It takes more than a pandemic to stop some local venues from serving up original entertainment. Even deprived of an actual stage for an entire year, the Irvington Theater, for example, has been seeking out new material, with offerings such as the Arts Incubator Film Series that premiered on YouTube in July 2020.
Next weekend, March 26-28, more works will debut via the Arts Incubator Short Play Fest, featuring four pieces — one of them an original musical.
“These are new works specifically speaking to the moment we’re in, globally,” IT marketing manager Brad Ogden said. “They all feel like they’re relevant.”
The theater’s online invitation to submit plays turned up intriguing talent. A committee of artists and playwrights reviewed about two dozen entries.
“We really want to celebrate these four playwrights who are sharing new works with … audiences at this crazy time,” Ogden said. “These playwrights, they wouldn’t have found us if it weren’t for this call for submissions. That grows our community as well.”
Some of the audiences for IT’s recent streaming offerings hail from far beyond the theater’s usual audience base in Westchester. “We definitely are getting farther away in terms of which states and countries are streaming the events, because of the level of access the internet provides,” Ogden said. “We can’t wait to get people into the theater again, but we’ll be sure things are still available online.”
The upcoming festival includes an intriguing genre, the mini-musical — imagine seven songs linked together with minimal dialogue over less than 20 minutes. That’s the format of “The Yellow Wallpaper” by the composing and playwriting team of Eliza Randall and Samuel Norman.
Their collaboration is an unlikely adaptation of a horror story written in 1892 by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, about a woman with a “nervous condition” who is kept a virtual prisoner in a yellow wallpapered room by her overbearing husband.
The parallels to life during the pandemic were too perfect to pass up for Randall and Norman, who are MFA candidates in musical theater writing at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.
“We were looking to write a musical with three main characters, and we found this story about a woman in ‘lockdown,’” Randall said in a joint interview with Norman, both speaking from the Brooklyn townhouse they share with 12 other NYU theater grad students. Randall, originally from Nevada, has been composing music since she was 6 years old and her works have been performed by groups such as the Gallatin Theatre Troupe and Tin Pan Alley. Norman, a native Londoner, has written three full-length musicals that have been performed across the United Kingdom.
Randall said their fellow tenants, like other composers and writers, have been using the pandemic to experiment with new ideas.
“We’re trying to reimagine what theater might look like and sound like,” Norman added. “We have friends who are writing animated musicals, or virtual reality musicals. I feel like in every crisis is an opportunity. While banished from the stage, we’re trying to invent these forms of entertainment.”
Playwright Samuel Harps is the only festival participant not new to IT audiences. He premiered a short film, “Black and Blue,” as part of the first Arts Incubator. Harps returned to his original material to create an elevated, reedited version of the same material for the short play festival. The story, set during the rioting in New York streets last summer that followed George Floyd’s death and other incidents of police violence against Blacks, deals with the identity crisis faced by a Black police officer who must report to work despite a pandemic and civil unrest.
Harps is founder and artistic director of Shades Repertory Theater, a regional theater company in upstate Garnerville, which, like IT, has had to remain offstage during the pandemic, leading him to look for new creative outlets. His plays have been featured around the country.
Rachel Yong’s “Guilt Is a Mother” features a couple that has split up during the pandemic, but are trying to preserve the appearance of togetherness in their Zoom interactions with family.
“Guilt is an operative word, in a sense,” Yong said in an interview on March 9. “It’s guilt over who will take ownership of the guilt at the relationship ending. They’re kind of passing the baton back and forth about whose version is the right version.”
Yong, a Brooklyn resident who came east from California in 2013, said that over the past year people have all been thinking about what it means to be together: “Are we together through this Zoom meeting, through this webcam? I think this sort of thing happens during the pandemic.”
A Stanford University graduate, Yong has been writing since college. She wrote and produced three solo shows off-Broadway and three at the Flea Theater in downtown Manhattan. During the COVID era, Yong said she had been “making her way through different creative means” — a random hand-modeling gig, narrating an audio book, walking dogs, taking care of cats and writing for the satirical news site The Onion. She has also been working on “creative nonfiction,” and just finished writing a full-length play about a father and daughter that’s set at a self-storage facility.
Alli Hartley-Kong’s comedy, “The Waiting Room,” also takes place in an unlikely setting: a fertility clinic. Two women, Natalie and Katherine, forge an unlikely friendship over their respective problems conceiving.
Hartley-Kong, a resident of northern New Jersey, is an internationally produced playwright, poet, digital strategist and museum editor. Her plays have been performed at Carlow Little Theater in Ireland, Single Carrot Theater in Baltimore, Reno Little Theater and Fosterfields Living Historical Farm in New Jersey, among other venues.
Tickets to the Arts Incubator Short Play Fest are available at irvingtontheater.com at $12 per household. Streaming begins March 26 at 12:01 a.m. and continues through March 28 at 11:59 p.m.