Community theatres go virtual

ORLANDO — While COVID-19 has led to an unprecedented shutdown of Central Florida’s restaurants, bars, gyms and other businesses, few entities have been as drastically and brutally hit as the region’s community theaters. Forced to shut their doors last March due to social distancing measures needed to fight the deadly virus, these theaters have been forced to cancel productions, including ones that had either just opened to audiences or were in rehearsal for a spring run.

That included the Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival, which cancelled its long-running festival held in the two weeks leading up to Memorial Day Weekend. For the first time in nearly three decades, Fringe was shut down due to the virus, although the organizers of Fringe did host a very different type of Fringe Festival over those two and a half weeks in May: a virtual one.

In fact, more than a few local theater companies, from the Orlando Shakespeare Theater to the Phantasmagoria troupe, have turned to online performances to maintain a connection to audiences. With theater buildings, auditoriums and performing arts centers closed, streaming online through Facebook pages or on Zoom has become one of the few ways that local theater companies can still perform for an audience. At the same time, Orlando’s theaters are planning for the possibility that they can reopen in the fall.

Why Are Community Theaters Doing Virtual Performances?

On March 22, the Victorian horror troupe Phantasmagoria announced that it would start providing live online performances every Sunday night at 8 p.m. on Facebook Live, through their Facebook page, with performances that would run from 30 to 45 minutes long.

And they weren’t alone.

Orlando Fringe recruited artists to do livestreaming performances in May, while Dr. Phillips Center For The Performing Arts and Orlando Shakes are offering summer theater classes online. The Bach Festival Society of Winter Park and the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra have posted performances by their musicians and singers on YouTube and other channels.

A key reason for all this is the statewide Stay At Home order that was issued by Gov. Ron DeSantis late in March to curb Florida’s infection rate. With more people staying at home, the expectation was that people would spend more time online, and would be a receptive audience for online performances.

The governor began lifting the Stay At Home orders early in May, allowing restaurants and other shops to reopen with limited capacity. And while Florida’s infection rate has soared in the past week to as many as 4,000 new cases a day, there are no indications the governor is ready to order another Stay At Home order.

So what are theaters doing as the potential remains for their stages to reopen this fall and welcome in patrons again?

What Are Orlando’s Community Theaters Planning For This Fall?

Assuming there is no second Stay At Home order imposed in Florida, some theaters are already planning to host live shows this fall.

Dr. Phillips Center has started pre-selling tickets for upcoming shows, including Brian Regan on Sept. 11, Mike Dunn on Oct. 12 and Distant Worlds: Music from FINAL FANTASY on Oct. 17.

Other community theaters are also trying to stay active in anticipation of potentially reopening in the fall.

Winter Park Playhouse

Winter Park Playhouse not only had to cancel its spring productions but also its 4th annual Florida Festival of New Musicals. Originally scheduled for this June, its now scheduled for June 24-27, 2021. The Playhouse has selected the new musicals that will be performed at the festival, which showcases new musical theatre works as a four-day event.

The musical theater company has also moved its new season to October. A Grand Night for Singing, which was originally going to be their first production of the 2020-2021 season, will instead run Jan. 22–Feb. 20, 2021, while their fall season will open with Book of Merman, which runs Oct. 2–25. Their other scheduled productions include:

  • * Christmas My Way, which runs from Nov. 13–Dec. 19
  • * Respect, which runs March 19–April 24, 2021
  • * Five Course Love (May 14–June 13, 2021)

Mad Cow Theatre

The theater on Church Street in downtown Orlando has its 7th Annual Science Play Festival coming up on June 25-26, and it includes an exclusive Drama Club panel with playwright Lauren Gunderson on the first night. On June 26, it’s Climate Change Theatre Action, live virtual play readings from 7:30-9 p.m. as a series of five minute plays.

Next up is Collected Stories by Donald Margulies, a live virtual play reading on July 8 at 7:30 p.m., and then Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas, a live play reading on July 15 at 7:30 p.m. Mad Cow Theatre is also hosting its 6th Annual Black & White Bash on July 25 at 7 p.m. as a virtual event to be live-streamed to patrons free of charge, and which will include special guest appearances, entertainment, and an online and live auction.

Orlando Shakes

Orlando Shakes has been posting Throwback videos of performances from earlier productions, while also hosting Summer Camps online and in-person for young actors who want to learn self expression through the performing arts from theater professionals, and Adult Performing Arts Classes for those who want to brush up on their acting skills by joining a professional instructor for a Zoom class on topics ranging from Shakespeare to audition technique.

And in anticipation of reopening in the fall, their schedule includes:

  • * Charlotte’s Web, a production based on the E.B. White book, which runs Sept. 22-Nov. 1
  • * Poe: Deep Into That Darkness Peering by Mark Rector and Mark Brown (Oct. 7-Nov. 8)
  • * and The Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge as their Christmas production (Nov. 18-Dec. 20)

Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright, and author of the book When I Woke Up, You Were All Dead. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com.

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