The Show Must Go On … Online:
The Shelter Plays Project
On October 6 2020: A free website housing 15 plays—all dealing with life in America during the COVID-19 Pandemic—will be launched at theshelterplays.com.
So, how did this come about?
Andrew Brier was living in Denver, writing one-act plays, teaching a theater course, and trying to drum up interest in mounting a ten-minute play festival. When coronavirus struck the U.S., he, his wife, and everybody around him went into quarantine. “The theaters were shut down and so were my plans and my life, at least for the foreseeable future,” he said.
One night, however, he had a dream. “I woke with the resolve that, even in this time of great difficulty, there was still an opportunity to do something significant, something theatrical,” Brier said. “I didn’t know if my idea would fly, but I put out the call and received some immediate positive responses from playwrights all over the country. They were eager to join me.”
As the realization emerged that the theaters might not be able to open for a long time, he decided to rely on his experience as an independent filmmaker to produce the plays and discover a new audience.
William Downs was the first to reply: “This is a great idea!” Brier knew that the game was afoot. Downs submitted a Zoom play, “The New Abnormal.” Brier read the script: A playwright has to get used to the idea that her work is going to be presented online now, not live on stage. “It was perfect,” Brier said. “This work would spearhead the Shelter Plays Project.”
When asked about the project, Downs said, “Challenging times always make theater people more creative. I’m hopeful that this mess will lead to a new type of online art. It won’t be the theater, nor will it be a movie, but a new form of expression, a Zoom passport that can nudge the world a bit. If we can go to work from our toilets, and grub-hub from bed, why shouldn’t we be able to enjoy a playwright’s words without bothering to put on pants? No, it won’t be the same, but nothing is anymore.”
Others writers in quarantine submitted their work—trying to make sense of what was happening, describing what it was like to live through COVID and, in some cases, with it. That became the project’s unifying theme.
Eventually, by July, 15 plays by 12 playwrights, more than 35 actors, nine directors, three songwriters, and numerous artists and technicians volunteered their creative talents. “Some of the plays are deadly serious, but many have taken a more lighthearted approach to these troubled times,” Brier explained. “Either way, the voices of these playwrights are clear and true. Historically, in times of war, great tragedy or disaster, the stage comes alive to shine its enduring light, and great theater can happen.”
COVID was a new kind of challenge. “As we progressed, we became aware that what we were doing was also on the ‘cutting edge’ of theater,” Brier noted. “The Zoom play was a totally new form that was developing before our eyes.”
While half of the plays are Zoom-based, the other half are live productions that had to be filmed under extraordinarily safe conditions. “We were forced to halt production several times when the virus spiked,” Brier said. “Along the way we lost people to sickness, fear, and the need to attend to more pressing life matters. But we never gave up.”
All the rehearsals had to take place on Zoom, and most of the time the cast, directors, and playwrights were not together. “This is a new and challenging way to try to produce plays,” Brier said. “We are still learning. When we get it right, it is entertaining and moving. This emerging new theater will be different, perhaps a combination of live and online, just as work and schools have been changed. But the theater will survive.”
When he began the Shelter Plays Project, Brier’s objective was to collect short plays, join them together, and create an evening of live onstage entertainment. “That may still happen someday. I hope so,” he said. “But for now, as beautifully expressed by Nashville playwright and songwriter Judy Klass in her song “Show”: “The void is so hard to define, but the show must go online.”