San Diego Theatres Continue to Cope During the Pandemic – Here’s an Update as the ‘Fall Season’ Begins

The last time my byline appeared in SanDiegoStory was four months ago, on May 12. At the time, I wrote encouragingly about the resilience of San Diego theatre makers, and, indeed, local companies have continued to offer a variety of programs to keep audiences engaged.

As what would have been the fall season comes upon us, the local companies are keeping up their work. Some are offering full recorded productions, typically with small casts, while others feature work that is being shown elsewhere and recorded to be broadcast via a local theatre company. North Coast Repertory Theatre and Moxie Theatre are among the companies producing full length original works (“Necessary Sacrifices” for NCRT, “The Niceties” for Moxie). Others are working with producers to offer productions to patrons. San Diego Repertory Theatre, for example is partnering with sometime San Diego resident Hershey Felder, who is performing productions from his rich catalog of solo shows about musical artists from Florence, Italy, his current residence. Companies that were to be a part of a US tour of the British musical “Romantics Anonymous” are offering a live-streamed performance version to their patrons.

So far, our largest professional theatre companies, The Old Globe, and La Jolla Playhouse, have been offering a variety of programs aimed at a variety of audiences, but nothing full-length. Playhouse Artistic Director Christopher Ashley has been busy with a bold project, however. He’s working on filming a fully staged version of the musical, “Diana,” which is planned to be released by Netflix in 2021.

In the meantime, LJP is mining its relationship with scenic and costume designer David Israel Reynoso to produce the latest in its series of “Digital WoW” productions. The piece, titled “Portaleza,” begins showings today, and management offered local theatre critics an opportunity to preview it ahead of the opening.

Running around 25 minutes from start to finish, “Portaleza” combines a participatory element along with a visual element that is streamed on demand. The participatory element occurs starting when the participant opens a packet that is mailed from the Playhouse. The packet contains instructions, materials, and links to a succession of steps that the participant must take before the video is streamed. Participants assemble a viewer that is aimed at the screen where the video is streamed. The participant also has to make decisions about how to respond to personal questions. The responses are texted to a number, and the viewer is sent a link to the particular version of the video that is judged to fit the answers the viewer provided.

It is not really fair to review my experience of “Portaleza,” because it doesn’t necessarily represent other participants’ experiences. What I can tell you is that the task involves sending a message to someone who is dead, and that’s always an experience that can both fascinate intellectually and trigger strong emotional reactions. The video I saw ultimately was reassuring, especially regarding the message I sent to a young relative who met an accidental death at age 21.

Mr. Reynoso has undoubtedly used his experience designing the immersive theatre piece, “Sleep No More,” here. The question that inevitably arises for me is, how can this be theatre with only an audience of one? Amanda Hess just published a provocative piece in the New York Times titled, “The Shows Must Go On. But They Aren’t the Same Without You,” where she focused on how television comedians, late night hosts, and even the anchor at “The Today Show” miss their audiences. The contrast has affected the US Presidential race, as President Trump has gone to great lengths to have cheering audiences in his wake (and, truth be told, seems lost without them), while opponent Joe Biden emphasizes safety while still seeming to be speaking to people other than himself. Which is more effective as theatre probably depends to a degree on whether you value the excitement of a crowd that is not acting safely, or whether you are happier knowing that other people are watching but not putting their health at risk by doing so.

We are seeing how theatre can be a solitary experience, but audiences still count. If you are intrigued by Mr. Reynoso’s piece, by all means, jump in. But, realize that it won’t be the same as sitting in the theatre or even wandering through the McKittrick Hotel with both performers and other audience members.

Bill Eadie is mostly on leave from SanDiegoStory, writing a book.

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