The earth is on fire and Janet wants to do something about it. All anyone at her middle school seems to care about is the upcoming talent show, including her friends Consuelo and Mary Beth. While visiting her grandfather at the family diner, Janet learns about the sit-ins that Civil Rights organizers used to integrate lunch counters in the 1960s. Connecting movements of past and present, Janet thinks it’s just the right way to get people to care about the environment.
The Alliance Theatre’s production of Sit-In by resident playwright Pearl Cleage was supposed to premiere onstage in spring 2020 before COVID-19 halted production. Adapted from the children’s book Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down by Andrea Davis Pinkey, the production seems more like timely foreshadowing than forlorn nostalgia after the Black Lives Matter demonstrations last summer.
So instead of abandoning the production altogether, or waiting to stage in 2022, associate director Christopher Moses and his team chose to adapt Cleage’s script into an animated short film. Georgia Public Broadcasting will air it in May, and Kanopy (the media provider for the public library system nationally) will offer Sit-In as part of its ongoing programming. It will also be available to stream for $10 from the Alliance’s dedicated site through June 30.
“We knew we needed to tell Pearl’s story to our audiences right now,” said Moses (he/him). “She created a lovely invitation to families and to educators and to students to have conversations that might help make sense of our current struggles. If we could tell this story in a format that felt familiar and yet new, we thought we had a better chance of engaging our young audience and getting it out there widely.”
With the uncertainty of COVID-19 weighing heavily on the arts in general, theatres across the country have had different responses to this extended dark period. Staged readings on Zoom, and now even Clubhouse, appear to be the among the most popular options. Some have deviated from that model to produce everything from podcasts to cooking shows. Others have turned their theatres into social justice organizations, while those with deeper pockets have taken advantage of the opportunity to push the bounds of theatre and adapt plays for the screen.
At the Alliance Theatre, it was an adventure for everyone involved. They contracted brothers David and Matthew Adeboye of the Palette Group to animate the production. The Adeboye brothers had never worked on a play before, but since working on Sit-In, they say they are excited about pushing the bounds of the form. They drew all of the elements by hand, with the goal of having real-life middle schoolers like Janet and her friends see themselves in the images. Details such as Consuelo’s purple hair and a Beyoncé poster on Janet’s bedroom wall make the storybook animations feel true to life.
Director Mark Valdez (he/him), who last worked with the Alliance on a devised theatre program, Road to a Dream: The Buford Highway Project, welcomed the challenge. He says that though his directing style didn’t change with the actors, collaborating with animators was a unique experience that he’d welcome again.
“I’m not a big fan of naturalism, and there’s something about the freedom of animation that you can do anything,” Valdez said. “If you can draw it, it exists. The laws of physics don’t apply. In working with the animators I’d say we can go into a fantasy moment here, such as putting the characters underwater or in space. The medium allowed for infinite possibilities, but the finished product still feels theatrical.”
With the increasing popularity of streaming services, many theatres have found it to be a great way to reach a wider audience. At this point, more people will be able to see the Sit-In film than would have visited the Alliance theatre in an entire live season. For that reason alone, when in-person theatre returns, digital theatre might still also serve as viable passive income.
“I believe that theatre is storytelling and we are creating a new hybrid art form,” said Lily Tung Crystal (she/her), artistic director of Theater Mu in Saint Paul, Minn. “It’s not quite theatre in that it’s video and not onstage, and it’s not exactly film or television because it’s live—but I still call it theatre.”
Crystal wanted to “shatter the Zoom squares and go live” to produce a different kind of digital play for Today Is My Birthday by Susan Soon He Stanton. The comedy follows a single struggling writer, Emily, on the eve of her 30th birthday. She leaves Manhattan to go back home to Hawaii to escape a pre-30 crisis, but winds up having to face everything she’s been avoiding—namely, the loneliness of having hundreds of ways to connect but still feeling disconnected. Though written in 2017, the script proved perfect for social distancing because the characters only communicate through phone, text message, radio, and video chat, never in-person.
Crystal collaborated with theatre artist Leanna Keyes (she/her) of Transcend Streaming to create a live experience online. They set up green screens and high-definition cameras in six actors’ homes for a multi-camera production with cohesive backgrounds. With this setup, Keyes was able to control the cameras remotely and have actors appear and disappear as desired. In addition, during performances, a live chat enabled audience members to talk to each other and comment on the show in real time.
“Live virtual theatre allows the performances to evolve over the course of a run as they would in live, in-person theatre, and it raises the stakes immensely for the performers and the audiences,” Keyes said. “I like when something small goes wrong in a performance done digitally, because it reminds the audience that they are watching real people try their absolute hardest to do something very difficult and make it look easy.”
Crystal added that as much as she is looking forward to a return to in-person theatre, their digital programs—such as their Mu-tini Hour with George Takei, Lea Salonga, and Jay Kuo—reached more people than Theater Mu would have in five years. People tuned in from Australia, the Philippines, and China. That expansion of impact has been priceless for her and the other artists.
This kind of reach had been on Oregon Shakespeare Festival artistic director Nataki Garrett’s mind long before COVID-19. In fact, she pitched the theatre’s O! streaming platform in her job interview three years ago. Though OSF is a destination theatre in Ashland, Ore., Garrett (she/her) also wanted a global reach for the company’s shows, as well as more diverse audiences. The pandemic sped up the timeline of not only offering recorded productions of staged shows, but also the creation of a plethora of original content.
The original film Ash Land was born from this spirit of innovation. Shariffa Ali (she/her) had just directed an acclaimed production of The Copper Children by Karen Zacarías, which opened on Feb. 29, 2020. The show had to close early, but was made available to stream on O! to meet audience demand. Ali was stuck in Ashland when the pandemic constrained travel, and Garrett asked her what she wanted to do with the time. Her answer: Direct a movie. This is how they conceived Ash Land, an enchanting short film about a Black woman grappling with the skin condition vitiligo and seeking peace of mind in the midst of a pandemic and protests.
For the film, they collaborated with hip-hop artist Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter of the Roots to create an original song for the film. Ali says that she felt Trotter and Garrett were a perfect match because of their shared dedication to disrupting and dismantling systems of oppression.
“He was able to capture the historical context of Ashland and the greater state of Oregon that we didn’t need to spell out in the film,” Ali wrote in an email. “I also see a lot of alignment between his values as an artist and Nataki’s ethos of radical inclusion and cutting-edge ways of making art.”
Garrett believes that streaming theatre is here to stay. She recently announced OSF’s first digital-and-onstage combined season, which will include the world premiere of Dominique Morisseau’s Confederates, co-commissioned with Penumbra Theatre. For the digital season, Ali will return to direct another short film, You Go Girl! by Zoey Martinson, about a Black stand-up comic who finds herself in Southern Oregon to distribute her mother’s ashes.
“We’ve always been a Shakespearean theatre that has used our resources to develop new projects,” Garrett said. “Our current audience is drawn to our untraditional approach, such as our not-heteronormative production of Oklahoma!. The focus on new work has allowed us to develop a multitude of diverse voices. Sweat and Indecent were developed here, so this idea of being on the forefront, or the first, is embedded in our audience.”
Now that not only the work but the audience reach has burst the walls of the theatre, what’s next? As someone once said: All the world’s a stage.
Kelundra Smith (she/her) is a contributing editor to American Theatre magazine. kelundra.com
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!