ArtsEmerson will venture back to live, in-person performance in November with “Iphigenia,” an ambitious operatic reimagining of the Greek myth that will feature music by Wayne Shorter, a libretto by Grammy winner esperanza spalding (who will also perform), and scenic design by renowned architect Frank Gehry.
“It promises to be kind of a blockbuster event,” remarked David C. Howse, ArtsEmerson’s executive director, in a telephone interview.
At a minimum, it will represent a milestone in the attempt by ArtsEmerson, a theatrical presenting and producing organization based at Emerson College, to rebound from a very long intermission. By the time “Iphigenia” opens, it will have been 20 months since ArtsEmerson last presented an in-person performance.
All performing arts organizations have faced scheduling challenges as they try to bounce back from the disruptions and uncertainty created by the pandemic. For an organization like ArtsEmerson — whose international scope is summed up in its motto, “The World on Stage,” and often hosts performers traveling from abroad — the challenges may be especially acute, as suggested by the 2021-2022 season that was announced Tuesday morning.
The season will include only five live, in-person shows, fewer than half the typical number. It will include a long-anticipated, fully staged production of “Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower,” which was a sold-out hit four years ago when ArtsEmerson presented it in concert form. In addition, there will be three live online performances and a slate of on-demand virtual events, building on the greater emphasis ArtsEmerson began to place on digital programming as theaters went dark.
“I’m thinking about this as a bridge year,” Howse said. “There is no real playbook for how we will move forward. When we started planning the season almost a year ago, we had no real idea where we would be in July 2021. Trying to put agreements in place, and align [the schedules of] artists, has been an interesting process.”
The word “interesting” might understate the matter when it comes to the number of variables Howse has been juggling.
At the beginning of this year, the fruitful working partnership he had forged with artistic director David Dower came to an end when Dower moved to San Francisco to take a post with The 7 Fingers, a circus-theater troupe that has been a frequent visitor to ArtsEmerson over the past decade. (Indeed, the first show of ArtsEmerson’s upcoming season will be an online production of the troupe’s new show, “Out of Order.”)
As Howse undertook a search for a director of artistic programs — he said an announcement on that front will be made in the next few weeks — the news came that Emerson College president Lee Pelton, a strong supporter of ArtsEmerson, was leaving to assume leadership of the Boston Foundation.
Yet Howse said the past year-plus has been a productive one in terms of intensifying ArtsEmerson’s focus on developing work created by artists of color — a focus that will be visible in the 2021-2022 season. The organization and its affiliated artists have been experimenting with new forms, “figuring out what would be the next normal for us,” he said. One thing that won’t change, according to Howse, is the commitment to international programming.
“ArtsEmerson will continue to be a major player in the contemporary theater space,” Howse said.
Fittingly, perhaps, the first show of the 2021-2022 season will be a virtual production inspired by the pandemic: “Out of Order,” by The 7 Fingers. In keeping with the troupe’s history of using often-dazzling physical movement to explore big themes, “Out of Order” takes place in a post-apocalyptic milieu of darkened theaters and prohibitions against physical contact, in which 10 gloved and masked acrobats “cling to their vocation as best they can.” It will be presented online Oct. 5-17.
Then, Nov. 12-13, comes “Iphigenia,” directed by Lileana Blain Cruz at the Cutler Majestic Theatre. In the opera, the heroine’s identity is “fractured and shared until the stage is occupied by a chorus of her,” according to press materials. Members of the Wayne Shorter quartet will perform, joined by esperanza. Also onstage will be a chamber orchestra, eight principal singers, and a chorus.
An online presentation of “Zoo Motel” is up next, Nov. 16-21. Co-created by director-performer-designer Thaddeus Phillips, whose “Red-Eye to Havre de Grace” and “17 Border Crossings” have previously been presented by ArtsEmerson, and artist Steven Dufala, it’s a “whimsical kind of project that invites artists and audiences to go on a journey together,” Howse said.
“Zoo Motel” will be followed by another online production, “White Rabbit Red Rabbit,” a work about contemporary Iran by Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour. Howse said “White Rabbit Red Rabbit,” slated for Dec. 7-12, will feature a different performer each night.
Feb. 17-20, Toshi Reagon and Bernice Johnson Reagon’s adaptation of Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” will be presented at the Cutler Majestic Theatre. Butler was a novelist who, in the words of The New York Times, “committed her life to turning speculative fiction into a home for Black expression. In her hands, the genre felt capacious and infinite.” The stage adaptation blends more than 30 original “musical anthems and requiems” drawn from two centuries of Black music.
“This is promising to be a really big project for us,” Howse said.
March 12-27, ArtsEmerson will host the premiere of “Everyday Life and Other Odds and Ends” by the Boston troupe Sleeping Weazel, created by Sleeping Weazel artistic director Charlotte Meehan (”The Audacity: Women Speak”). To be performed at the Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre inside the Paramount Center, “Everyday Life” is described as a “multimedia theatre/dance piece dealing with the humorous, tragic, and sublime trajectory of Parkinson’s disease as part of family life.”
“Burgerz,” by performance artist Travis Alabanza, will run April 13-24, also at the Jackie Liebergott. It was inspired by an episode when someone yelled a transphobic slur at Alabanza and threw a hamburger at them. The show explores “how trans bodies survive and how, by them reclaiming an act of violence, we can address our own complicity,” according to press materials.
Closing out the season May 11-22 at the Jackie Liebergott will be “Sea Sick,” a solo play written and performed by science journalist Alanna Mitchell. Directed by Ravi Jain and Franco Boni, and inspired by Mitchell’s book of the same name, “Sea Sick” is about the impact of global climate change on the world’s oceans.