ORLANDO — While the doors of community theaters remain closed due to the pandemic, that hasn’t stopped a growing number of theaters from staging virtual performances. The Empty Spaces Theatre Co. is the latest, and will be staging Stephen Adly Guirgis’s play The Last Days of Judas Iscariot on Saturday July 25 at 7:30 p.m., as a celebratory one night only live Zoom performance.
Empty Spaces is calling it a “celebratory” show, since the theater company originally staged this same production 11 years ago in June 2009, and have brought back most of the original cast for this reunion — no small accomplishment since some of them will not be in Orlando.
And it’s being done for a good cause — to benefit fellow actors and performers in Central Florida who have been impacted by the COVID-19 shutdowns.
What Is The Play Last Days of Judas Iscariot About?
Guirgis’s play is set in a world between heaven and hell and examines the man who became the New Testament’s most infamous sinner. The performance will feature some actors who will be live in different parts of the country for this one night only reading of Guirgis’s show.
John DiDonna, the director of this production and the original 2009 show, who is also acting in this newest one, said it will be an invite only/password protected performance, although he added that “We are asking for tips to the production in the amount of $10 minimum per household — more would be greatly appreciated.”
The money they raise from this production, he said, will donated to St Luke’s for GoPar, or the Greater Orlando Performing Arts Relief. GoPar was created after the coronavirus pandemic started with a mission to provide assistance to Greater Orlando theatrical artists and theme park performers both backstage and onstage during this ongoing health crisis, offering those performers support and resources.
Donations or tips can be sent through Paypal to firstname.lastname@example.org. You’ll need to specify the code word “Judas” to ensure it goes to the right account. All tips/monies must be received by 2 p.m. on Saturday to get online access to the production, and an email will be sent to you with information on how to view the reading. It’s also important to note that the live streaming production will be deleted right after the performance so it won’t be possible to watch the show at a later date.
Finding An Audience Online
This isn’t DiDonna’s first go-round with a virtual production. He’s also the creator and director of Phantasmagoria, the troupe of circus-like performers who have been recreating horror tales from classic literature for the past decade, with productions that started around Halloween season but have expanded to include the Orlando Fringe Festival, holiday shows that recreate Charles Dickens’ classic ghost story A Christmas Carol, and tours outside of Florida. When the pandemic hit, Phantasmagoria began doing live shows online every Sunday night at 8 on Phantasmagoria’s Facebook page.
Freeline Media checked in with DiDonna to talk about the Judas production, Phantasmagoiria’s ongoing virtual shows, and what it’s like finding a new audience online.
Freeline Media: What made you select The Last Days of Judas Iscariot for a revival? Does the content seem relevant, in your eyes, to our current health crisis?
John DiDonna: We have been talking about a reunion for years, but part of the challenge is we are all spread out across the nation right now so to do it live would have been a logistical nightmare. However with the new virtual world we are in we can all come together from all points of the nation and do a show together in real time. Which is amazing. Some of us have not seen each other in years upon years, so this will be a reunion of the people involved too. Dennis Neal has always been a huge positive force in wanting to get us all together again, and now – kind of because of the situation we are in – we are able to.
There are a lot of amazing memories attached to this show for us, as well as the fact that Stephen Adly Guirgis created an amazing work. It touches both the mind and the heart, and I think we would be hard pressed to find many who are not invested and affected by the themes within.
What makes this extra special is we are doing it also as a benefit for GoPar – the Greater Orlando Performing Arts Relief account that many of the artistic directors in town came together to create. This is housed in many ways at St Luke’s, which has shown itself to be a front runner in recognizing the needs of the Performing Arts/Theatrical Arts community and trying to help in this time of economic, social and health woes. So the timing is perfect for this all to come together. About two months ago Dennis reached out to all of us. . . and here we are. So it is a credit to him for lighting the proverbial fire under this.
Freeline Media: You also produced a series of Phantasmagoria performances online. What kind of reaction did you get from audiences?
John DiDonna: The reaction has been wonderful and heartening. We have done tons during the last few months from our weekly Sunday night shows — which get between 3,500-10,000 views depending on the week — to our zoom performances as well as guesting on other shows. For example, right now we are rehearsing with the St Louis troupe to do a performance on July 30 live on Zoom, integrating cast members from there and here. Plus we have even done two conventions online so far! So theater can and should live on in many ways even in the midst of all of this.
Freeline Media:. What’s the challenge in promoting virtual rather than stage performances?
John DiDonna: I think in a lot of ways it is the same – spreading the word and reaching those interested. The world for the last ten years has been turning more and more to social media platforms to do this, and so this is all sort of organic as it has moved forward. The challenges are more in what platforms to use, and what legalities to follow. For example, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot only has rights to advertise in our general area here so as not to interfere with other productions being done online elsewhere. So the theatrical companies and the rights companies and the actors’ unions are all navigating new territory together – which is amazing.
Freeline Media: Are you looking for new and even more innovative ways to engage audiences at a time of social distancing?
John DiDonna: Absolutely, that is what we need to be doing. Active engagement. It is kind of amazing how many people can come together when you are all wanting to connect.
Freeline Media: Our current pandemic reminds me of one of the segments you produced in Phantasmagoria, The Masque Of The Red Death, also about the reaction to a fast-sweeping virus. It seems like horror writers have tapped into this terror before.
John DiDonna: Well, it is the fear of the unknown. The fear of what may be out there. A Virus is unseen, but its effects are devastating — very similar yes to Masque of the Red Death. Our Globe has been here before, many times, and we need to make our way through, which can be terrifying.
Doing Last Days right now is a breath of newness and hope and life for all of us, even if it is a show we once all did together. I hope that it touches the audience that comes to our Live Virtual show as much as it touches us all. That is how one dispels fear.
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.