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Long-time and loved Jackson actress Jo Ann Robinson virtually performs a pre-recorded one-woman New Stage Theater show in Eudora Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.” on performances Nov. 10-11, 13-14 and 16-17 at 7 p.m. and Nov. 15 at 2 p.m. with access for 24 hours. Courtesy New Stage Theater

Performers Forge Ahead With Different Stages of ‘Live’ in the Time of COVID

Live performance is the heartbeat of New Stage Theatre in Jackson, but keeping that pumping amid a pandemic takes a creative strategy plus tech tools to reach an audience still hunkered down at home.

The professional theater’s new Solo Show Series finds a way, highlighting veteran New Stage actors and Mississippi stories, still selling tickets and staying mindful of pandemic-related precautions. A pre-recorded performance  of Jo Ann Robinson in Eudora Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.” is up next in the series, now with virtual held-over performances Nov. 18, 20-21 and 23-25 at 7 p.m. and Nov. 22 at 2 p.m.

“I really wanted us to get back to producing theater, and this is that start,” says New Stage Artistic Director Francine Thomas Reynolds. The season started back in late October with an archived video of John Maxwell’s acclaimed “Oh Mr. Faulkner, Do You Write?” streamed with ticketed access as a benefit for New Stage. This next installment is different. “It puts you in the seat, as if you’re in the theater. … It’s actually doing theater again. We just can’t bring in a full audience every night.”    

Let It Shine: A Visit with Fannie Lou Hamer” is part of New Stage Theater’s Solo Show Series, which is virtual theater performances during the pandemic. Courtesy New Stage Theatre

Newly recorded earlier this month by Mosaic Media, with a multiple camera system and edited for optimal viewing, “Why I Live at the P.O.” brings the stage back in business, with one performer, one dressing room in use, a tight production staff and a small, invited audience of about 20, spaced 6 feet apart in a theater that can seat 364.

“I had asked that they get a few people in, just so I’d have some kind of response to bounce off of,” says Robinson, whose 30-year career of theater, film and TV includes decades in New Stage productions.

“Weird/exciting” is how she gamely describes the experience. “I could look out there, just me, making eye contact with the audience. It’s so weird to see 19 people scattered around, with masks on, but I kind of knew who they were, … It’s freaking bizarre,” she says, laughing. After the performance, Mosaic Media’s Ron Rodenmeyer got a few pick-up shots to add to the footage.

“I’m really curious and kind of nervous about how it will come together,” says Robinson, who adapted the short story in 2007, six years after Welty’s death. She’d known Welty, who often went to shows at New Stage. In later years, when the beloved author became ill, actors would go to her home to perform excerpts, Robinson says. “I just adored her. She was a classy, down-to-earth and really funny woman.”

Living at the Post Office with Miss Eudora

The story, told from Sister’s point of view, is a hilarious recap of events leading up to her new digs at the tiny China Grove post office, where she happens to be postmistress. Frustrations boil to a head when her younger sister/rival returns home with an “adopted” child in tow and scoops up the family affections. 

A one-person show can be pretty taxing, Robinson says, and in this one, “There are six people in the show, and I play them all,” from the 2-year-old child to the crotchety grandfather, Papa-Daddy. As a virtual performance, “I think that would be super fun,” she says of the 45-minute show, enjoyed from home with family and friends.

“Theater is supposed to be a shared communal experience,” Robinson says. “It’s weird to be doing it this way, but it’s so much better than closing the door and throwing up your hands.”

Tickets are $25 for the virtual performance; charge by phone at 601-948-3533 or order online at Buyers will receive a link to the virtual event, two hours prior to start time and will receive 24-hour access. The event is performed with special permission from Eudora Welty LLC and in partnership with the Eudora Welty Foundation. There’s a virtual watch party set for the 2 p.m. Nov. 15 show, which will be followed by a Q&A with Robinson, plus the sharing of a few Welty recipes. 

The Solo Show Series will continue with “Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol” starring Tony Award winner Jefferson Mays (New Stage is the regional partner for ticket sales) and, in January, “Let It Shine: A Visit with Fannie Lou Hamer,” presented by and filmed at New Stage, with the theater’s own Sharon Miles. More will be announced later.

To meet COVID’s challenges, New Stage did a “total shift” on its box office (for secure ticket sales and links to protect loyalties) and hopes the next step is a live/virtual theater hybrid with small, in-person audiences. “Are these huge moneymakers? No,” Reynolds says. “There are always going to be people who don’t want to watch live theater on a screen, but this is as close as we can get to doing live theater, without bringing people into the theater.”

Plays, Conversations, Cocktails

Meanwhile, New Stage continues its Thursday night “Virtual Plays, Conversations and Cocktails” series—online events that offer new play readings or dialogues with guest artists or panelists. Next up is a reading of Randy Redd’s “Sons of Levi,” at 7 p.m. on Nov. 12. Registration is required for these virtual experiences, and donations are welcome. The series ends Nov. 19 with a play reading of Jaclyn Bethany’s “Under the Lantern Lit Sky.”

“We just really wanted to focus on, what can people get here, that they can’t screen from other theaters,” Reynolds says. The staff continues to learn, modify and adapt. Even post-pandemic, she adds, “we’re never going to give up the virtual stuff,” which is useful for sharing dialogues with guest artists and for reaching people who are homebound.

Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is a perennial family favorite—and now will be a part of the virtual Solo Show Series at New Stage Theatre this year. Courtesy New Stage Theatre

“What concerns me is that people forget we’re professional, and just like every other business, we depend on income to keep going—income derived from ticket sales and classes…. We’re not operating the way we used to,” Reynolds says, “but we’re still operating.”

Other Jackson-area arts groups forging ahead with live performance include the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, which adjusted its fall concerts for a core string orchestra, adopted safety protocols and proceeded with socially distanced and masked players and patrons at Thalia Mara Hall (using only about 340 seats in the 2,000-seat auditorium). Its final concert this fall, 7:30 p.m. Nov. 14, features guest violinist Stephen Redfield in Max Richter’s recomposition of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.”

“MSO has also had success with our small ensembles playing a few outdoor engagements and with a very well-received online ‘Happy Hour,’ where music director Crafton Beck interviews guests artists,” in a mix of conversation and music performance, says Michael Beattie, MSO president and executive director.

Opera Mississippi presents its “Future Stars of the Stage” concert as a free virtual performance, livestreamed at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 20. It features the 12 finalists from the annual John Alexander National Vocal Competition, this year drawn from its biggest pool to date. The competition started seven years ago with 20 singers and has steadily grown. Though nearly canceled because of the pandemic, the 2020 competition proceeded with a whopping 452 contestants from across the United States, Artistic Director Jay Dean says. “This year took a pretty big jump, because people want to perform, and there’s nowhere to perform.”

Several other virtual events are in the works for Opera Mississippi’s 75th anniversary season. “We’re hoping to be able to do something live in January at Duling Hall,” Deans says, and spring plans include five performances at the Jackson venue, and perhaps a gala concert in late spring or early summer. “That is our plan right now. We’re not selling season tickets because we never know from one day to the next. We’ll be selling individual shows, but we’re not selling anything until we cross into the new year. I hope 2021 will be better to us than 2020 has been.”

Christmas programs are a mainstay for ballet companies. Ballet Magnificat! moves its “A Christmas Carol: The Ballet” to the stage at Pearl High School Performing Arts Center, with three performances Dec. 19-20. The Christian ballet company will restrict ticket sales to allow for social distancing, with reserved seating in sets of two (though a family of four can arrange for blocked seats on either side of the party), and masks required for the audience. “We’re aware that things may change between now and then, and we’ll go with whatever regulations and standards are happening,” Ballet Magnificat!’s Erin Beaver says. “We want to be able to provide a sense of normalcy as much as possible, but still in a safe environment. That’s why we’re moving ahead.”

Ballet Mississippi will present “Nutcracker Sweets,” featuring the classic’s Act II, in matinees Dec. 5-6 at Thalia Mara Hall, following city and venue COVID policies for socially distanced seating in groups of four, advance sales and emailed tickets, masks and temperature checks for the audience and more.

Mississippi Metropolitan Ballet will perform the full “The Nutcracker” in four performances Dec. 5-6 at Jackson Academy Performing Arts Center, with capacity limits for social distancing, masked audiences and, to limit lobby traffic and congestion, no concessions or silent auction. MMB will also offer ticketed access to a live-streamed performance, for people who don’t feel comfortable coming to the theater or who have health risks, says Janet Shearer, MMB executive director.

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