-Jensen, who took the helm of Theatre Horizon just six months before she was forced to close it to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

She says people are already lining up to be part of “Art Houses.”

“One woman with cerebral palsy wants to participate with her caregiver,” she said. “We have four roommates in West Philly who want to participate as a household. We have a family of five, an immigrant family, in South Philly.”

Households selected to participate (after what the company promises will be a “stress-free” interview) will work with a professional writer and director to create and rehearse a performance. They will be paid a $500 stipend and be expected to work about 40 hours over the course of a month to create the performance work. They will also be asked to help create a “mystery box” to be mailed to ticket holders ahead of the performance.

Those households will also be expected to reveal themselves, their homes and their relationships to a wider audience. While there may be elements of fiction in the performance pieces, Bang-Jensen wants them to focus on their personal lives.

“I’m watching a lot of performances on Zoom and it’s hard to make fiction in that space,” she said. “What I like to see on Zoom are the little slivers into each others’ lives that we would not be getting otherwise. During staff meetings, for example, you see partners or pets or kids. You see someone’s rotations of coffee cups or books in the background, or quarantine haircuts.”

Bang-Jensen said the seed of the idea for “Art Houses” came in June when she got married. Her wedding plans were changed to accommodate pandemic, with 20 people distanced in her parents’ backyard while 120 people watched on Zoom.

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Theatre Horizon artistic director Nell Bang-Jensen dances at her wedding with her husband Justin Rose
In June, Theatre Horizon artistic director Nell Bang-Jensen danced at her wedding with her husband Justin Rose in Burlington, Vermont, as their ‘guests’ watched on Zoom. (Courtesy of Nell Bang-Jensen)

Afterward, she realized how hungry people are to mark the milestones of life we used to take for granted.

“These life rituals don’t go away. Babes are being born, people are celebrating birthdays, people are mourning the passing of loved ones. Our usual ways to grieve and celebrate have been taken away from us,” said Bang-Jensen. “Part of what ‘Art Houses’ is trying to do is create new rituals for people in terms of how we celebrate a family.”

Theatre Horizon is hoping to stage its first at-home “Art Houses” performance in November, and then every month after that for as long as the stage is dark. Bang-Jensen is planning for at least seven shows.

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