The pandemic hit Greenbelt Arts Center like it hit indoor entertainment venues across the state and most of the country – like a ton of bricks. Like a destroyer of all plans, including most of its ambitious and impressive 2020-2021 season of 12 shows between August 2020 and July 2021. But they’ve found a way to thrive despite everything.
According to GAC president Win Britt, thanks to improvements in the facility, submissions of plays had increased significantly to GAC over the last few years, and they’d “built interesting and diverse programming and were super excited.” But when Covid hit they found themselves in the “seemingly other-worldly space of cancelling productions, one of which was in tech week!” – the final rehearsal before opening. Canceling that next show – Shipwrecked- was particularly sad because it included some young people and a circus performing group. But GAC looked at CDC guidance and decided they couldn’t risk audience members or volunteers, and closed just Prince Georges County mandated it.
They announced the cancellation and closing in a message to “GAC Family and Friends: With a heavy heart and an abundance of caution…Taking care of the members of our community is essential to our mission” and posting their COVID-19 policy here. Through the summer they continued to “follow the City of Greenbelt’s closure – as long as they remain closed, so will we.”
So their expected date for reopening kept moving farther into the future, but the happy part is that they kept people safe. “No one got sick because of GAC.”
A New Partnership and Taking Performances Online
GAC had already formed a new partnership with Rude Mechanicals, a Greenbelt-based group that primarily performs Shakespeare, to be in residence. The “Rudes” had been promised seven weekends this season, and three of their shows were already being prepared in various stages.
With the closure of the theater, the Rudes declared that they’re “artists and will not be stifled,” and they would pivot to online. So while GAC quickly acquired a professional Zoom account, the question was: Could they deliver an experience that allowed the audience to “think they’re not just watching a Zoom call?” They’d sure try – having all auditions, rehearsals and performances online from everyone’s own homes, with only actors who lived together performing in the same room.
The obstacles were numerous and hard to even anticipate. For example, while live a prop can be passed around the stage as needed, online each actor had to have their own copy. There was also the inevitable, ubiquitous problem of people being muted by mistake. (One creative actor winged it by making a joke about the mute button using Shakespearean language.)
And going online poses copyright challenges, which made it impossible to simply take all their scheduled shows online. It’s one thing to acquire rights to perform for a local community theater; it’s quite another to stream the production for all the Internet to watch. That’s why after charging nothing for its first online shows, GAC is experimenting with charging an admission to watch the musical “Gutenberg! The Musical!” which has a licensing agreement that prohibits giving away ticketing. Going forward, Britt reports that productions will be at reduced cost or free when the publishers permit it.
Britt reports that while no one knew for sure if people would show up for a performance on zoom, “Quadroon” attracted 150 non-volunteer attendees for just one weekend, indicating “a lot of hunger for this type of content.”
And a silver lining from going online has been the ability of people anywhere to watch, which for “Quadroon” included a “legendary Hollywood actor,” Jenifer Lewis Wanting to see a friend in the show, she watched and then participated in the audience talkback.
Another plus is that some of the many applications for the GAC stage that would otherwise be turned down for lack of space could now be accommodated. Who’d have thought the pandemic would enable GAC to provide MORE content for the public than ever? It’s also a great way to workshop an original piece, and actors and volunteers located anywhere can be used, And not having to commute to evening rehearsals makes them easier to commit to.
Gutenberg! The Musical! by Anthony King and Scott Brown, directed by Zack Walsh, music director Lucia LaNave, choreographer Stefan Sittig, producer Pamela Northrup will be performed December 11 & 12 and December 18 & 19. Tickets are $15. By purchasing a ticket you will receive the link to watch the show. Purchase tickets at http://greenbeltartscenter.org.
Gutenberg! The Musical is a play within a play, like Hamlet but even funnier! Wannabe Broadway writers Bud and Deb are just so darn excited to share their new musical with an audience, and what better way to share it than through a Zoom call! What they may lack in talent they make up for in awkward energy! Although their show – a biography of Johannes Gutenberg, inventor of the Printing Press – features an extensive cast, Bud and Deb have decided that for tonight’s performance they’ll read all the parts themselves! Starring Capital Fringe Festival favorites David Koenigberg and Aria Velz, Gutenberg! The Musical! is the perfect show for the COVID age- with no sets and costumes it relies only on your off-kilter imagination! Notice: this play contains adult themes and language.
“Twelfth Night: Or What You Will ” will be presented by the Rude Mechanicals January 8-10, 2021. A romantic comedy, Twelfth Night features twins separated at birth, love triangles, a pompous servant, a counterfeit love letter, a cross-dressing heroine, a drunken uncle and a witty fool. The play is directed by Tiffany M. Waters, who said it “will explore themes of personal identity, relationships, isolation, love, loss, and reunion.”
In spring of 2021 GAC will partner with Eleanor Roosevelt High School, putting on a set of short plays about social justice performed and directed by ERHS students. Working on the production will be GAC’s first youth advisers, two student volunteers appointed by the Board. They’ll also be advising the Board on how to have “more expansive mind towards attracting young people to the live performing arts.”
I anxiously asked Britt about the financial impact on GAC of losing all their normal ticket sales, but was relieved to hear that “We’re okay with a few caveats.” The city of Greenbelt has continued providing the normal arts grant for operating expenses, and their private donors have been steadfast in their support, too. Those normal income sources have been supplemented by a small Covid-related operating grant from Maryland, and many Zoom viewers have made voluntary donations. Plus, it helps that online productions cost much less to produce.
Gallery Goes Digital
Another of GAC’s Covid-related innovations has been taking its art gallery digital. Britt explained that in normal times “gallerist Linda Thompson was doing an amazing job curating art for new shows in the facility, so that every time someone comes to see a show, there’s a new art exhibition.” She reached out to the many artists on deck to show their work there and now showcases a new artist’s work every month, drawn from across the state but preferably from Greenbelt itself.
NOTE: By contributing these pandemic stories, photos, et cetera, Greenbelters are making an unconditional donation of the material to the nonprofit Greenbelt Online.org and the Greenbelt Museum/City of Greenbelt, which reserve the right to keep, lend, or otherwise dispose of the donated material, and may use the material on our website, for social media or other postings, in promotional materials or in future exhibits.