Nothing is normal about this fall’s theater season — no stages, no opening nights, no standing ovations, certainly no long lines at intermission for the ladies' room.
Still, actors are acting. Directors are directing. The spirit of creativity that is standard operating procedure for theater endures, pandemic or not.
We asked five Philly theater insiders to weigh in on what upcoming shows excite them the most among this season’s many, many virtual productions and theater-by-mail experiments. (The umbrella group Theatre Philadelphia keeps a running list of ongoing productions at theatrephiladelphia.org/whats-on-stage.)
Jaylene Clark Owens, actor, member of Wilma Hot House Company, spoken-word poet
Her fall season picks: I am excited to see Heroes of the Fourth Turning, by Will Arbery, presented virtually by the Wilma Theater. The cast and production team are creating an NBA-style quarantine bubble to safely record this play out in the woods. I’m eager to see how they are able to pivot. (Opens Dec. 1, wilmatheater.org.)
I am also looking forward to Art Houses coming later this season to Theatre Horizon. I can’t wait to see how community members collaborate with artists to create original work from their homes. (Premiering late fall, then monthly, theatrehorizon.org.)
I am looking forward to experiencing the brilliant mind of Philadelphia playwright James Ijames with his new play, What is Left, Burns, streaming via Steppenwolf NOW, the Chicago theater’s virtual programming stream. (November dates to be announced, steppenwolf.org/now.)
Zak Berkman, producing director, People’s Light, Malvern
His projects: People’s Light continues its Drive-In Concert Series throughout October featuring musical acts like Zeek Burse, Stella Ruze, and 49 Burning Condors. We are also filming Christmas Carol in Concert. Actors will perform from Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, interwoven with traditional carols and original music I composed for a new stage adaptation to premiere in 2021. (Dec. 3-29, peopleslight.org.)
Fall season picks: I’m especially excited to catch Theatre Horizon’s Art Houses project. Additionally, Berkeley Repertory Theatre is producing a radio-play version of It Can’t Happen Here that a coalition of theaters across the country, including People’s Light and Philadelphia Theatre Company, will stream as an effort to get out the vote. (Oct. 13-Nov. 8, berkeleyrep.org.)
Nell Bang-Jensen, artistic director, Theatre Horizon
Her project: The highly anticipated Art Houses in which Norristown-area households partner with professional artists to create original shows for a virtual platform that celebrate ideas of home and family. Throughout the pandemic, a new household’s performance will be released on a monthly basis. (Late fall, theatrehorizon.org.)
Fall season picks: Philadelphia playwright Erlina Ortiz is an exceptional talent. I was most recently taken with an audio production of her play Morir Sonyando produced by the Parsnip Ship. I turned it on the other evening thinking I’d listen to a few minutes of it while doing dishes, and got so caught up in the story I immediately sat down and listened to the whole thing. (Available via theparsnipship.com or any podcast app.)
I’m excited to see the Wilma’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning, which is an astonishing script. I am also looking forward to the upcoming Jouska PlayWorks virtual new play showcase. Jouska PlayWorks is an assembly of Black playwrights conceived by lead artist and founder Teresa Miller and cofounders Keenya Jackson and Quinn Eli, who work in collaboration with Simpatico Theatre. They have some truly amazing artists in the lineup. I love new plays and new play development and can’t wait to see what they’ve been working on. (Fall dates to be announced, facebook.com/jouskaplayworks.)
Amy Kaissar, coproducing director, Bristol Riverside Theatre
Her theater’s project: Vinny Deponto’s Mental Amusements, a livestreamed magic show available now via brtstage.org and continuing with performance dates through Nov. 6 with opportunities for audience interaction. “If folks haven’t seen Vinny perform before they’re missing out,” Kaissar said.
Fall season picks: I’ve been really having a great time at the People’s Light Hootenannies. I’m not one to sing along in public, but at home where no one can hear me, I’m very happily belting it out. (Nothing scheduled now, but Berkman says there may be one later in the fall, peopleslight.org)
Beyond Philly, I’m looking forward to a lot of the digital programming at the New York Theatre Workshop, particularly Ayad Akhtar’s new one-man show, Trump is Just the Name of His Story. I’m a big fan of Akhtar’s plays and even if I can’t see them in person right now, I’m anxious to see how he’s thinking in these times. (Premiering in the fall, no date announced, nytw.org)
Brenna Geffers, cofounder, Die-Cast
Her projects: Die-Cast is in the midst of an extension of its immersive digital piece, Temporary Occupancy. Geffers is also creating Emily, about Emily Dickinson, that plays out over five weeks entirely through the mail for EgoPo Classic Theater. (Emily, opening Oct. 12, Egopo.org)
Fall season picks: It is a very strange time to be recommending upcoming theater projects when there is still so much we don’t know, but I trust that Deb Block and Theatre Exile will find ways to push their audiences this fall. Coming up online is D-Pad, a world premiere by Jeremy Gable. A wunderkind video game developer finds herself in a production nightmare in a male-dominated industry when she strives to create an indie game that aims to be more than entertainment. (Nov. 27-Dec. 13, theatreexile.org)
Philly’s immersive scene is always inventing new approaches, so I am looking forward to Cirque du Nuit’s beautiful digital offerings at the end of the fall. Using Zoom and other interactive platforms, audiences will wander through a reimagining of classic folk tales, complete quests, and rewrite their own stories in Thickett: A Fairy Tale Adventure. (Early November, details to come at cirquedunuitnyc.com)
Blanka Zizka and the Wilma Theater will always be the vanguard to me, and I know that their Heroes of the Fourth Turning will set a new bar. Plus they are setting their Hothouse loose, creating new original digital pieces. (Heroes of the Fourth Turning opens Dec. 1, “Hothouse Shorts” program late October through winter 2021, wilmatheater.org)