Portland theater hires over 50 artists with COVID-19 loan program
In theater circles, "the show must go on," is a time-honored adage. In that spirit, dozens of Portland-area artists are coming together to create theater-inspired work in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Portland's Artists Repertory Theater announced June 30 that more than 50 writers, directors, educators, actors, technicians, designers, and producers had been hired to collaboratively create theater-inspired work that moves beyond the traditional form in response to shelter-in-place orders and public assembly restrictions.
The rapidly assembled repertory company, called, ART: Mercury Company, have been hard at work on audio dramas, short films and plays written for post-pandemic production.
The company takes its name from the legendary 1930s troupe, the Mercury Theater of the Air, founded by Orson Welles and John Houseman. That group, according to ART's managing director, J.S. May, was funded during the Great Depression in part through the Federal Theatre Project and the Works Progress Administration. Mercury Theater of the Air's most famous work, the 1938 "War of the Worlds."
Like the famed 1930s group, ART's project is paid for by federal dollars. The Paycheck Protection Program, a $349 billion emergency loan program, was created by the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. The program gives forgivable loans up to small businesses left financially distressed by the COVID-19 crisis. The funds helped create a dozen projects, according to Artists Repertory Theater's artistic director, Dámaso Rodríguez.
"The pandemic has forced the disruption of our operating assumptions," Rodríguez said. "Rather than waiting it out, we are testing new ideas for pursuing our mission and are re-imagining what ART will be whenever it is safe for audiences and artists to gather again. Thanks to the nimble work of our team — who wrote dozens of contracts, purchased equipment, made and re-made schedules while quickly learning new ways of working online and in person — we were able to use Payroll Protection funds to hire artists on mostly full-time salaries comparable to our mainstage programming."
ART: Mercury Company's projects include a five-part audio drama, adapted from Mellon Playwright-in-Residence and Steinberg Award winning playwright, E.M. Lewis' epic play, "Magellanica," which Artists Repertory Theater premiered in 2018.
An additional sixth part on the science behind the hole in the ozone layer and climate change will be co-produced with Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. The project will be released to ART audiences prior to the broader distribution.
The audio drama is directed by Rodríguez and features award-winning composition and sound design of Rodolfo Ortega.
If you prefer film, a group made up of nine Black artists in the company named OXYGEN will premiere a short film titled, "See Me." The movie is a slice of life of seven Black people interwoven with animated fantastical dreamscapes and will be filmed in September.
The film will be produced by ART's development and marketing director, Kisha Jarrett.
Other works include an outdoor site-specific piece, a video project, and other various plays.
During a time of unprecedented uncertainty, Rodriguez said, "we may have found a model that we can employ with confidence, even as the pandemic timeline continues to shift."
The projects were developed through collaborative meetings in Zoom and in-person recording and filming sessions under strict physically distanced work protocols, said the company in a statement.
"We looked first to the playwrights among our company of resident artists, along with writers whose work we were developing or planning to produce before the pandemic struck," said Luan Schooler, ART's director of new play development and dramaturgy. "As the number and scope of projects became clear, we were able to invite more and more artists from the wider local community into the process. Knowing that we'd have multiple projects developing at once, we needed a group of highly versatile, imaginative, energetic people who could contribute in many ways. We were able to bring together a rich multiplicity of voices and perspectives, and the resulting collaborations were infinitely inspiring and rewarding."
Artists Repertory Theater will begin releasing its Mercury Company content this summer and fall.
The theater is seeking funding to continue this method of collaboration and content creation throughout the duration of the pandemic and beyond.
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