It’s been almost 18 months since the pandemic extinguished the faint amber glow from the hobnail light fixtures by backstage doors.
Last season, local theater companies offered audiences a socially distant mix of virtual performances, partially opened, sanitized spaces and reduced audience volumes, with some taking advantage of the downtime to regroup.
Now, they’re all set to reopen to live audiences for the 2021-22 season, as the theater companies, like society in general, continue to stutter-step through the protracted pandemic.
Lot of Joy
Gamut Theatre was first to offer COVID-conscious, in-person performances to limited audiences, then later outdoors.
“Re-opening has been so emotional,” said Gamut Theatre’s Executive Director Melissa Nicholson, who feels stress (the good kind) from organizing this season in three months rather than the usual eight.
Last season, Gamut used all core company actors. This year, they’re holding actual auditions and leveraging partnerships to open up to other artists.
A few blocks away, Open Stage, offered videos, with some re-shuffling of lineups to accommodate socially distant filming.
“The impact [of re-opening] didn’t hit me until I was back onstage, with a crowd looking at me,” said Marketing Manager Rachel Landon. “I immediately started crying happy tears. We feel grateful to do what we love in front of an audience again.”
Producing Artistic Director Stuart Landon said that he was “overwhelmed seeing people back in the space.”
“Muscles had atrophied after having been away for 15 months,” he said. “It was a little shock and a heck of a lot of joy.”
Frank Henley, artistic director and founder of Narcisse Theatre Company, described feeling “cautious optimism,” with further uncertainty about the delta variant.
“We’re still in the age of COVID,” he said. “Moving forward, the most important thing is the health and safety of our audience, actors and production crew. We’re responsible to navigate this new environment.”
After last season’s strategic pause, Theatre Harrisburg will stage productions again. Artistic and Production Director Kristi Ondo stressed a commitment to welcoming audiences safely, as well as excitement, in re-opening.
“It’s wonderful to be back in the production center, working, planning, dreaming of what is to come,” she said.
The shows to come this season will be different from where we dropped our programs in March 2020 and abruptly ushered ourselves out the door. And because we have all lived through this incredibly weird time, we inevitably will view the plays through our own changed perspectives.
In this spirit, each theater will present thoughtful offerings that, taken together, promise to expand upon and round out our thinking.
“As the world was reopening, we were in the midst of planning,” Stuart Landon said. “We didn’t know what the rules of engagement would be.”
This explains Open Stage’s one-person fall shows, with themes of healing, moving forward, reckoning and beckoning.
To quote Monty Python, here’s something completely different: “White Rabbit/Red Rabbit.”
Without any rehearsal or advanced reading, a different actor every night will read the play cold in front of the audience. Curious? Me too. If you need a little guidance on whether you should bring your teenager along, you can find more information on the website. If you do find out any spoilers, please don’t leak. The rest of us want to be surprised.
Less surprising—Open Stage will offer exciting Christmas shows, one of which is the silly and heartwarming “Who’s Holiday.”
“I miss making people laugh and making a fool of myself, so it’s important for me to wear Cindy Lou’s wig,” said Rachel Landon, the star of the show. “She can overcome dark places to find joy, love and life.”
Other offerings this season include “Every Brilliant Thing” in September and “The Mad Ones” in February and March.
Out of all of the plays, the Landons are most excited about “Fairview,” which, in partnership with Sankofa African American Theatre Company, will cap Open Stage’s season in May.
“This is a timely and important piece for Harrisburg,” Rachel Landon said. “It’s about white privilege and the white lens, white fragility, the way we see others, the way our race may play into that.”
Stuart Landon saw “Fairview” in Brooklyn and deemed it “a glorious experience.”
“I came home and I couldn’t stop jibber-jabbering about it,” he said. “It’s easily in the ‘top-three’ theatrical experiences of my life.”
Themes of connectedness will also emerge through their season.
“After the stagnancy thrust upon the theater world, characters will break through the fourth wall to interact with the crowds,” Rachel Landon said. “It’s just as important for the performers as the audience.”
For their mainstage plays, Gamut Theatre’s all-female director lineup worked independently on their own concepts, landing on plays with smaller ensemble casts playing multiple roles.
Director Melissa Nicholson opens the mainstage season in October with Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” In November, she directs local playwright Sean Adams’ clever script for “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass,” full of adult nuances that will sail right over kids’ heads.
“It’s one student surrounded by strange adult characters,” Nicholson said. “We can look at this play through the lens of the pandemic, attacking this bonkers world Lewis Carroll wrote about.”
Notably, in January, Gamut will host the Shakespeare Theatre Association’s annual conference, bringing some of the world’s top theater professionals to Harrisburg.
Like Open Stage, Gamut will partner with Sankofa this season. In February, they will present “Echoes of Voices of the Eighth: Stories from Harrisburg’s Old 8th Ward.” This continues a series begun before the pandemic, which focuses on the largely African American, immigrant and working class neighborhood razed a century ago to expand the Capitol complex.
Later Gamut shows include Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando,” in March and “The Winter’s Tale” in June, which is this year’s selection for the always-popular “Free Shakespeare in the Park.”
Four main-stage shows comprise Theatre Harrisburg’s return, with themes of “joy, renewal, choices and laughter,” said Ondo. “We wanted to celebrate with uplifting, heartwarming storytelling everyone can use after the last year.”
Unless you’ve been living in a pineapple under the sea for the last several decades, you’ve heard of SpongeBob. And you may know about The SpongeBob SquarePants musical’s successful run on Broadway. Theatre Harrisburg intends to spark joy in its audiences with this season opener.
“On the script, the author’s notes read, ‘Embrace joy.’ No other notes,” Ondo said.
Much like the cartoon, the play appeals to all ages.
“This show is about the power of optimism, reinforcing that anyone with the right mindset can pull a community together,” Ondo said.
Other highlights include “The Secret Garden” in February and “Now and Then” in April, the only play in their lineup without Tony nominations.
“This is a relatively new and unfamiliar play, a heartfelt romantic comedy about the choices we make,” Ondo said. “I’m excited to see what the director will do with it. I think audiences will like it and be surprised by it.”
You might find Narcisse’s themes on the other end of the joy spectrum, with promises of difficult or ambiguous endings during this challenging time.
The first performance is “Rashomon,” a hard-boiled psychological thriller set in Japan. Henley described it as a blend of western culture and traditional kabuki and kagura theater, topped with a layer of tribal African art.
Not necessarily for the kiddies is “Wise Old Crow Shadow Puppet Show,” a folk tale to teach the commonality of humanity. As part of Narcisse’s mission, this show will tread on “racial ethnic lines, tearing down the walls that divide us and building bridges that connect the theater scenes in Harrisburg,” Henley said.
Narcisse has engaged local playwrights, performance artists and the Blacklisted Poets of Harrisburg to present original works and expand traditional boundaries.
In partnership with Gamut, Narcisse will present a staged reading of “The African Company: The Mystery of the African Grove” by Paul Hood. The performance will take place during Gamut’s Classics Fest Celebration. The same author will present another original play called “Kill Keller,” a semi-autobiographical work featuring two teen brothers who have moved to Harrisburg with their abusive alcoholic stepfather.
Keeping it local, we can look forward to more original works. Aneesa Neibauer will read dramatic poetry “Black and Unknown Bards.” Local actor and artist James Mitchell will perform an inventive one-man show called “Mi Diego’s Playhouse.”
“We don’t want audiences to walk away with answers,” Henley said. “We want them to feel challenged, uncomfortable, walking away with the types of questions that cause psychological distress.”
For More Info
Whichever plays you see this season, please consider donating to any number of ongoing fundraising efforts. Help that light by the stage door to burn a little brighter.
You can find more information about the local theaters’ individual 2021-22 seasons at these websites:
The Blacklisted Poets of Harrisburg: www.facebook.com/theblacklistedpoetsofharrisburg
Gamut Theatre Group: www.gamuttheatre.org
Narcisse Theatre Co.: www.narcissetheatre.org
Open Stage: www.openstagehbg.com
Sankofa Theatre of Harrisburg: www.sankofatheatrehbg.com
Theatre Harrisburg: www.theatreharrisburg.com
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