In early March, as the pandemic began to spread into Dallas, Danielle Georgiou was in rehearsals for a faculty dance concert at Dallas College Eastfield Campus. Although few could have predicted it at the time, the virus was about to shutter the city’s theaters for at least a year—if not longer. Performances would be canceled, long-planned productions scrapped, and staff would be laid off or furloughed. In August, a survey conducted by the Dallas Arts District, the Dallas Area Cultural Advocacy Coalition, and The Arts Community Alliance (TACA) estimated that the performing arts community lost $67 million in revenue and 1,219 jobs over the first five months of the pandemic. But back in March, all Georgiou could think about was the hard work that would go for naught if that one faculty dance concert was canceled.
“I got on the phone with as many administrators as I could,” Georgiou says. “I just said, ‘We’re in the building. Can I film it and stream it?’ ”
Georgiou, who, in addition to teaching at Eastfield, is the founder and artistic director of the Danielle Georgiou Dance Group and the associate artistic director of Undermain Theatre, may have been the first North Texas performer to respond to the pandemic by turning to online streaming, but she soon wasn’t alone. Within days of Dallas County’s first shelter-in-place order, local performers began to experiment and innovate with virtual theater.
Dallas Opera recitals crept up on Facebook; Ochre House Theater productions appeared on YouTube. As the pandemic forced all of us to rethink how we work or attend school, it drove performers to reimagine what it means to engage with an audience. The result has been a strange and wonderful era in Dallas’ theater history, a period of uncertainty, unease, introspection, and surprising innovation.
In a normal year, the month of October would have seen the fall theater season reaching full stride. Instead, something else is going on. Danielle Georgiou Dance Group is doing a co-production with Theatre Three called the Bippy Bobby Boo Show—a Halloween-themed, interactive musical variety show—which will be livestreamed October 23 to November 3. Beginning on October 7, Undermain co-founder and producing artistic director Bruce DuBose will perform Conor McPherson’s St. Nicholas, a streaming solo show, in the theater’s still-shuttered underground space. Other theater groups will perform filmed productions, radio plays, drive-in performances, and virtual programs. The theaters may be closed, but there is plenty of theater to experience online.
Perhaps it was inevitable that theater artists would follow their audiences online. But what is most interesting about all this experimentation is the way in which performers are not merely rethinking how they engage with audiences but are also asking questions about the nature and purpose of their art.
“As a dancer, I can’t wait to hold somebody’s hand again and dance with somebody. I want to be able to see somebody smile in person.”
After Dallas County issued its initial shelter-in-place order, Cara Mía Theatre’s executive artistic director David Lozano found himself thinking not about how to move performances online but what skills performers possessed that could be brought to bear to help a community in crisis. “People were going to be struggling financially,” he says. “People were going to be struggling with being stuck at home. And so we knew that that was going to be a traumatic experience. We were asking ourselves, OK, well, how do we actually connect with our humanity at this moment? What can we offer?”
What Cara Mía decided it could offer was a series of online arts and health courses designed to leverage the way performers prepare their bodies to engage with complicated emotions as a way to guide people through the ordeal of the pandemic. In “The Actor’s Tools for Calming the Mind,” for example, Lozano leads viewers through a 30-minute Facebook Live session designed to teach actors’ strategies for reducing stress and improving mental clarity. During the lockdown, Cara Mía also helped launch an artist relief fund and transformed its summer camps into online workshops that engaged with students in Dallas, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and Puerto Rico. Then, as protests erupted over the summer in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, the theater created new collaborations with community groups involved in the social justice movement.
“We were having these really in-depth conversations,” Lozano says. “We began to tear down the silos, breaking down the walls of our theater and arts community and moving into these areas. I think moving forward, the theater is going to become a multidisciplinary social justice institution.”
The online universe also helped drive Georgiou to explore new creative terrain. Over the summer, she and her performers with Danielle Georgiou Dance Group self-quarantined for two weeks so they could spend six days adapting a planned performance at Undermain into a feature film. The resulting movie, The Savage Seconds, was released through an interactive website. “Before, when I was just making stage work, I would compartmentalize my work,” she says. “I was like, This is for the stage, this is for camera, this is for public performance, this is for an installation. I don’t want to live inside of those boxes anymore.”
The Dallas Opera has used the shutdown to break with classical music conventions. After its entire season was canceled, the company launched the Dallas Opera Network. In addition to the more conventional online fare of encore broadcasts of opera performances and interviews with musicians, the Dallas Opera Network features shows that offer a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the lives of opera singers, conversations about racial equity in classical music, lifestyle tips from world-renowned divas, and classical-themed sketch comedy.
Within its first four months, the opera’s online programs racked up more than 9 million Facebook views. “Facebook and Instagram, they are very, very powerful tools,” says David Lomelí, the opera’s director of artistic administration and a former tenor who is the brains behind the new network. “We can now communicate with an audience to add on to the experience and have a more real dialogue that is not so attached to the rigidity that we feel that opera often has.”
You can’t help but feel encouraged and excited by all these innovations. And yet it is impossible to watch these artists hustle without also feeling a bit of dread. At the very moment in which artists are proving they are vital in ways that extend beyond their traditional cultural and civic roles—even transcending physical limitations and geographical boundaries—their economic future has never felt so precarious. Online programming can build new audiences, streaming productions can charge a few dollars per view, and expanded community engagement may open companies to new sources of grant funding. But none of it can replace what is needed for theater’s survival: seats filled with paying audience members.
Some patrons have stepped up to help arts groups survive. TACA raised and distributed $700,000 through its Emergency Arts Relief Fund, and artists banded together to raise nearly $15,000 for freelance cultural workers. Some arts groups received federal assistance, but most of that aid expired at the end of the summer. Each organization has its own timeline for how long it can hang on. Lozano says Cara Mía mapped out an 18-month pandemic budget in March. Matthew Posey, founder of Ochre House, says he hopes he can reopen his tiny Fair Park theater space as an outdoor venue in November. The Dallas Opera has laid off and furloughed staff to weather the crisis.
Then there is the other lingering unknown that threatens the future of Dallas theater. We are all struggling to adjust to an increasingly isolated existence. For performers, though, tangible human engagement is a critical component of their artistic medium. How long will they be able to drive themselves to continue to create without it?
“I think the thing that I want so much is just to be back with my performers,” Georgiou says. “As a dancer, I can’t wait to hold somebody’s hand again and dance with somebody. I want to be able to see somebody smile in person, to see a friend without a mask, to see their actual skin.”
Write to [email protected]. This story ran in the October issue with the headline, How Must the Show Go On?