So begins Pastor Paul’s message to his congregation in Lucas Hnath’s THE CHRISTIANS, the first Next Act offering coming up in our 31st season. Paul is preparing his congregation for a big change in the church’s philosophy, and he finds the need to place everything in context before getting to the news. It’s funny: I’ll be playing Pastor Paul in our show, which I’m very much looking forward to, but I find that I’m already adapting his approach to storytelling, starting with another of his quotes, “I have a powerful urge to communicate, but I find the distance between us insurmountable.”
I can tell you, this powerful urge to communicate is buzzing, vibrating, resonating within the bodies and souls of thousands of performing artists right now. Due to the highly intimate nature of live theatre, the entire performing arts industry has been closed down. Over the course of a few months, a devastating series of closures and cancellations rolled across the country, as one by one, productions, summer festivals and full seasons fell to the coronavirus. As you readers well know, Next Act was forced to cancel its last subscription offering of the season, but due to the enormous generosity of our subscribers, most of that ticket revenue was converted to donations. While this has allowed for a temporary stabilization, exactly how the arts will “re-open” is anybody’s guess. The most-uttered phrase these days is, “We just don’t know.” As usual, the artists are most vulnerable and are being hit the hardest.
Certainly, Albert Einstein never needed our help to prove his theories, but recently, I think it’s safe to say that we’ve all experienced palpable proof of the elasticity, the relativity of time.
Many times I’ve heard people say things like, “this year called March” or “back when everything was different – last week.” Many events packed within a limited time frame have expanded our perception of time, and it takes a concerted effort to recall what was going on before we fell into the time tunnel. But, let’s try.
September 27, 2019 saw the opening of Next Act’s 30th season with Lauren Gunderson’s female French adventure, THE REVOLUTIONISTS. Powered by a stellar cast and dynamic director – Laura Gordon – Gunderson’s uplifting tale of activist feminism challenging the terrorizing powers-that-be kicked off our season in high gear with strong sales and your effusive praise.
Quickly following that success came a visit from a welcome old friend, Neil Simon’s LAUGHTER ON THE 23rd FLOOR. My personal, joyful journey of revisiting the brilliance of Sid Caesar and his Show of Shows was enhanced many times over by the daily shenanigans of eight shamelessly funny actors and trusted director and friend Edward Morgan. The world had recently grown poorer for the loss of Mr. Simon, and it was our privilege to remind audiences yet again of his comedic craft and heartfelt storytelling.
December 31, first public reports of respiratory disease in Wuhan, China.
January 7, 2020. Rehearsals for A SMALL FIRE began as we embraced the welcome return of Mary MacDonald Kerr to the Next Act rehearsal hall, joined by Jonathan Smoots, Mark Corkins and Emily Vitrano. Our smart, focused cast concentrated feverishly on the task of unraveling the secrets of this tricky play, yielding an ensemble performance infused with skill, depth and the actor’s courage to go beyond safety.
February 23 brought this beautiful show to a close. By this time, news of coronavirus had moved from three stories down in the news report queue to the very top. The first United States COVID-19 case had been identified in Seattle a month earlier, and the virus was now making daily headlines and wreaking havoc in Asia and Europe.
March 10, rehearsals began for Bill Cain’s 9 CIRCLES, the taut, multi-faceted dramatization of what war can do to one young man, or to any of us, if put in the wrong circumstances. With his cast and production designers, ace director Michael Cotey started to dig into this incredibly powerful and challenging work. As we analyzed the script during the first few days, there was an acceleration: the NCAA announced a basketball tournament with no fans. The next day, the NBA called a halt to their season. The day after that, the NCAA cancelled outright. Events began tumbling.
Monday, March 16: Social distancing guidelines were circulating; the Next Act board meeting that evening was held at a distance in the theatre space. Earlier that day, the central actor of 9 CIRCLES had presented flu symptoms and was awaiting a test. Fortunately, he later tested negative, but by that time rehearsals were suspended, and office staff immediately made plans to work from home. The rehearsal hall would see no further play-building activity and sits idle to this day.
As we fast-forward to today, the culmination of successive events have included the postponement and eventual cancellation of 9 CIRCLES, 600 phone calls to subscribers, massive patron generosity, re-scheduling the next season’s shows, contingency planning, video creations and adapting our new favorite saying, “Well, we still don’t know.”
And then George Floyd was murdered in plain daylight by Minneapolis police for passing a counterfeit twenty. This grievous act has filled our streets with renewed protests of pain and rage against systemic injuries and injustices to black Americans we have yet to reckon with.
We are committed to a Next Act 2020-21 season. We have an extremely dedicated core administrative staff working on education programs, grant writing, current and future publicity, subscription processing and database management – all the work that would be necessary under normal conditions. This has been made possible by the federal government’s CARES Act and the Paycheck Protection Program, as well as by the generosity of you, our patrons.
We have resolved to make plans, to put them into effect and be ready to change them should the virus dictate. But the short story is, our powerful urge to communicate with you through our work will not be easily suppressed. Nor do we think that YOUR urge to engage in that communication is dampened; if anything, we’ve heard from many that the appetite grows sharper by the day.
We will see you at the theatre.