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BEST OF THE ARTS 2020

These theaters innovated amid a dramatic change of scene

Nicholas Edwards as Jesus in the Berkshire Theatre Group’s socially distanced production of “Godspell" in Pittsfield.
Nicholas Edwards as Jesus in the Berkshire Theatre Group’s socially distanced production of “Godspell" in Pittsfield.Sara Krulwich/New York Times

If necessity is the mother of invention, this year presented the mother of all challenges for theater professionals. How to stay connected with audiences when their usual venues are dark and silent?

Some inventive answers to that question emerged as the year went on. Here are a few that stood out:

  • Fresh Ink Theatre and its artistic director, Louise Hamill, devised an ingenious way to strengthen the bond with audiences by involving them in the act of creating theater while also raising money. The small theater company offered audience members a chance to bid on prompts related to the plot and characters of a nonexistent play, and then professional playwrights constructed a short drama from those prompts. Titled “Showdown at the Drip ‘n’ Lick,” it took place at an ice cream parlor and featured a dirigible crash and a ghostly villain with green hair, and was performed in a reading on Zoom — watched by some of the same people who had helped determine what its final form would be.
  • Commonwealth Shakespeare Company presented a how-the-sausage-is-made online series called “The Actor’s Craft,” hosted by founding artistic director Steven Maler, that featured performers who offered insights into the nuts and bolts of bringing a Shakespeare character to vibrant life onstage while performing scenes from his plays as illustration. Seth Gilliam explored the challenges of playing the bloody-minded title character of “Macbeth,” and Amy Ryan and Jason Butler Harner revealed their approach to building portrayals of Beatrice and Benedick, the witty verbal combatants of “Much Ado About Nothing.”
  • The artistic directors of two Pittsfield-based theater companies, Kate Maguire of Berkshire Theatre Group and Julianne Boyd of Barrington Stage Company, were determined to find ways to keep live theater going despite the pandemic — and they did so. In August, under an outdoors tent, BTG presented a socially distanced “Godspell” that incorporated rolling plastic screens around the singers into the show. That same month, BSC’s Boyd-directed outdoors production of the solo drama “Harry Clarke” created an aura of intimacy and even “enchantment” despite the fact that the nearest mask-wearing patron was more than 15 feet away, according to Globe reviewer Terry Byrne, who wrote that actor Mark H. Dold “cast an utterly engrossing spell.” Both productions represented national breakthroughs: “Godspell” and “Harry Clarke” were the first theatrical productions since the pandemic began to go forward with the approval of Actors Equity, which represents more than 50,000 performers and stage managers nationwide.
Kadahj Bennett as Charles Lenox in "The Charles W. Lenox Experience," a "walking play" that was staged in Watertown Square.
Kadahj Bennett as Charles Lenox in "The Charles W. Lenox Experience," a "walking play" that was staged in Watertown Square.New Repertory Theatre
  • New Repertory Theatre and its artistic director, Michael J. Bobbitt, took to the streets for “The Charles W. Lenox Experience,” scripted by local dramatist Ken Green, directed by Michael Ofori, and copresented by the Watertown Free Public Library and the Historical Society of Watertown. This solo “walking play” combined a sense of history, place, and a present that is still mired in racial injustice. Even while competing with traffic noise in Watertown Square, Kadahj Bennett brought depth and nuance to his portrayal of Lenox, a real-life Watertown barber who rose to the rank of sergeant with the legendary Black 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Unit during the Civil War.
  • Igor Golyak, Darya Denisova, and Arlekin Players Theatre made a big splash with their Zoom performance of “State vs. Natasha Banina.” The production had its flaws, but lack of ambition was not one of them. Arlekin artistic director Golyak helped lead the way at a time when theater companies were still casting about for innovative ways to utilize the digital space. His interactive “Natasha Banina” fused film, video-game-style animation, and interstitial graphics with a live performance by the wondrous Denisova, portraying a teenage Russian orphan on trial for trying to kill a classmate she viewed as a romantic rival.
  • ArtsEmerson and its leadership team, David C. Howse and David Dower, deployed the organization’s digital venue this year to present new work by artists “who have historically been excluded,” such as artists of color, Native American artists, women, nonbinary artists, and artists with disabilities, among others. Meanwhile, Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater took the opportunity to showcase the often-innovative work presented at its club stage, Oberon, reaching into the archives for the “Virtually Oberon” series.
Melinda Lopez at the setting of her audio drama, "By the Rude Bridge," part of Huntington Theatre Company's "Dream Boston" series.
Melinda Lopez at the setting of her audio drama, "By the Rude Bridge," part of Huntington Theatre Company's "Dream Boston" series.
  • This was a grim year for the Huntington Theatre Company, as artistic director Peter DuBois resigned amid a chorus of complaints about the theater’s leadership. One bright spot was “Dream Boston,” a series — conceived by playwright Melinda Lopez and other members of the Huntington’s artistic staff — that premiered short audio dramas from local writers, including Lopez, that imagined life in the post-pandemic Boston of the future.
  • When the pandemic shut the door on live indoor performance, Williamstown Theatre Festival and its artistic director, Mandy Greenfield, moved swiftly to create audio productions of its entire summer season. Now available on Audible, the recorded performances include “A Streetcar Named Desire,” starring Audra McDonald as Blanche DuBois.
  • “Take Me to the World,” an online celebration of Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday, took a while to get going due to technical glitches, but it proved to be worth the wait. Among the moments of magic: a rendition of “The Ladies Who Lunch” by the powerhouse trio of Audra McDonald, Meryl Streep, and Christine Baranski, attired in fluffy white bathrobes and drinking up a storm. Somewhere, Elaine Stritch was smiling.
  • Lin-Manuel Miranda’s landmark “Hamilton” (Disney+) and Heidi Schreck’s urgently relevant “What the Constitution Means to Me” (Amazon Prime) both made the transition from stage to small screen with most of their dynamism intact. Changing venues, making it work: That, in essence, was the challenge of 2020. And it’s likely to be the challenge for much of 2021 as well.

Don Aucoin can be reached at donald.aucoin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAucoin.