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Digitus Theatrum: A different kind of season from PTC

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BANGOR – Adapt. Adapt. Adapt.

That’s what so many performing arts organizations have had to do over the past few months. The pandemic has completely upended the model, leaving thousands of people scrambling to figure out how to go forward in this new landscape.

And that’s what Penobscot Theatre has done: Adapt.

PTC has officially announced their 47th season. Titled “Digitus Theatrum,” the 2020-21 slate was shared with the public by Producing Artistic Director Bari Newport via a virtual town hall event held Aug. 17. It is the most unique schedule in the history of the company, a collection of online offerings that are unlike anything many theatregoers have ever seen.

From a haunted audio adventure to a holiday puppet extravaganza, from a homegrown collection of solo works to an avant-garde theatrical adventure, Digitus Theatrum isn’t the theatre to which we are accustomed. It is something different, a collection of ideas that is somehow both pragmatic and ambitious.

PTC will be offering a variety of subscriptions and a wealth of programming for audiences of all ages over the course of the season, with their mainstage bill of fare enhanced by a variety of new and different kinds of creative entertainment. For information about ticket and subscription options, contact the PTC box office at 942-3333 or visit the theatre’s website at www.penobscottheatre.org.

Newport – along with interim Managing Director Jen Shepard – took time out of their busy schedules to speak with The Maine Edge about this unique and unconventional season.

The first question was about the timeline that led to this season, one that was the result of repeated pivoting in response to the everchanging and evolving situation in which we find ourselves.

“It’s so complicated, you know?” said Newport. “Just dealing with the rights holders alone, and the switching of dates and all the forward-facing pieces of it all.

“At a certain point it was only dealing with things that could be done live and streamed you know, dealing with all the rights holders around all of that. And then every time we shifted that meant that our communication with Equity would also shift.”

The first season that PTC announced – the initially planned shows – included the company’s usual variety. There was the Agatha Christie mystery “Murder on the Orient Express” and the musical “Bright Star” and a return engagement for the wildly successful “Shear Madness.” The holiday show was to be a version of “Miracle of 34th Street.”

It soon became clear, however, that a fully in-person season was not in the cards. So in the spring – even before the official postponement of the summer production of the musical “9 to 5,” Newport and company were already looking to pivot.

“Even before we canceled ‘9 to 5,’ going back further, there were things that we were working on where we had to pivot early on,” Newport said. “And then, maybe three weeks or a month later, we were already starting to adjust that first season to kind of be half [in-person] and half [digital], just to make it smaller for a variety of reasons in terms of how many people can rehearse together and such.

“But even there like even that middle season had us really just changing the September show into a two-person show that could be rehearsed half in the people’s house and then a shortened rehearsal here,” she continued. “We were just trying to get anywhere around it, trying to figure out a way for the unions to improve the project, all with the idea in mind that we would move through a season. We held pretty tightly to that for a while.”

This first pivot crystallized into a fully conceptualized season, one shared with members of the company’s Artist’s Council in June. This one, while still following an in-person model, revolved around primarily single-actor shows, minimizing contact. It was very close to a go before it was scuttled and Newport returned to the drawing board.

“We pivoted again in July,” said Newport. “We had so much material – drafts of brochures, press releases, letters – ready to go. So much material that never saw the light of day.

“But we just didn’t feel confident. We couldn’t be sure. There were too many deep question marks that would have just stopped us; if we released everything, we would have had to change the plan again and we didn’t want to officially announce until we had a plan we thought we could definitely deliver, which is this one.”

“This one” is the season that has become Digitus Theatrum. All of these works will be presented virtually, allowing audiences to experience them in their own homes. There is a mainstage season – titled “Main Courses” – and a family-oriented collection of works titled “Family Style.” There are additional offerings as well.

MAIN COURSES

GHOST POSTCARDS FROM MAINE (October 15 – November 8): This auditory experience invites you to turn off the lights, turn up the volume, and get creeped out as five Maine playwright/novelists pen original tales from Vacationland’s creepiest ghost towns. Stories by Travis Baker, Sam Collier, Carrie Jones, Michael Kimball and Robin Wood. Audio. STP: $40

A CHRISTMAS CAROL (December 12 – 27): Ken Stack narrates his own adaptation of the Dickens classic. Using Czech rod-marionettes in a Baroque Opera-style toy theatre set, Atlanta-based theatre/film makers The Object Group bring the ultimate tale of redemption to stunning, unforgettable new life with live puppetry and animation. A Penobscot Theatre Company commission. Film. STP: $40

FLYIN’ SOLO (January 21 – February 7): Everyone has a story. What’s yours? Join twelve actors (alternating over two nights) for original stories told with humor and heart. Written and performed by the actor, “Flyin’ Solo” brings personal stories to life, told in the actor’s own unique voice in performances that promise to be both funny and dramatically compelling. Live. STP $40

WHITE RABBIT RED RABBIT (March 11- April 3): by Nassim Soleimanpour. No rehearsal. No director. A different actor each night, and a script waiting in a sealed envelope. “White Rabbit Red Rabbit” is a wildly audacious theatrical experiment and a potent reminder of the transformative power of theatre. Live. STP: $40 

SURPRISE SHOW (April 22 – May 9): With a desire to remain nimble and open to the possibility of welcoming audiences back into the Bangor Opera House, this spot remains open. To be announced this winter.

FAMILY STYLE

THE GLITCH WITCH (October 11 – November 1): A magical mystery musical, created and performed by Brittany Parker. Wyn comes from a long line of powerful witches...but can’t seem to harness the magic herself. When a dark force threatens to steal all of the light from New England, Wyn must enlist help to save the day! Streamed. STP: $25

EXCEPTIONS TO GRAVITY (November 8-29): Be amazed. Join brilliant master of physical comedy, Avner Eisenberg as he weaves a spell of poetic simplicity in a show of hilarious predicaments which defies the barriers of language and culture and has toured extensively in the US and abroad. Streamed. STP: $40

MR. BEN’S PLAYHOUSE (Series. Begins January 9): In Mr. Ben’s Playhouse, anything is possible and everyone is welcome! The only requirement for entry is an active imagination. Join Mr. Ben and his colorful cast of friends as they explore the extraordinary world of theatre: secrets, mysteries and all. Five 15-min episodes. A Penobscot Theatre Company commission. Streamed. STP: $40/series

THE TINIEST LIBRARIAN (February 7-28): Miss Susan is the tiniest, loneliest librarian in the world. When Tiny Miss Susan immerses herself in books on her shelves, she is launched her into a wild and unforgettable adventure! Streamed. STP: $20

BEE PARKS AND THE HORNETS (April 11 – May 2): An indie pop-rock band for all insects and ages inspires young people to get up and move with all original songs that promote kindness, equality and self-confidence. Streamed. STP. $30

Other offerings will include “Sides” - ghost tours, a magic show, a holiday-themed improv show called “Deck the Balls” from ImprovAcadia and (my personally most eagerly anticipated) dog operas. Also, there will be a handful of ongoing free offerings called “Sweeteners,” including the continuation of the popular “Dishin’ in Drag with Dominic” series, a look behind the scenes with longtime PTC stage manager Meredith Perry and a game show hosted by Jen Shepard. The theatre’s Dramatic Academy education arm will also be hard at work, with classes for young and old.

With an online season, no physical tickets or seat reservations are needed as each production comes a unique link sent out via email to each ticket buyer/household. Each link will be password protected and usable within the time period of the show. Within this season, there is a mixture of both live and streamed performances.

With a live performance – the emailed link grants you admission to a one time only performance using Zoom and other technology. This real-time video is streamed from our cameras to your device; anything can happen so take your seats and don’t be late for the theatre! With a streamed performance, the emailed link grants you admission to a pre-recorded performance uploaded to Vimeo. This link can be accessed at any time of day and as many times as you want within the release period. One ticket – many viewings. 

Subscriptions for Main Courses will cost $150; Family Style will cost $120. Single tickets will also be available. It should be noted that these prices are per household. For more information, visit www.penobscottheatre.com or call 942-3333.

Newport admits to having initially resisted the idea of a digital season.

“At first, I was like ‘I don’t want to do a digital season,’” she said. “But I realized, it’s not ABOUT doing a digital season. It’s about doing work that is new. New content-based work that is made for this medium. That’s what’s exciting about the season.”

“I think your initial negative reaction was in regard to doing the season of one-person plays but on Zoom,” added Shepard. “And we were all feeling like ‘Yeah, we could do that, but it doesn’t seem that interesting or forward-pushing.’”

The notion of in-person performance was further hobbled by the testing requirements put forward by Equity; the truth was that, despite willingness to help from partners like Bangor’s St. Joseph’s, the required turnaround time for testing simply wasn’t feasible, due in part to Maine’s enviable position as a non-hotspot.

“It was so incredible for St. Joe’s to agree to take us on, so amazing,” said Newport. “Even though it was clear that we weren’t going to be continuing in that direction.

“It all seemed so heavy and dark and expensive, not at all light and delightful and creative. From a personal place, my own artistic sense, yes, but also looking around at everybody else. That was the key – to figure out a way to stop fighting and start creating.”

That realization, that desire to embrace the creative in the face of necessity – that was what drove PTC to the season that would become Digitus Theatrum. That desire for creative fulfillment is as important a part of the PTC culture as anything.

“I think it was the only way forward for us,” said Shepard. “It reminds me of improv; it’s when you stop resisting that it clicks. What’s the reality? Either the reality you’ve created or the reality that we actually all live in together. Accepting that, that’s when the road started to become clearer. It’s not an easy road, but still – the road became clearer to us. The path forward became clearer.

“It’s a chance to reclaim that creativity,” she continued. “It got me thinking about something like the end of World War II, when there was this huge outpouring of creativity. I think creativity can be inspired by times of great trauma, and the whole nation is undergoing great trauma right now.”

“It does create wild creativity,” Newport said. “I mean, what else can we do to fight back and create a sense of hope and community but to create something that is delightful and beautiful for people to take in? I think the other thing is this steadfast belief in what the definition of theatre is. Plus, my attitude was largely: ‘Make theatre at all costs and push it through.’ I remembered being a young theatre-maker and saying ‘I can do plays anywhere. I’m gonna do them in the bathroom. I’m gonna do them on the street. I’m gonna do them on this shelf. I’m just gonna keep making plays everywhere anywhere and all the time because that’s what we do!’

“And I think, between that and the idea that the show must go on, these were the two foundational elements of what make theatre in my mind. And I needed to move past that and focus on changes and how we survive.”

Making that sort of fundamental shift is never easy, no matter what your vocation might be. So many have been left to deal with the same sorts of pivots that PTC has been engaged with over these past weeks and months. Entire industries changed overnight, forced to adapt on the fly to try and survive in an environment that continues to change. 

“I don’t remember what I was watching,” said Newport. “There was an artist – someone in a different artistic field – talking about changing and answering the demands of the moment. That really struck me. And putting aside the fact that we’re a theatre company and putting aside the fact that all of our knowledge – certainly my own competence – comes from putting on plays. Producing, advertising, dealing with the community – all of it, onstage and off. But with this, we’re left to put so much of that aside and just focus on creation.”

That spirit of creation, one could argue, fully embodies that ethos of “the show must go on.” PTC is in many ways working without a net. This isn’t just thinking outside the box – there is no box. It’s an altogether different way of doing things, a bold and ambitious undertaking packed with both risk and reward. And underneath it all – the desire to create.

“Looking at myself as an artist – not as a director or a performer, but as a creator – and hearing from all of these other people in my life,” said Newport. “It’s like everyone has been at a standstill, stagnant in terms of their own desire and inspiration. I believe that that a higher power, God or whatever you choose to call it, is within each of us. I felt like my own life force is being stifled, which is exactly what is driving the whole thing forward, the desire to create.

“The zeitgeist, all of it has been about small, making things smaller and getting smaller and so on. It was freeing to say no, to realize that we can do whatever we choose. Penobscot Theatre doesn’t have to be what it has been, but can instead be what we want and need it to be now.”

One of the realities of the current situation is that certain pressures are not felt as strongly. There’s a flexibility in terms of programming that hasn’t necessarily been there in the past, allowing Newport and others to explore different things. During the town hall, Newport referenced what she called her “Big Idea Box,” a collection of thoughts and potential projects that she has always wanted to dig into. And when the digital pivot came, the time to dig had arrived.

Sometimes, you just have to open the Big Idea Box.

“I’ve always wanted to do all these things,” said Newport. “What do you guys think? Want to join me in doing all this weird stuff? And what do YOU want to do? And it became like a different modern company all of a sudden, full of energy and life force.

“We don’t have the same pressure of having to make money; that pressure is lessened. We have different pressure now - pressure to stay alive. We don’t know what’s going happen, so we might as well be big and bold and distinctive in in who we are as individuals who make up this company. It’s a bizarre, futuristic time, so why not might match it with a bizarre futuristic season? The ethos of it is that in times of crisis, a lot of places get smaller. And I believe the opposite – I believe in times of crisis, it’s time to take risks. And that’s a driving feature of this season.”

No one can argue that this season is small. And it certainly isn’t lacking in ambition, with plenty of daring choices. It’s a wide net that has been cast, to be sure, and not just in terms of content or presentation formatting, either.

“I think it’s part of what Bari said about how we didn’t want to go smaller,” Shepard said. “When we realized that we could have people work with us that we’ve never been able to coordinate the physical presence of, it began to open our minds up to the possibilities. And some of these things are short, far shorter than we would ever be able to do otherwise. The dog operas are going to be 8-12 minutes long; we could never put that up onstage.

“I think too when we started to think that way, we realized that, while we are creating a lot of it, some of it is being created in conjunction with us, under our auspices. We have all this bandwidth over here – let’s do something with it. The idea is to involve as many people in the community as we can, to hold on to nurture and care for the ties we have to our company members and engage them. Even if it’s in a smaller project, it’s no less important because it’s a part of the season.”

“It’s very vital to us, that connection to the community,” said Newport. “It was kind of a complex path, but we just kept going. We would stop and say ‘Is this crazy? We’re doing too many things.’ But then the answer would come back, ‘Not really, because this person is doing this and this is being made by this person, so we still have some room in our brains to make more stuff.’”

Bear in mind that as big as this season looks, it was even bigger at one point, simply because Newport, Shepard and the rest knew that they could always remove things, so why not shoot the moon? Assemble the grandest creative smorgasbord they could and go from there; if a few items need to get pulled from the menu later, no harm done.

“We have always wanted to engage as many people as possible,” said Newport. “This season allows us a reach that we’ve never really had before. We just put everything on the board – everything we could think of – and figured we could just say no later. It allowed us to make some discoveries. And we’re proud of what we’ve put together.”

That pride is well-earned. The logistics of assembling a season for a company like PTC is an arduous process; planning starts something like 18 months out. To go from that, to assembling not one but two distinct and unconventional seasons in just a matter of weeks is an astonishing accomplishment. Newport has made clear that she views her job as keeping PTC alive amidst these extraordinary circumstances; the choices she has made certainly indicate that she is willing to do what it takes to accomplish just that

Again - the show must go on. And thanks to the tireless efforts of Bari Newport, Jen Shepard and the scores of other creative artists involved with Penobscot Theatre, it will.

(For more information about Digitus Theatrum and its offerings, visit www.penobscottheatre.org or contact the PTC box office at 942-3333.)

Last modified on Wednesday, 26 August 2020 05:15

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