Sunday, January 3, 2021

Oh What A Year - 2020 #TCTheater Wrap-Up

Well friends, here we are. This is the time I would normally be agonizing over the list of 200-some shows that I've seen in the last year, trying to narrow it down to a few dozen favorites. But there's nothing normal about this year, at least not since early March. I saw my last indoor live performance on February 23 (a cabaret show by Colleen Somerville and friends called "Songs that Make Me Feel Better" at Bryant-Lake Bowl), then I spent two weeks in paradise (aka New Zealand), and came home on March 11 to a world I'd never known, a world I could never have imagined - a world without theater. And now, nearly 10 months later, we're still living in that world. My heart breaks for all of the artists, theater companies, and performance venues who have lost work and income over that time. For me, I haven't lost income, just my reason for living. Or one of the biggest ones anyway. It's not just that I have more free time than I've had since college, or that I'm bored, or even that I miss theater. It's bigger than that. Theater is my way of experiencing the world, theater is my way of interacting with the world, and after ten years of blogging (I "celebrated" my 10th anniversary in August), I'm not quite sure who I am without it. Yes, I've found things to fill the time, and fill my soul a little (I bought a Minnesota State Parks permit for the first time in my life and visited 22 of them, I went on a scavenger hunt around Roseville looking for 20 beautifully painted six-foot statues of roses, I started cross-stitching and playing around on the piano again), but nothing is the same as sitting in a roomful of humans (now a scary thought) experiencing storytelling that takes you to another place. I believe that there is a light at the end of this theater-less tunnel, but how long we have yet to travel in that dark tunnel is unknown. So at this time, I'd like to look back on the year that was 2020, in hopes that the worst is behind us.

In 2020 I saw 49 live and in-person performances (including two non-theater related concerts, and one theater-film piece screened outdoors). That is, not surprisingly, by far the fewest number of shows I've seen since I started this blog in 2010. Of the 49 shows, 38 were in the first two months of the year. And what a great two months those were, signaling another fantastic year of #TCTheater. From June through October, I saw 11 outdoor shows, five of them at Crooners (which converted their parking lot into a drive-in theater for live concerts), the rest at various parks and parking lots around town. In this time I also watched many streaming shows. I have not counted these, because somehow they don't seem "real." But I've been truly inspired and impressed by the way that theater companies and artists have applied their talents and creativity to this new world of virtual content we find ourselves in. While it could never be as fulfilling as live in-person theater, virtual theater is a necessary stop-gap that helps to fill the space until we can return to live theater.

PRE-PANDEMIC HIGHLIGHTS - MUSICALS

Bernarda Alba (Dan Norman)
Daddy Long Legs (Christian Unser)
Bridges of Madison County (Devon Cox)
In January, Theater Latte Da presented the regional premiere of the rarely done musical Bernarda Alba, which was gorgeous and haunting, and unlike any musical I'd seen before, in terms of structure, story, and musicality. Another regional premiere, I loved Artistry's production of The Bridges of Madison County so much I saw it twice. The Jason Robert Brown penned score is one of my favorites, and it was so gorgeously performed by the cast (led by Jennifer Baldwin Peden and Eric Morris) and orchestra that it brought me to tears. Twice. Another musical I saw twice, or actually one and a half times (thanks to a St. Paul snow emergency parking snafu) was Minneapolis Musical Theatre's quiet, lovely, and intimate site-specific production of Daddy Long Legs at the James J. Hill House. These three musicals are all so different, but none of them had been produced in #TCTheater before, and all were really beautiful and creative interpretations of the source material.

PRE-PANDEMIC HIGHLIGHTS - PLAYS

A Doll's House (Lauren B.)
Peerless (Rich Ryan)
The White Card (Caroline Yang)
Skeleton Crew (Justin Cox)
There were so many fantastic plays in the first two months of 2020, it really was shaping up to be a most excellent year. Jungle Theater produced the regional premiere of the 2017 Best Play Tony nominee A Doll's House, Part 2, a fantastic modern response to a classic piece of theater. Theater Mu gave us another regional premiere in Peerless, a dark comedy/thriller that was also "an unflinching look at stereotypes and biases, how we used them to our advantage, how we undermine each other instead of being allies, how minority groups are forced to battle it out for the limited power available to them." Another unflinching look at stereotypes and biases, Penumbra Theatre's production of The White Card raised questions about white privilege and deep-seeded racism that now look oddly prescient in light of the great reckoning on racism that was to come a few months later.

Superman (Rick Spaulding)
Significant Other (MJTC)
Ada and the Engine (Dan Norman)
Silent Sky (Charles Gorrill)
New Dawn Theatre and Yellow Tree Theatre co-produced Dominique Morisseau's Skeleton Crewa powerful story of a Black working class family struggling to survive the closure of auto plants in Detroit. HERstory Theatre brought us another original play about a local true story; Superman Becomes Lois Lane was a cleverly constructed and inspiring play about Susan Kimberly, the first transgender woman to serves as deputy mayor of a major American city. I also loved Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company's smart, funny, and poignant play Significant Other, and couldn't have been more thrilled to see two plays by my new favorite playwright Lauren Gunderson, who often writes about historical women in science - DalekoArts' magical Ada and the Engine, and Theatre Pro Rata's site-specific production of Silent Sky at the Bell Museum planetarium.

POST-PANDEMIC HIGHLIGHTS - OUTDOORS 

I was actually surprised that there wasn't more outdoor #TCTheater last year than there was, but I suppose I don't understand everything that goes into creating theater outdoors, and maybe everyone thought the pandemic would be over by fall. But Crooners Supper Club's outdoor drive-in concert series was a real life-saver last summer/fall. The first live performance I saw after February was An Evening of Showtunes with Tyler Michaels King and friends, sitting in my bug with the top down as real live people sang not too far in front of me. At the time I wrote, "It felt so good to be in a (appropriately distanced) group of people, listening to music and stories, laughing and clapping, almost like normal life." I followed up that wonderful show with drive-in shows Talkin' Bout My Generation by Chronofon (aka Bradley Greenwald and friends), #TCTheater artist Leslie Vincent's album release concert (These Foolish Things, available on Bandcamp), my favorite band Storyhill, and a cabaret show by #TCTheater artist Kate Beahen on the lakeside patio.

The first and only actual real-life play I've seen since February is Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company's traveling outdoor production of 25 Questions for a Jewish Mother. Not only was it a really funny, smart, relevant, poignant play (starring Kim Kivens and Laura Stern, always 6+ feet apart on stage), but just the act of watching a play with other people in the same (outdoor) space brought me to tears. Other outdoor fun included outdoor musical theater concerts by the Ordway and Yellow Tree Theatre, Mixed Precipitation's "Pickup Truck Opera," and a dance piece by Collide Theatrical in the parking lot outside Gremlin Theatre. They were too few and far between, but these live outdoor shows really helped get me through the year.

POST-PANDEMIC HIGHLIGHTS - VIRTUAL 

On the virtual front, many theaters released recordings of past productions for streaming, but the pieces created specifically for the virtual space were the most successful. Daleko Arts was one of the first theaters to pivot (how much do we hate that word now?) to the virtual space, announcing last summer that their 2020-2021 season would be entirely virtual, cleverly branded as a virtual theater subscription box called "Daleko Home Invasion." They release new and previously recorded content, as well as interactive live events, several times a month, and it's not too late to get in on the action for just $5 a month (click here for more details). Theatre Elision is also offering a subscription service through Patreon (a fantastic way to support and stay connected to your favorite artists), with content released weekly.

One of the virtual highlights of the summer was Park Square Theatre's four-episode zoom mystery series Riddle Puzzle Plot, a new work written by #TCTheater favorite Jeffrey Hatcher. I've found that the most successful Zoom plays are those that acknowledge that they're on Zoom, as this one did, creating a really fun and suspenseful mystery. The Minnesota Fringe Festival also went virtual, with 70-some works available for viewing every evening, or streaming anytime over the 11 days of the festival. Theater Mu has been hosting regular Friday night "Mu-tini hour" discussions, and is also launching a virtual season.

The History Theatre did a second "Raw Stages" festival in the fall, with workshops and readings of new work on Zoom, as well as the companion discussion series "Spilling the HT" on Facebook. The Playwrights' Center also continued their work of supporting playwrights by presenting live (free!) Zoom readings of new work; their Ruth Easton New Play Series continues the first or second Wednesday of the month through April. Full Circle Theater debuted a reading of a new work called The Empathy Project, something we desperately need. Trademark Theater and Theater Latte Da are also investing in new work, the results of which we will hopefully see soon.

A couple of theaters created audio plays, some available as podcasts. Trademark adapted their original play Understood to an audio version, Jungle Theater launched the "Jungle Serial" series of 30-minute audio plays (in addition to the fantastic virtual play Is Edward Snowden Singe?), Pillsbury Theatre released the fourth of their annual Great Divide new play series as podcasts, Yellow Tree expanded the Christmas Lake universe into a radio play, and Oncoming Productions and Hot Chocolate Media brought us the delightfully chilling holiday podcast series Blight Christmas.

Other exciting new virtual pieces include Feral Theatre Company's live streaming production of The Awakening of Spring, MJTC's reboot of Avi Aharoni's hit Fringe solo show Operation: Immigration, The Moving Company's charming and silly web series based on their original play Liberty Falls 54321, my favorite HUGE Theater improv show Family Dinner, adapted to Zoom, and Girl Friday's lovely collection of winter songs, stories and poems, Winterlight. Lastly, the #TCTheater year is not complete without a production of A Christmas Carol from Guthrie Theater - this time a new adaptation that combined film and theater to give us a more intimate look at the classic.

In addition to their creative work, many theater companies also responded to the murder of George Floyd and ensuing unrest in our cities; both Mixed Blood and Theater Latte Da collected and distributed donations to affected neighborhoods. New Dawn Theatre created a beautiful and moving film called A Breath for George that was a collection of songs, stories, and poems from local artists and activists, screened outdoors at various locations in the Twin Cities and beyond. I have no doubt that as theater returns, we will continue to see work that was inspired by 2020's great racial reckoning, and a change to a more equitable way of doing all things, including theater.


There's a Broadway tour company called "Broadway Up Close" that I've been following on Instagram, because it makes me feel connected to Broadway and New York City, a place I miss so much (2020 was one of the few years in the last 20 in which I didn't visit NYC). The owner Tim ends every communication with "one day closer to Broadway," which gives me so much hope. I don't know when #TCTheater will begin it's slow return, I don't know when I'll attend my first indoor theater event, but I do know that with every day that passes, that glorious day is one day closer. So I'll end this strange recap of a strange year by saying - see you soon #TCTheater, one day closer!


P.S. Yes, of course the title of this post is a Jersey Boys reference, the exception to the rule that jukebox musicals are lame.

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