Amid pandemic uncertainties, Theatre Lab has embraced new ways of connecting with artists and audiences

When COVID-19 began impacting the United States in March 2020, Theatre Lab, Florida Atlantic University’s professional resident company, had just started its run of Jennifer Lane’s To Fall in Love. There were 65 tickets sold for the first performance; only about 14 people showed up. “That was a signal to me that things were changing pretty quickly and people didn’t feel safe,” says Matt Stabile, Theatre Lab’s producing artistic director.

The company put the show on hold, the sign of a new era of uncertainty that has impacted theaters large and small around the world. In the immediate aftermath of COVID-19, Theatre Lab turned to streaming content, producing an Online Original Monologue Festival to support out-of-work actors and theater professionals; utilizing platforms such as Zoom to bring its educational programming and Future Pages Project into schools and foster the work of budding playwrights; hosting its annual Playwrights Forum and Masterclass Series virtually; and reinventing its New Plays for New Year series to take place online, with a new reading every 21 days. The company also shifted its world-premiere productions slated for 2020-21 to the following season, with the hope that, come fall, live theater will once again be feasible.

In the meantime, Theatre Lab is looking for creative ways to engage audiences and safely return to in-person programming. We recently caught up with Stabile to discuss the trials and triumphs of being a theater professional during a global pandemic., 561.297.6124

A&C: Throughout your online initiatives and program pivoting, what have the inherent challenges of the last year taught you about theater? Have there been any silver-lining moments?
Stabile: One of the crazy weird blessings of COVID is that it opened up our world. We started being able to work with artists who maybe weren’t in town. The playwrights we had in the Playwrights Forum, one was from
Minnesota, one was in LA, one was in Miami. We had people from everywhere. Suddenly, travel and schedule weren’t a barrier anymore. We were able to work remotely. Now we are actively looking for partners outside of our area and outside of our state for next year.

There’s also been a real blessing to slowing down for a minute and looking at the practices that we had in place and saying, “Was this really working?” We’ve had an opportunity to reevaluate how we approach the work, where we put the majority of our energy and our resources, and how we create opportunities for new artists, diversifying our staff and the people we work with. It’s been an opportunity to take a breath, lean back, and go, okay, when we are back, let’s make sure we come back in a better way.

How do you think the events of the past year—such as COVID and
the calls for racial equity and diversity—have impacted Theatre
Lab’s mission?

Our mission has always been new work, new artists, and new audiences. We cannot achieve that if we’re not actively seeking out the people who aren’t yet coming to the table and making it an open and welcoming space. I think [2020] more focused our mission. It made us go, okay, we have been saying this and we see areas in our company where we’re absolutely achieving this, and then we can see other areas where we haven’t been as active in making sure that we truly represent every part of our community and what we want our community to be.

Geoff Short and Indya Jackson in one of Theatre Lab’s educational outreach films

I’m very excited about the work we’ve been doing and will continue to do. I’m hopeful about our future in this industry, especially in South Florida, which is uniquely positioned to be a leader in this area because we have such a diverse population. We could really take up the helm here and say this is the theater that we want going forward.

Socially distanced recording
of a student outreach show

How has COVID affected how students at FAU are involved with Theatre Lab?
It was tricky at the beginning. In September, we put a big focus on training new teaching artists to come work with us. I have a long history in education and so does my wife, Niki Fridh, and we have seen firsthand how being able to work in a classroom provides a whole second line of income for an artist. Theatre Lab is putting more of an effort into training artists to become teaching artists.

We’re doing an online reading series this spring, with a new play every 21 days. The first one was a doubleheader, and the entire cast was made up of the MFA candidates. We have maintained our ability to work with these students and provide them actual professional opportunities. But that’s the reason I’m most eager to get back on campus because it just makes those connections so much easier to facilitate because they’re there, they can come by.

When Theatre Lab does return to in-person productions, do you think there’s anything you all will be doing differently?
I don’t know about us, but I think coming out of this, there are a lot of companies that had to pull back budgetarily. I would not be surprised to see smaller productions coming out of this, smaller casts, smaller sets, less money spent on these items. But that’s not our plan.

Our first show is going to be our Heckscher Theatre for Families show, which usually goes up in September and becomes the basis for our education outreach program. It’s targeted at a young audience, but it’s a show that’s imaginative and fun, and it doesn’t make an adult feel silly for having to sit through it.

We’re going to come back with The Impracticality of Modern-Day Mastodons. One night everybody goes to sleep and when they wake up, they’ve all become what they wanted to be when they were 8 years old. This is great for everybody except for our main character, Jess, because she was obsessed with mastodons and, when she wakes up, she’s become a mastodon. We’re currently working with a local puppeteer to design a 10-foot mastodon puppet that will be the main element of this. It’s going to be a very big show for us. I think people are going to be so eager to get back to live events.

What has been your biggest takeaway from the pandemic?
We always gave lip service to the deep value of in-person human gathering and connection. But I think the pandemic and having that taken from us has actually taught us just how valuable that is. We can all sit on our couch and watch Netflix, but there’s something vastly different about entertainment and deep human connection that happens in an audience, in a theater. I know I will take away that I will never take that for granted again, and I hope that people who’ve loved that experience also make sure they’re not taking it for granted. If you believe in supporting the arts, then it is your job to actively support the artists, to be giving if you can give, volunteering if you can volunteer because we need those places to gather. There’s nothing like when an audience laughs together or takes a gasp of air together. I think having that taken away from us for the past year has taught us just how valuable that is.

Extra Q&A with Matt Stabile

A&C: Going back to March 2020, what online programming did Theatre Lab produce in the immediate aftermath of COVID?
Stabile: A lot of my close friends are working actors. My wife is a working actor. I was suddenly seeing how people’s income and future income, how the rug had been pulled out from under them. Actors are really good about budgeting their money because we know it’s feast and famine, right? I was seeing people who had lost the contract they were working on immediately and also had lost three future contracts. So, suddenly, there was nothing for them.

Theatre Lab immediately got to work and organized the Online Original Monologue Festival. We took our education programming that we normally provide to only schools and brought it online for free. We taught workshops in creative writing on Facebook and Instagram for free. We asked anybody who took part in those workshops to submit an original monologue to us. We got hundreds of submissions. We then distributed those submissions to actors who either had lost contracts and needed to raise their own funds or who wanted to dedicate their performance to somebody else. Each actor would perform this original monologue and their Venmo ID or any of their personal PayPal stuff was listed, so people were able to donate directly to that performer or to the performer they were working for. Theatre Lab got completely out of the way.

It launched at the end of March [2020] and then we did another one at the end of April to support the behind-the-scenes heroes, such as the stage managers. Between those two events, we raised over $8,000 that went directly to performers or to the South Florida Theatre League’s relief fund for theaters and theater performers. We felt like we have to be here to serve our community. We have to help people. We didn’t know if it would work. Two days after we had launched the first one, it had at that point something like 1,500 views. And I remember getting a phone call from an actor who said, “I just got enough in personal donations to pay my rent this month.” For me that was like, okay, we did it.

How did you pivot in terms of your educational programming?
We had planned to do a production in August and September, but that ended up not being a possibility. So, we just completely shifted our programming to support teachers. We took it all online. Whatever platform they were on, we were able to join in their classrooms and bring in professional playwrights, scene designers, costume designers and provide our workshops.

Then, we ran our standard Future Pages Project. We usually bring kids to see a show. Instead, we created a little film. We rented a film studio, brought actors in one at a time and filmed them—socially distanced, everybody masked—and then edited it back together to make it look like they were all on stage together. We sent that out to the schools so they had something fun to watch, and the theme was called “carve your own path.”

Then, we asked all the students to submit a story to us about a time in their life that they carved their own path. We got hundreds of submissions back. We picked the top 2 percent and worked with those kids to rewrite their monologues and refine them, all through Zoom. In early December, we again rented a film studio and brought the kids in one at a time—socially distanced, sanitized the space between each—and filmed each one performing their work and created a mini wrap-up performance of the students’ original work and launched it online.

What about your programming for 2020-21? In what ways did you adjust?
Every October we host the Playwrights Forum and Masterclass Series where we bring playwrights each week and they read their new play. This year we had a choice. We knew we were going to have to be virtual. We said, do we want to have playwrights write plays for Zoom, which I don’t enjoy. But I have a long history with radio plays, so we commissioned three brand new audio plays.

We then selected one of those by local playwright Vanessa Garcia called Ich Bin Ein Berliner. She’s Cuban American, and it is the story of how in 1989, she watched the collapse of the Berlin Wall as an 8-year-old, 9-year-old girl. It overwhelmingly affected her, and she wasn’t sure why. The story traces her personal history with the fall of the Berlin Wall and associating that with, will her people in her country ever have a chance to reunite in the same way? We are further developing that piece and plan to release an audio play on broader platforms. We’re looking at possibly doing an in-person outdoor live performance of that radio play. [NOTE: Theatre Lab hosted a radio performance of this production April 3 and 4. The streaming event is available to view through May 23.

Can you tell me a little bit about the New Plays for the New Year series? How did you go about picking what plays you wanted to do? Were you influenced by the fact that they all had to be virtual readings? Our job is new plays, and so there’s always a stack of plays we’re interested in developing and doing readings of. There was a bit of: Will this play work on Zoom? If you have a play that’s a high-action comedy, that’s really hard to achieve on Zoom. But mainly for the New Plays festival, I try to choose work that is still in the process of development. I try to pick work that still is being worked on and the playwright needs to hear it in the mouth of actors. A lot of times it’s playwrights with whom we have a history. The first one was with Alix Sobler, who wrote The Glass Piano. She came back with one of her new plays. And honestly, I picked that one because she wrote it pre-pandemic and it’s about an apocalyptic event happening in Manhattan. It’s a comedy, and I was really curious to see how it was going to land now that we actually all have been holed up and away from each other for a year. Otherwise, we just look for the voices that are out there and the issues that are out there that theater artists are exploring. We want to give them a chance to explore it.