Visit the website of any theater in the country, and for the most part, the status is essentially the same wherever you look: closed indefinitely, until it’s safe once again to have large gatherings indoors.
Look at the website for Bangor’s Penobscot Theatre Company, however, and it shows that the company is busier than it’s ever been, with three productions in October alone, and a whopping 13 productions planned through April 2021 — far more than the six mainstage shows it would normally have produced.
The organization is taking a risk few other regional professional theater companies across the country have dared to take, by producing an all-digital slate of shows that expand the boundaries of what has traditionally been thought of as theater. There are plays, certainly, but there are also circus performers, puppet shows, audio dramas and all-original children’s programming, all broadcast either live or pre-taped, and created by an array of artists from the Bangor area and beyond.
As artistic director Bari Newport puts it, the decision to go full throttle with ambitious, inventive programming was an easy one to make — once she and managing director Jen Shepard put their minds to it.
“I could just see everyone’s spirits withering, faced with this giant obstacle, and the fact that no one would be able to create anything for a long, long time,” Newport said. “We just had to say, ‘Nope, that’s not gonna happen.’ And so we had to rethink everything. We had to be creative, which is our job.”
The first productions begin this week, including a live-streamed ghost tour of the Bangor Opera House, hosted by education director Ben Laymen, who will offer 10 tours through Nov. 1; the first one is Thursday. From Oct. 11 through Nov. 1, Penobscot Theatre will premiere “The Glitch Witch,” a filmed version of Maine artist and songwriter Brittany Parker’s original youth musical story about a clumsy witch.
Maine’s two other large professional theater companies, Portland Stage in Portland and the Public Theatre in Lewiston, are opting to stay mostly dark until full-scale live performances can happen, though Portland Stage will produce the two-person play “Talley’s Folly” starting Oct. 29, for small, socially distant audiences. Other theaters have planned scaled-back, in-person events, including the play “Spoon River Anthology” co-produced by Ten Bucks Theatre Company and True North Theatre Company, Oct. 17-18 and Oct. 24-25 outdoors at Indian Trail Park in Brewer, and Some Theatre Company’s production of “Woman in Black” at its Bangor Mall theater space, Oct. 29-Nov. 1.
But few other theaters anywhere in the country are attempting anything on the scale of what Penobscot Theatre has planned. Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company will present a number of productions of American plays, specially designed for digital viewing, starting in November. And the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles has digital programming this fall featuring interactive puzzle shows from game designer David Kwong.
“That’s about all we’ve found, though. I think we’re way ahead of the pack on this one,” said Shepard, who co-founded Improv Acadia in Bar Harbor, and started as Penobscot Theatre Company’s managing director in June. “We embody Dirigo.”
Starting Oct. 15, PTC will offer “Ghost Postcards From Maine,” a newly commissioned audio drama written by six Maine authors — each telling the tale of a different abandoned Maine town. Though “Ghost Postcards” is written as a series of short plays, the end result is something like a podcast — just like “The Glitch Witch” is closer to a streaming TV show, and the ghost tours could be something you’d see on platforms like Twitch or YouTube.
Though PTC’s stock and trade is, of course, live theater, for the 2020-21 season, the organization is operating more akin to something like a television channel or streaming platform. To use a much-repeated term during the pandemic: they’ve had to pivot.
Part of that pivot has included learning new things in a matter of months, including how to write and perform for the camera, rather than for a live audience, and video and audio production skills. The theater company’s box office manager and producing associate, John Siedenberg II, has helped to lead the charge on those fronts, as have longtime PTC actors and artists such as Brad LaBree and Neil E. Graham.
“We’re not just putting a camera in front of the stage and pressing record,” Newport said. “We’re asking people to reimagine their work for this medium. I think people see this and think, initially, it’s just going to be a bunch of Zoom plays. The last thing we want is that. It’s going to be in HD. It’s going to have the high production values you expect from us. You can watch it on your TV. We’re really trying to put our resources to making this something pretty special.”
The overall cost for these productions is lower than what it would be to mount a full-scale production — PTC’s musicals can routinely cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce, but the overhead for these digital shows isn’t nearly that high. Accordingly, subscription prices are lower, with subscriptions for a full household costing either $120 or $150, depending on the package. In a regular season, a subscription for one adult starts at $120.
Though Newport and Shepard have cut over $1 million from the theater’s overall budget, they point out that they have been able to keep all 15 staff members employed during the pandemic. They’ve also taken the opportunity to catalogue the company’s entire costume and prop collection and have put parts of that collection up for sale on PTC’s Etsy page.
Newport said sales for the season — available in a “Main Courses” package for adults, or a “Family Style” package for younger audiences — have been holding steady since tickets went on sale in August, and the theater is pacing to hit its goal for subscription sales later this year.
“I think people are just thrilled that something, anything is happening,” Newport said. “People are starved for things like this. And the fact that now, we can invite people from outside Maine into our theater is pretty amazing. We’ve had people from Japan buy tickets to the ghost tours.”
The company has a spot held open for one more show in late April 2021 — a yet-to-be-named live production that Newport and Shepard have waiting in the wings, should pandemic circumstances improve enough so audiences can fully return to live shows.
Though trying something new is always a risk, Shepard — a seasoned improviser who is used to making things up as she goes along — said the reward is, so far, worth it.
“There’s no blueprint for this. And once you realize that, you can do whatever you want,” she said. “We’re trying to create a new kind of theater. And theater has always been really good at adjusting what it does to suit the time that it’s in.”