By Brittany Crowell
In a recent post, I evaluated the essential nature of theater and how the pandemic has brought to light new questions in my search for this answer. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with the inspirational team at Arkansas Staged about their own specific response to the pandemic, Curbside Theatre. This experience is advertised as “Like pizza delivery, but better for your heart,” and involves a small team of socially distanced actors pulling up in their cars and performing for families on their front lawns, back yards, and street corners. It’s theater delivered directly to you – from a distance.
One of the directors and collaborators of Curbside Theater, Kholoud Sawaf responded to my question of the essential nature of theater with new insight, “I’m not worried about theater, I’m worried about the artists who practice the art form…Theater is a very resilient, yet incredibly sensitive art form and it doesn’t need us, we need it.” This recalled to me the recent article that has been passed around the theatrical community by Raja Feather Kelly, ‘Has Anyone Asked Artists What They Need?’ (Dance Magazine). The team at Arkansas Staged has answered that question by adapting to the shifting landscape and asking “HOW. How can we continue to create and sustain?” Their answer: creating jobs for their artistic community, an educational and cathartic experience for their audiences, and a repeatable platform with an ever-expansive reach of possibilities.
Arkansas Staged is not a stranger to this brave new world of non-traditional theater. Itinerant in their performance structures from the beginning, the company began by staging readings and more experimental work in art museums and other found spaces throughout Fayetteville and the surrounding community. When asked about their relationship to space, founding artistic director, Laura Shatkus said, “The space would always inform the work.” What makes the Curbside Theatre project so different and yet exciting is that it is, “really asking the audience to think with us about, ‘What does space mean? What does setting mean? What does distance mean?’ in a way that makes them very much a part of that creative process.”
The rest of the process is just as collaborative. The company has been in virtual rehearsals since March 19th using a technique called moment work, which they have adopted from the Tectonic Theater Project. Similar to the way that many of us are processing this pandemic shift in our day-to-day routines, the practice of moment work begins very small. The focus is put on small glimpses, creating theatrical moments inspired by specific aspects of what the team is exploring and experiencing. At the beginning these disconnected breaths are the focus, until they are slowly pieced together through connective threads that organically arise over the course of an extensive (in this case months-long) rehearsal process, as the characters and narrative begin to emerge through connecting the moments themselves.
Shatkus and Arkansas Staged engage in this process with a hope to employ as many artists as possible. “The goal is to be able to roll this out with a bunch of teams, so we can employ more artists than just the four of us.” The virtualized landscape of the theatrical process and presentation due to the pandemic has also expanded the possibilities of collaboration. “The world is our oyster,” Sawaf told me, “We can dream as big as we’d like to and reach out to companies we want to work with in DC, San Francisco, Syria.”
The audience and community have also been an important part of the generative process. Actor and collaborator, Mischa Hutchings, was tasked with reaching out to the Arkansas Staged community and asking what people were missing most during quarantine. These desires were then used as the inspiration for the company’s moment work over the last two months. Hutchings discovered that the needs of the audience were not that different than those of the company members themselves. “The different situations everyone is in makes what they’re missing different,” she told me: those out of work missed their jobs, those with jobs felt overwhelmed and desired more leisure; single folks missed hugs and company, folks in relationships were desiring more privacy. Curbside Theatre hoped to use these differing desires and experiences in order to foster empathy within the audience for other’s experiences and needs during this specific and unique moment in time.
Curbside Theatre is being presented as an offering, a gift. It is a free performance that is not only surpassing the barriers of costly ticket prices, but also of transportation and day care. The company is hoping to make theater inviting and inclusive, and they are not stopping there. “You can’t just assume audiences will find you, you have to find them.” Writer and company member Michael Bell said, as he explained the ways in which the company is making efforts to reach out to new communities who may not have access or knowledge of traditional theater offerings through local social and political leaders. By doing this the company is not only asking what artists and audiences need right now, but also who may need this offering and how they can take these new spatial limitations and see them as a moment to break down traditional barriers and reach new audiences.
This made me circle back to the idea that Sawaf brought up earlier, that it is we who need theater. WE being the people who are employed by theater, to whom it is not only a passion but also a job, paycheck, livelihood; but WE also being everyone. I challenge theaters around the country and the world to take this to heart. Let’s worry less about the “theater,” let’s think more about those who need the theater to survive. Let us think about the artists who need theater to eat and pay their bills. Let us think about the audience who need to know what it means to connect, who need release and relief. Let us think about this moment as a moment of possibility and innovation, spatially, technologically, globally. Let us bring theatrical process to virtual spaces with global faces. Let us see this as an opportunity to redefine what theater can be – beyond a building, a proscenium. Let us take theater to the Curbside, to the park, the nursing home, your front door.
To learn more about Curbside Theater, visit their website: www.curbsidetheatre.com
To support Curbside Theater, you can donate HERE.