In one standstill moment, an actress does her pre-show “shake out,” a costume designer quickly fidgets with the fabric of her design and a conductor raises his hands to indicate that the musical piece is about to begin.
The next moment, curtains are pulled back, stage lights flicker on and actors step out of the dusty shadows of the COVID-19 pandemic as live theater makes its return to the Athens community.
Live theater essentially vanished during the pandemic since the in-person aspect posed health dangers to everyone involved. Actors, directors, stagehands and owners of businesses such as Morton Theatre were forced to find other ways to channel their passions for the time being.
Now that businesses have been cleared to reopen in Athens and restrictions have loosened, live theater is finding its way back into the limelight.
“Even though it’s been a whirlwind process of relearning and getting back into the swing — when you get to the conducting podium with your musicians in front of you, it has a sense of feeling like home again,” program leader at Athens Creative Theatre Daniel Self said.
After a two-year break, Self participated in his first full-fledged production on Nov. 11 when “Camelot” premiered at Morton Theatre. Other productions such as “Rent,” put on by the University of Georgia’s Department of Theatre and Film Studies, also premiered this month.
“Rent” was met with sold-out audiences itching to be transported back into the world of live theater.
A diverse theater community
Without live performances, some felt that Athens was put “on pause.” The Athens community is known for the emphasis it puts on the arts with countless venues being used as stages.
For many, the value lies within the silent interactions and lessons shared between the audience and cast members. Others cherish the feeling of being transported into the script.
“I love seeing theater open these conversations about tough subjects, things that are relevant and affecting the culture as a whole. We’re able to open up this conversation with audiences,” Self said.
With diverse cast and crew members a part of theater productions, the audience has a chance to see both itself and others represented in terms of their identities.
“Theater should open your eyes to see things through a slightly different lens. Are you seeing this through the lens of an African American director who’s telling their experience? Are you hearing this through a queer person’s lens?” Self said. “It’s exciting to hear those stories told by someone who doesn’t experience the world in quite the same way you do.”
UGA’s Black Theatrical Ensemble specifically focuses on representation and inclusion for the Black community in Athens. By choosing to perform shows that uplift Black people and other people of color, the ensemble hopes to educate the community through live storytelling.
“As I got older I noticed that my stories and the stories of my friends and family were a little bit different from the stories that were mass produced. I hope that non-Black and non-POC audiences are able to walk away with a new perspective,” president of the Black Theatrical Ensemble, Nala McCamy, said.
The ensemble hopes to serve as a platform of representation for those who fall into the intersection of being Black and a participant in theater.
“BTE is here to fill the gap. To give those people that may not fit the look — that may not get casted in every department — a chance to perform, a chance to create so they don’t have to sit on the sidelines for an entire semester and wait to audition again,” McCamy said.
Venues such as Morton Theatre represent the Black theater community in Athens by being the first vaudeville theatre in the United States that was built, owned and operated by an African American person.
The Black Theatrical Ensemble considers Morton Theatre to be one of their most common stomping grounds to perform at due to the platform it provides for live performances by the Black community and many of the staff being alumni of the ensemble.
An Athens community theater, Town and Gown Players, also worked to express the views of African Americans in Athens with their October production “Athens Vignettes: A Dialogue with the African American Community.”
The show brought interviews with Athens community members to life with scenes about the relationship between the African American and UGA communities. “Vignettes” covered the Baldwin Hall burial site — where the remains of enslaved people were found under the UGA building when it was being renovated in 2015 — and the loss of Linnentown — a majority Black neighborhood that was destroyed after UGA and the county government used eminent domain to take the land to build high-rise dorms. Open dialogue with audience members followed each of these scenes.
The year that changed everything
During the COVID-19 pandemic, live theater was replaced with streaming services such as Hulu and Netflix. However, these virtual services were missing the connection made between audience and cast members during a live performance.
Actors and actresses longed for the excitement that comes with seeing the reflection of their performance on audience members’ faces.
“There’s something about the energy of the audience on that opening night when you hit the stage and they see you. It’s a different kind of endorphins that are released — I really can’t explain that feeling,” Rachael Simpson, a student actress featured in “Rent,”said.
During the pandemic, some cast members chose to hone their craft or find different avenues of expression. For Simpson, the pandemic was discouraging because she wasn’t able to be immersed in the environment.
“Without the audience, it’s a different theater experience. Without the community supporting the theater, there is no experience for the actors,” Simpson said.
Without that give and take between members of production and audiences, one couldn’t experience the full essence of in person live theater without the other.
“People want to be in the audience. People miss it. They miss being outside, being in social settings. People miss being in community spaces that feed them,” Simpson said. “I think they want to be back in those seats.”
An unforgettable comeback
Live theater makes its comeback with restrictions in place. As cobwebs are swept off of the bright stage lights and patrons return to their seats, safety measures are emphasized.
Venues vary in their COVID-19 safety requirements. Some allow cast members to decide whether to perform wearing masks or not, while others ask audience members for vaccination proof or negative COVID-19 tests within a few days before the show.
Shows appearing at Morton Theatre require patrons and staff to wear masks inside and have reduced audience seating to provide for social distancing.
The production of “Rent” had cast members wear their masks at all times except when they were actively on stage.
“The audiences have been very good about wearing masks and staying safe, so it’s made it easy to come back because everybody is taking everything so seriously,” director of “Rent” Brandon LaReau said.
Despite live theater returning in person, some changes made during the time curtains were closed might just stick around. With no in-person component, businesses such as Athens Creative Theatre turned to livestreaming their productions for audiences.
Although the Creative Theatre returned with its in-person production of “Camelot,” it plans to continue distributing a livestream of future performances for those who cannot make it out to the show — whether it’s for health and safety concerns, or just a preference for watching the performance from bed.
Nevertheless, audiences and cast members bring with them a new appreciation for the live art form after temporarily losing the transportive environment.
“I think a lot of people now have a different kind of appreciation for live theater because they see what their life is like without it, and I would say that that’s not something they want,” LaReau said.
Although productions such as “Rent” produced their show with a tighter budget due to a loss of ticket sales over the past year, some theater departments are seeing more donors than before the pandemic began.
“Yes, there weren’t performances and yes, [the pandemic] was very hard and uncertain — especially for performers — but it seems like donations were up, donors were up, support is up. Now that we’re coming out of it, all of these theater companies are roaring back to life,” LaReau said.
As set designers bring out carefully designed props for an upcoming show and audiences anticipatingly wait in lines with their virtual ticket stubs in hand, a renewed recognition for live theater in Athens has been ignited.
“Everybody missed it. We’re ready for that buzz again,” Simpson said. “Live theater is like food for the soul.”