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Theater leaders lean into 2021 with plenty of programming and a measure of optimism

Ruibo Qian and Jon Norman Schneider, shown in a 2016 Huntington Theatre production of "Tiger Style!," will reprise their roles for an audio production of the show to be broadcast on GBH and then made available in a podcast.
Ruibo Qian and Jon Norman Schneider, shown in a 2016 Huntington Theatre production of "Tiger Style!," will reprise their roles for an audio production of the show to be broadcast on GBH and then made available in a podcast.T. Charles Erickson

Despite a year of COVID cancellations and programming pivots, leaders among Boston’s theater community remain optimistic, if pragmatic, about what theater lovers can look forward to in the coming months. Several who spoke to the Globe said the forced break encouraged them to recommit to their missions, take care of their staffs and artists, and honestly address diversity, equity, and inclusion practices within their organizations.

“This has been a moment when we all deepened our relationships with our artists, our audiences, and our city,” says Courtney O’Connor, artistic director at the Lyric Stage.

“The question was never what are we going to do, it was more how are we going to do it?” says Shawn LaCount, cofounder and artistic director of Company One Theatre.

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Theater company leaders expressed gratitude and even awe at the theater fans from around the globe who join Zoom play readings and full productions, virtual conversations about plays, acting and writing classes, and behind-the-scenes access to the creative teams that make theater possible. Recognizing the needs of audiences and the community, Company One this month added “Joy and Wellness” programming, partnering with The Theater Offensive to offer yoga, embroidery, skin care, trivia, and a drag story hour in collaboration with the Boston Public Library (www.companyone.org).

And with the Biden administration moving in next week, Company One is presenting “Remaking America: An Inaugural Message to the New Administration,” three short plays by Inda Craig-Galván, Francisca Da Silveira, and Idris Goodwin, playwrights whose work Company One is featuring later in its season. “Remaking America” debuts Jan. 26 and will include conversations with local leaders fighting inequities in housing, education, and health.

Both Company One and the Huntington Theatre Company are looking at ways to reach a broader audience with some of their popular productions. The Huntington is partnering with GBH for an audio broadcast of “Tiger Style!” using the cast that performed in the comedy’s 2016 debut at Wimberly Theatre. The audio play will air Feb. 6 on 89.7 FM at 6 p.m., and then will be available as four, 30-minute podcasts over the following four weeks (www.huntingtontheatre.org).

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Company One is moving forward with plans to film Goodwin’s “Hype Man: A break beat play,” with the original cast. The production is a partnership with the American Repertory Theater, and LaCount says he hopes filming will get underway in February. Plans for Craig-Galván’s “Black Super Hero Magic Mama,” tentatively scheduled for the Strand Theatre in Dorchester later in the year, may be moved outdoors depending on CDC guidelines.

From left: Kadahj Bennett, Rachel Cognata, and Michael Knowlton in Company One Theatre's “Hype Man: A break beat play.” The cast will reunite for a filming of the production.
From left: Kadahj Bennett, Rachel Cognata, and Michael Knowlton in Company One Theatre's “Hype Man: A break beat play.” The cast will reunite for a filming of the production.Paul Fox

With spring and summer on the horizon, many theater leaders are considering outdoor venue possibilities, especially after the success of Central Square’s Starlight Square, which transformed a parking lot into a performance space. Greater Boston Stage Company in Stoneham is considering an outdoor production of “The Wolves,” which is set on a soccer field, while Central Square Theater is planning a co-production of Caleen Sinnette Jennings’s “Queens Girl in the World,” at Starlight Square, in a partnership with Front Porch Arts Collective. Apollinaire Theatre, which typically presents a free summer production in the delightful PORT Park in Chelsea, is waiting for safety guidelines, but in the meantime, is working with Teatro Chelsea to stream “Sonia se Fue,” a Spanish translation of Melinda Lopez’s award-winning “Sonia Flew,” through Jan. 17 (pay-what-you-can, www.apollinairetheatre.com).

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Outdoor venues are a viable option, but there are a host of factors that need to be considered, says Steve Maler, founder and artistic director at Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, which has 25 years of experience presenting Shakespeare’s plays on Boston Common.

“We are optimistic about the vaccines and have the advantage of performing outdoors, but we remain concerned about the safety of our audiences, our backstage team, and especially our onstage performers,” says Maler, who hopes to present “The Tempest” this summer following its 2020 cancellation. Although he says he was impressed with Handel & Haydn Society’s masked “Messiah,” Maler says he’d prefer not to mask the performers.

“We have talked about reducing the cast size and opening up the staging to create appropriate distance, but we want that physical intimacy required by the relationship between Prospero and Ariel and Miranda and Ferdinand,” he says. “Planning ‘bubbles’ and quarantining the cast requires an extra expense not in our production budget.”

Actors’ Shakespeare Project artistic director Christopher V. Edwards says investing in safety protocols has not been part of his company’s budget. But ASP, too, has outdoor experience with its popular promenade productions mounted in partnership with the Arnold Arboretum. Even as Edwards expresses his hope to return to the Arboretum this summer with a “Shakespearience” that may be either live or streamed, he says he has been encouraged by the responses to the company’s virtual programming.

Actors' Shakespeare Project artistic director Christopher Edwards, shown at the Arnold Arboretum in August during the theater company's filming of "The Nature of Shakespeare."
Actors' Shakespeare Project artistic director Christopher Edwards, shown at the Arnold Arboretum in August during the theater company's filming of "The Nature of Shakespeare."John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/file

ASP hopes to remount its production of “The Merchant of Venice” sometime in the fall. Edwards says this moment is an opportunity to encourage the exploration of plays from different perspectives and amplify voices that haven’t been heard before.

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“We are looking forward to a virtual community reading of ‘The Taming of the Shrew,’ Jan 23-26,” he says. The reading will be directed by Caley Chase, and the cast will be made up of female-identifying actors from the resident acting company and the community.

“In March and April we will present a series of workshops/readings of classic plays seen through the BIPOC lens,” he says, including a modern verse translation of “Othello” by Mfoniso Udofia, commissioned by Play On Shakespeare [a program that invites modern translations and adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays]. “Othello” will be streamed in two parts via Zoom (March 5 and March 12 at 6 p.m.). It will be followed by “Seize the King” by Will Power, an adaptation of “Richard III” (April 3-7) and “The Winter’s Tale” performed by an all-BIPOC cast in partnership with Front Porch Arts Collective (all readings are free with donations encouraged, www.actorsshakespeareproject.org).

Paul Daigneault, founder and producing artistic director of SpeakEasy Stage Company, says he’s also mindful of presenting work that speaks to the current moment.

“I had a group of plays and musicals ready, but my smallest cast included eight people and I’m not sure singing will be safe by the summer,” he says. “We are used to planning two years out, but now I am anxious to adjust the season to make sure we present theater that creates joy, celebrates community, and encourages empathy.”

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SpeakEasy just announced three projects slated for the spring: fully produced filmed versions of Elise Forier Edie’s “The Pink Unicorn” (streaming March 5-11) and James Ijames’s “TJ Loves Sally 4 Ever” (streaming April 16-22); and The Boston Project: Project Resilience, featuring five Boston playwrights who have been commissioned to write site-specific 10-minute plays that showcase “how the people in the Hub have made it through the past year” (streaming June 4-10). Subscriptions for all three shows will be $75 and go on sale soon at www.speakeasystage.com.

Speakeasy Stage Company plans to film and stream playwright James Ijames's “TJ Loves Sally 4 Ever” this spring.
Speakeasy Stage Company plans to film and stream playwright James Ijames's “TJ Loves Sally 4 Ever” this spring.Kathryn Raines

SpeakEasy is among several local companies commissioning local playwrights to create short plays that focus on the city. The trend started with “Dream Boston,” the Huntington Theatre’s short audio plays set at Boston locations sometime in the future (www.huntingtontheatre.org/season/upcoming/dream-boston). Lyric Stage debuts its “Walking Plays” Friday with “On Paying Attention,” by David Valdes, followed by “Monster in the Sky” by Ginger Lazarus. These are the first of six short audio plays that together form a loop beginning in Copley Square, winding through the city and ending at Lyric Stage on Clarendon Street. Listeners can use maps provided by Lyric Stage to walk along with the plays or to listen to them from their own homes. The other four plays will be released in two batches later in the winter and spring; they include “Kill the Dogs, Knock Them Over!” by Liana Asim, “Secure the Shadow” by Miranda ADEkoje, “Living Water” by Melinda Lopez, and “Monstrat Viam” by Pat Gabridge. (Free at www.lyricstage.com, Soundcloud and the Apple Podcast app.)

“Creativity has kept us alive during this time of crisis,” says Maler of Commonwealth Shakespeare Company. “We will continue to perform a balancing act, taking advantage of opportunities to bring people together to hear stories, while being mindful of everyone’s safety.”