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With uncertainty about the future, organizers use PPP funds to hire a company of artists to plan future shows

PMG PHOTO: KEITH SHEFFIELD - Artists Repertory Theatre's new ART: Mercury Company is developing a series of programs. Jeff George performs for a film shoot recently.Opportunity knocked, and Artists Repertory Theatre answered.

Like most theater companies faced with the reality that its 2020-21 season might not happen or would be problematic because of COVID-19, Artists Rep sprung into action to help itself and artists.

The organization applied for and was granted a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan, garnering around $343,000, and set out not only employing people but setting up a variety of shows — audio plays, online video performances and future onstage events — through its new ART: Mercury Company.

It was inspired by the legendary 1930s Mercury Theater of the Air, founded by Orson Welles and John Houseman, which was funded by federal money during the Great Depression and produced the classic "The War of the Worlds."

Likewise, "we have used PPP funding during the COVID-19 pandemic to harness the transformative energy of this similarly tumultuous moment in history, and as an opportunity to explore different mediums and create new ways of working," said J.S. May, Artists Rep managing director.

May said that $100,000 of the $343,000 funded ART: Mercury Company, and remaining cash paid for Artists Rep operations, per the agreement with the federal government with the CARES Act.

In September, Artists Rep expects to launch two audio drama plays — "Magellanica," the E.M. Lewis play that the company previously had staged, and "The Berlin Diaries," based on Andrea Stolowitz's stage play — as well as the 10-minute video play "Better Maybe," based on Caridad Svich's short play.

PMG PHOTO: KEITH SHEFFIELD - Producing director Shawn Lee and Artists Rep marketing director Kisha Jarrett (background), part of the ART: Mercury Company's Oxygen project, shoot some video for the 'Better Maybe' short film.Also in the works: Oxygen, a group of nine Black artists led by Artists Rep's Kisha Jarrett working together in the aftermath of the George Floyd death, whose first project will be the short film "See Me"; an untitled site-specific piece featuring playwrights Lava Alapai, Linda Alper, Dan Kitrosser, Josie Seid, Susannah Mars and Anthony Hudson; the onstage plays "The Chinese Lady," "Why This Night" and "Flower Joy"; audio play "The Carlalogues" by Hudson (aka Carla Rossi, drag clown); an untitled video project by Chris Harder; audio poem "Forget Me Not, America" by Seid; and work on "Looking for Tiger Lily" set and costume production (after Hudson's show had to be canceled in the spring).

ART: Mercury Company features more than 50 artists — writers, directors, educators, actors, technicians, designers, producers — hired with PPP funds for the 12 projects. It was established within the eight-week parameter to use the money as a grant and not a loan that needed to be paid back.

"The whole point of PPP was to keep people on payroll and keep people working," said Damaso Rodriguez, Artists Rep artistic director, "and it allows you to employ freelance artists as well. It was a race to put this on."

"Magellanica" and "The Berlin Diaries" are in the post-production phase with soundscapes and composition being put into the audio dramas. They'll be released in September, and available for download, about the time the normal Artists Rep season would start.

PMG PHOTO: KEITH SHEFFIELD - Dancer/choreographer Jeff George performs for the cameras as part of ART: Mercury Company.Rodriguez directs both "Magellanica" and "The Berlin Diaries."

"The audio format is more similar to theater than film," he said. "It's about context, voice. I love live performance, but it's fun to be given this opportunity and challenge in a different medium that has been around a long time."

Artists Rep does have some onstage plays in the works, but government restrictions and COVID-19 uncertainty still inhibit any planning or venue booking; Artists Rep's building has been under construction, forcing it and hub members to locate offices in South Waterfront and put on shows at other venues.

"We don't have answers" to crowd gathering and venue availability, Rodriguez said. "So, here's what we can do: Create work for the return of public assembly. We had a lineup of plays ready to go and venues booked (before), but we had to cancel them."

Meanwhile, the untitled site-specific project would entail six playwrights developing plays to be performed in a large parking lot. "The audience would move from one staging location to another," Rodriguez said. "Maybe that's a half-step to returning to public assembly, but coming up with an event with social distancing. There's nothing original about performing shows outside, but it brings playwrights together for us to do when the time is right."

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