Broadway theaters have been dark since last March and will remain so at least through next May. Many wonder what the future of the American stage will be, or how many theaters will survive to see it. There are no easy answers – but that hasn’t discouraged Olneyville’s Wilbury Theatre Group.
“After COVID closed down one of our productions mid-run, our team had a program of streaming performances up within a couple of weeks,” says artistic director Josh Short.
Not content to only play in virtual space, Wilbury staged the first major post-quarantine theater production in Rhode Island, a collaboration with WaterFire called Decameron, Providence. A theater experience both thematically and logistically appropriate for a pandemic, it was inspired by the Renaissance Era Decameron, a series of stories told by 10 people quarantining while the Black Death ravages Florence. It brought the theater outdoors, with the audience moving through 10 “story gardens.” Short and his team even worked with a Brown University epidemiologist to develop safety protocols. The show drew rave reviews, provided relief for a creative community starved of live performance, and even received notice in The New York Times.
“It brought together hundreds of artists and community members for a shared experience that had all the immediacy of live theater,” Short says. “Since then we’ve been able to continue to find new ways to make live performance in the time of COVID possible.”
Wilbury has no patience to simply wait out the pandemic in 2021. They’ve got new works on tap from local talents Christopher Johnson, Darcie Dennigan, Shey Rivera Ríos, Don Mays, and Charlie Thurston, as well as a community-driven production about COVID’s impact on Olneyville. By July, when Wilbury hosts the eighth annual Providence Fringe Festival, life will hopefully be approaching normal, but Short isn’t taking any chances: they’re planning a hybrid performance model.
“If there’s a silver lining, it’s that this has given us the opportunity for a fresh start,” he says. “For the performing arts, 2021 will be about building the American theater back from scratch. I hope that we’ve finally answered the question once and for all as to the necessity of art and storytelling in times of crisis – and I hope that we are better prepared for the next crisis, whatever that may be.”
His Reason for Optimism: “I’ve never felt like the eternal optimism and ambition of the human spirit has been more apparent than it was in 2020. Watching the artists, the teachers, the medical professionals, the restaurant owners, the waitstaff and everyone in between discover new ways to innovate and thrive in the face of one adversity after another has given me the inspiration to do the same.”
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