Playwright marcus d. harvey. Photo Credit: RJ Lewis 

New Works for a New World

By: Amy Masgay

Date: 09-28-2022

Arts News Now examines what two leading regional theaters “do” with new audience pulses.

When the lights of Broadway went dark on March 12, 2020, it marked the first time the theatres ever closed due to a public health crisis.

Expectations were that audiences would be welcomed back to their seats in thirty days, but as we came to know with the COVID-19 pandemic, expectations only led to heartbreak. By the time theatres were opening again eighteen months later, artists were hungry to make up for the lost seasons, and we’re seeing the effects in our local arts communities as well.

Passage Theatre Company, located in Trenton, and Bristol Riverside Theatre (BRT), located off the Bristol Waterfront in Bucks County, have been providing art and entertainment since the mid-1980s. Their firmly established roots are perhaps why both organizations have been able to see the other side of the pandemic.

Bristol Riverside Theatre’s production of Cabaret (2020), Marketing Director Rayna Adams states “This photo was shot in early March of 2020, right before the world shut down . . . we had no idea what was coming.” Photo by Mark Garvin 

“Within a week of the lockdown we had a phone call from one person asking how much it would take to keep our whole staff employed for two months (which he did); we were instantly on the phone with the County Commissioners, the Tourism Bureau, and the Industrial Development Authority all of whom stepped in to make sure BRT would emerge on the other side of this catastrophe strong,” said Ken Kaissar, Producing Director at BRT.

Loyal and sympathetic patrons, rather than demand refunds for shows they would never see, wrote off tens of thousands of dollars purely to help the theatre when BRT needed their community’s support to stay alive.

Pivoting business operations and reimagining what theatre could look like all speak to both the creative necessity to keep producing art during a time of global upheaval and a financial necessity to remain active.

Bristol Riverside Theatre’s Premiere Production, A Leg UP runs Sept. 20 – Oct. 9

BRT accomplished this by introducing online book clubs, classes, and weekly coffee house chats to keep audiences engaged. A partnership between BRT and the local amphitheatre emerged due to the need for an outdoor performance venue. By continuing to utilize the amphitheatre, which can accommodate thousands more than BRT’s indoor theatre, an even wider audience can be reached that might otherwise never have been exposed to BRT’s offerings.

Meanwhile, Ryanne Domingues, Artistic Director at Passage Theatre Company, is still mulling how technology and theatre may continue to intersect even as live performances resume.

Passage Theatre (pictured above) was originally a Gothic revival building, constructed in 1873 with a long history following. The Theatre was founded in 1985 with “one mission: to bring new, theatrical works to Trenton’s community through the production of high-quality, professional productions.”

“I think that the pandemic forced a lot of people in the theatre to explore new technologies and ways of telling stories. We were caught asking ourselves what elements of theatre were not successful if done on screen, and which elements were actually improved,” Domingues said. “Many of my colleagues are still asking if ‘Zoom theatre’ is a new medium that is here to stay.”

In terms of what work artists are producing now that the worst of the pandemic is behind us, Domingues recognizes the social unrest of our time far outweighs the conversation of live versus virtual theatre.

“An enormous amount of trauma has been uncovered and experienced due to various situations, and many playwrights found themselves almost numb, asking, ‘how do I even begin to address the world right now?’”

Yet address the world they do, opening fresh windows into communities that have previously been closed. In April of 2023, for example, a staged reading will be performed of an original work, at this time entitled A Bright Light, currently in development by playwright marcus d. harvey. He approached Passage with this concept, which focuses on the unsettling rise in suicide rates in communities of color.

Passage is using this moment in history to examine our wounds more deeply. Kaissar, on the other hand, is looking to laughter to balance the heaviness so many are living with since the pandemic. “We’ve all been through so much in the last two years. With the pandemic and a turbulent election cycle, we’ve all had enough stress.”

Perhaps that’s why this season at BRT is heavy on the comedy, including A Leg Up, an original work by Kaissar himself. Even still, Kaissar’s philosophy on what work appears on the BRT stage continues to center on emotional impact. “Theatre is nothing if it doesn’t make you feel something.”

That’s why we go to the theatre, after all. It’s why patrons will eat the cost of season tickets to ensure the theatre can prosper in the long-term. Whether we’re onstage or in the audience, looking to confront our realities or hoping to escape, if we’re not feeling something, the theatre lights might as well stay dark.

To see what’s coming up at Passage Theatre Company, please visit www.passagetheatre.org.

To see what’s coming up at Bristol Riverside Theatre, please visit www.brtstage.org.

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