The COVID-19 pandemic abruptly sidelined performers in the theater industry. Live theatrical performances aren't safe anymore, which has eliminated stage work opportunities for emerging artists. However, a group of young artists in Bloomington have found a solution.
The group, made up of nine recent graduates of New York University’s Tisch School of Drama, are part of a residency program at the Hundredth Hill in Bloomington, a private property where the artists have space to create theater safely. They have been rehearsing on the property, cut off from the outside world except for COVID-19 tests and essential trips since Aug. 1.
Their work will culminate in two outdoor, socially-distanced performances over the first two weekends in October.
Kyndall Sillanpaa, NYU graduate and artistic director, is cultivating one of the performances titled “Ghost Tape Number 10” which will examine psychological warfare during the Vietnam War. There is no established script, and the group is still developing it. Scott Huffman, playwright and fellow resident, wrote “Children’s Crusade” about eight children in Utica, New York, who believe they have found a prophet.
When Sillanpaa found out her senior show at NYU would be canceled due to COVID-19, she asked herself how she could continue to safely share theater with audiences.
“What are people trying to do to quell the artistic need for creation when there’s pandemic happening?” Sillanpaa said. “I’m having to grapple with entering into a professional field that is at a total stalemate right now.”
Her peers chose to perform their work on Zoom, but Sillanpaa said she felt dissatisfied with that. She began to develop a new, non-digital way to consume theater.
“It feels so void of what theater making actually is,” Sillanpaa said. “ It’s all about it being in person, and that’s the one thing that can’t happen.”
Sillanpaa, originally from California, spent her first two years at NYU focused on acting, but slowly transitioned to directing. She planned to direct a 15-person cast of “People, Places & Things” by Duncan MacMillian for her senior project.
“I knew I didn’t want to get all 15 actors on a Zoom call and read this text because that wasn’t directing to me,” Sillanpaa said. “I was like, what is going to be anything that is moderately artistically fulfilling?”
Out of Sillanpaa’s frustrations, she and fellow NYU graduate Sam McHale worked with Krista Detor and David Weber, owners of the Hundredth Hill residency, to safely create theater in Bloomington.
The property has a professional recording studio, a barn with a stage, projection screen, an aerial silks rig, sound and lighting systems and four guest houses. This will be the first large theater residency at the Hundredth Hill, Detor said, and she is excited to be facilitating a group of young artists finding a way to make art in the middle of a pandemic.
“This is their future,” Detor said. “I believe they’re the people that really have something to say right now.”
The group has planned strict safety precautions for both audiences and performers for their October performances.The performers will be distanced from the audience and audience members will be asked to social distance as well. Seven-foot circle spaces will be available for purchase for $50 per person, plus $15 for each additional person. Each circle can contain up to four people. There will be 15-foot spaces between each circle to comply with social distancing requirements. Audience members will be asked to wear masks when they are out of their circle.
“The reason this works is because they’re in a bubble,” Detor said. “They’ve all been living here for a month, COVID negative, and are not interacting with the outside world.”
Sam McHale, resident and company manager, said he hopes this new way of performing will serve as a model for other artists on how to present theater during the pandemic.
“The importance of the work we’re doing here is figuring out how to create live theater safely in a time where there’s a lack of hope in the entertainment industry,” McHale said.
Tickets will be available through the Buskirk-Chumley Box Office on Sept. 4.