As the lights dim and the countdown begins, it almost feels like a typical evening at Live Arts.
But then you look away from your screen, and the illusion is broken. You’re on your couch, with a bowl of microwave popcorn and self-poured wine. And instead of spotlights bursting to life, there’s only the pale glow of a laptop.
The August production of In The Heights was the first full-length play overseen by Live Arts’ new Executive Director Anne Hunter since the theater was forced to shut down its 2019 season in mid-spring, and the first fully digital production Live Arts has ever attempted. The show was broadcast entirely via a Zoom video call, with each actor performing and singing remotely to their own camera.
“One of the things that really informs every single aspect of what we’re doing is that nebulous, ‘How does this feel when we experience it?’…and that sort of helps us inform what we think our audience might experience,” Interim Artistic Director Jeremy Pape says. “That separation, that digital interlocutor of the screen, makes it really difficult to gauge that.”
The Zoom-based In The Heights became an utterly unique experience. As harmonies expanded, the number of speakers multiplied; screens went abruptly to black as a character stormed out of a scene and popped up unexpectedly, bursting into a room. The actors turned their lamps off to display a city-wide blackout, flicked on strobe lights to enter a club, picked up their own fork and knife when a group sat down to dinner.
This individual approach to a joint creation represents Hunter and Pape’s effort to keep this core of the Charlottesville arts scene alive in a time when traditional plays are no longer physically feasible.
Hunter joined Live Arts in February, bringing a background in nonprofit work to helm the business side of the theater as Pape took care of the artistic aspects of its upcoming productions. She had barely a month to get her bearings before the pandemic brought things to an abrupt halt and left the theater with a crushing $410,000 deficit.
But by turning to the Charlottesville community, Live Arts was able to make up nearly the entirety of its losses purely through donations.
“They said, ‘We want to make sure Live Arts makes it through this,’” says Hunter. “They knew very well this was about the life and death of the organization. They said, ‘You need to survive. This community can’t live without you.’”
As support poured in from alumni everywhere, Pape and Hunter began to realize that they had been presented with a unique opportunity. Although they couldn’t hold a physical season, they could curate a digital one accessible to all.
“We’ve had audiences literally across the world for this,” Pape says. “We’ve had audiences in Australia and Israel and Ireland and Chile and China.”
And so the 2020-21 season was born. While still embracing Live Arts’ pay-what-you-can policy, the fully digital fall lineup exponentially expands its potential audience. It focuses on promoting the Charlottesville arts scene with Friday studio visits and open mics with local artists, short plays by local playwrights, and a show entitled Lost Home, Win Home about what it felt like to live through the violence of the 2017 Unite the Right rally.
The fall’s full-length digital show will be Marat/Sade, a 1963 play by Peter Weiss. Like Lost Home, Win Home, it resonates deeply with current events.
“The question inherent in the script is, ‘What is the best way to affect change in your world?’” Pape says. “Is it to change one’s self, or is it to change one’s circumstances and exterior conditions and society at large? And so it feels very topical.”
Open casting for Marat/Sade tied into a core part of Hunter’s mission as new executive director: introducing diversity to the relatively closed-off Charlottesville theater scene.
“Our mission is forging theater and community, and that has held us in good stead for a long time,” Hunter says. “But it means different things in this time and place than it did. When we talk about community, we’re talking about multiple communities, and how can we do that better and serve different communities that we haven’t played a stronger role in?”
Hunter and Pape hope that the fall season will reach members of those underserved communities by featuring casts that can include them.
“One of the ways we try to talk about casting is that no character has to be cast in any ethnic framing unless they have to be,” Pape says. “… And Marat/Sade is absolutely in that vein. Anybody on that stage can be anybody.”
By next calendar year, Live Arts hopes to expand its productions to include a socially distanced audience in-house. Hopefully, actors won’t be sequestered to their separate Zoom screens forever.
But the directors don’t see the digital side of these shows and activities going away anytime soon. Online broadcasts have allowed the theater to overcome physical and social limitations to reach both a wider cast and audience than Hunter had ever imagined when she first arrived last winter.
“We will look different than we have in the past 30 years,” Hunter says. “We’ll build up that great legacy, but better and more reflective and more engaged in the multiple communities in Charlottesville.” —Julia Stumbaugh