DIGITAL ORIGINAL: Central Pennsylvania holiday performances adapt to virtual formats

Holidays

For many performers and musicians, holiday productions are a tradition, the culmination of months of preparation. While those performances can’t take place like usual this year due to COVID-19, artists are still finding ways to create and share their work.

“That’s what we do, we make music,” says Guy McIntosh, executive director of the Lancaster Symphony Orchestra (LSO). This year, LSO presented their 12th annual “Sounds of the Season” concert virtually. The concert includes recordings of a brass quintet, a string quartet, and more than 50 members of the Lancaster Symphony Chorus.

McIntosh says that like everybody this year, LSO has found ways to pivot and adapt. “If we can’t make music live, if we can’t have an audience, I mean my goal is to do whatever we can to continue making music, to continue the art form,” says McIntosh.

Stuart Landon, producing artistic director at Open Stage, feels similarly. Open Stage has been performing “A Christmas Carol” for the last 20 years, and this year, they decided to record a new version of the show to share online.

It isn’t a traditional staging of “A Christmas Carol,” says Landon. It involves only three actors who create live sound effects, incorporate various techniques like puppetry and shadow work, and even take turns playing the main character, Ebenezer Scrooge.

A moment from Open Stage’s “A Christmas Carol” / Photo courtesy of Open Stage

Between the new version of the play and the new filming skills the crew learned to make the performance available online, Open Stage’s 21st year producing “A Christmas Carol” involved a lot of novel experiences.

Perhaps the biggest change is the lack of an audience. “It’s a weird time to be in the business of gathering,” Landon says. “We’re in the business of telling beautiful stories, we’re in the business of supporting artists, and we’re in the business of gathering patrons. And we can only do one out of those three things completely right now, and that is to tell our stories.”

This season, the story Open Stage tells may strike a different chord than usual. “This particular story, ‘A Christmas Carol,’ is just timeless,” says Landon, “Every year you can return to these words and realize how applicable they still are…Each one of our plays, as we present them virtually, we learn things in a new way. Some of the words ring truer in different ways.”

As Open Stage presents this classic holiday story, DreamWrights Center for Community Arts is reimagining another classic — “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.” This year, DreamWrights is presenting “The Grinch” and two other plays as radio dramas.

DreamWrights marketing coordinator Kate Harmon explains that cast members rehearsed the plays over Zoom, then came into the theater’s new recording studio individually to record their lines for the radio showcase.

Harmon says that even though this season looks different (the DreamWrights building’s heat isn’t even on most of the time because there are so few people around), the radio showcase gives people the opportunity to come together virtually and celebrate the holidays.

“We’re all looking for things to make us feel good right now. I think we’re all like 10 months into this and it’s hard to find the silver lining,” says Harmon. “But there’s something about curling up by an old-timey radio, or it could be on your phone…just that feeling of the nostalgia of Christmas, something just to bring families together.”

Performances can connect actors and audiences, but they also foster connections between performers. In the case of the DreamWrights radio showcase, those performers may be members of the same family, too.

Harmon explains that family members often act in DreamWrights shows together, and that is one thing that hasn’t changed this year. In fact, some family acting groups are expanding as people who wouldn’t typically participate in live shows get involved in these radio productions.

Another local theater company, Gamut Theatre Group, is finding other ways to foster connections through their performances. Gamut is offering two virtual live performances on New Year’s Eve, during which audiences will be able to interact with the performers.

“Sometimes they can actually talk with us, we’ll pull them in from the audience onto the screen, or they can always use the chat box,” explains Melissa Nicholson, executive director of Gamut Theatre Group.

“For so many people, they’re stuck at home,” says Nicholson, “so this gives everyone an opportunity to connect with other people.”

Gamut, DreamWrights, Open Stage, and LSO plan to continue offering some form of virtual art at least through the beginning of 2021, whether it’s behind-the-scenes videos, educational material, or more performances.

Guy McIntosh of LSO says he would like to continue offering some livestreamed music even after COVID-19 is no longer a concern because it’s a more accessible way to share and watch concerts. Open Stage’s Stuart Landon is also considering the accessibility of virtual performances for the future.

Landon says that Open Stage has been intentional about selecting shows to stream on YouTube, “not just to make it convenient, but to make sure that we’re connecting with every audience member that might want to see theater, no matter what their financial position is, no matter where they are in the world.”

The future of live performance may look like a combination of virtual and in-person productions. “I really like the idea of continuing [virtual performances],” says McIntosh, but at the same time he says, “I do want to get back to performing live…I want people in the hall. I want an audience.”

“Theater is about connection. It’s about connection between artists, it’s about connections between the actors and the audience, and it’s about the connections of the audience to each other,” says Landon.

Perhaps nothing better exemplifies these connections than the applause at the end of a performance. “It’s been a long time, I think, since any musician has heard applause, or anyone’s heard applause,” says Landon. That’s why he chose to include applause from LSO’s 2015 show at the end of this year’s virtual concert.

Information about where to watch the virtual productions by Gamut, DreamWrights, Open Stage, and LSO — as well as other Central Pennsylvania performance groups — is available at this link.

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