“When we can’t do theater, what can we do?” Alex Levy, the artistic director of 1st Stage Theatre, posed during a recent Zoom conversation with local artists.
Levy was at his brother’s house while sharing his thoughts on what the future of 1st Stage during the hour-long “Cultural Tysons” panel.
More than 50 households logged on as Levy; local painter and teacher Deborah Conn; bookstore owner Jen Morrow; and Lori Carbonneau, the head of the McLean Project for the Arts, weighed in on various facets of COVID-19’s impacts on Tysons’ art scene.
Levy introduced himself to viewers by tackling a perception of Tysons — and Northern Virginia west of Arlington — as a “cultural wasteland.” His fellow panelists agreed that the pandemic is highlighting how small businesses and local artists and institutions contribute to the area’s culture.
“It reinforced how much people want local,” Jen Morrow, the owner of Bards Alley in Vienna, said during the Zoom panel.
The bookstore is currently offering curbside pick-up and online shopping. The “Take a Chance on Me” option for staff to recommend books in the store based on shoppers’ chosen genres and price points has “been a home run,” she said.
“I think people are really discovering how much they miss their access to the arts,” Conn, the local watercolor painter, said. “They need the arts. They need the theater. They need the books.”
With some of her art hanging behind her, Conn talked about the changes she’s experienced during the pandemic: better class attendance now that she’s teaching via Zoom, a greater demand for more demos and more creative ways to showcase art.
Conn, who is also the gallery curator at 1st Stage, shared that one of her friends started a fence post art gallery, while a few others are doing driveway galleries: “We have to be seen.”
The virtual meeting on Saturday (June 13) was part of the Community Conversations series that 1st Stage started five years ago.
“It’s a really popular thing that we did, and we realized it was one of those things that we can move to a digital platform during the pandemic,” Levy told Tysons Reporter earlier this week. “So we started that two months ago, doing these community conversations via Zoom.”
While success stories might make the pivot to online look easy, the panelists shared the uncertainties they still face months into social distancing, quarantine, stay at home orders and COVID-19 restrictions.
Some things haven’t been figured out yet, like how to offer in-person summer classes or host ArtFest online, Carbonneau, MPA’s executive director, said. While MPA missed an exhibition in the spring, the arts organization is moving forward with plans for a virtual exhibition.
1st Stage, in particular, has been grappling with how to reconcile its mission and atmosphere — “Our primary mode of work is to gather people in small spaces,” moderator Emily Wall, who is the theater’s associate producer, said — with state and local requirements to reduce the risk of spreading the virus.
In March, the theater suspended its upcoming productions and closed its doors. A month later, the theater announced that “A New Brain,” which was supposed to run March 26-April 19, will be its next show, but the dates haven’t been determined yet. The Logan Festival of Solo Performance is canceled for July but plans to return next year.
Levy said during “Cultural Tysons” that institutions with video skills and equipment before the pandemic had an easier time adjusting. Even organizations that weren’t focused on tech before now have incentives to catch up.
Carbonneau noted that the switch to online programming allows for greater geographic diversity. For example, one of MPA’s students is in Italy, while one of its teachers is in New York opening a studio, she said.
The increased accessibility to audiences and artists is an “exciting” opportunity for the theater, Levy told Tysons Reporter.
“In our [Zoom panel] on Saturday, people from all over the county [were] part of the conversation, and that’s been a really cool benefit,” he said. “These virtual conversations have allowed us to open up to a whole group of people who would never be able to be a part of it because they’re just physically too far at any given time.”
For people who missed the Zoom panels or want to view them again, the recorded conversations are archived on 1st Stage’s YouTube channel — another perk of holding virtual events.
In addition to the Community Conversations series, 1st Stage is also planning a series of Zoom classes to address a longing for human connection.
“We are going to create a series of classes that are not really intended for professionals but intended for people to connect to art-making in ways where they maybe never have before and to do it with our artists and with each other,” he told Tysons Reporter.
Another idea, which is in the planning stages, would allow multiple organizations to co-produce a piece for Zoom. “We can break apart the way we make theater… and then see what happens when we bring it together and then let it be a live event so that it still has some of that feeling of theater where anything can happen,” he said.
While Zoom will make these ideas possible, Levy said the pandemic’s impact on the theater’s season has opened up time to reimagine future plans.
“Normally I think we need to be done by, you know, X days because we had to put it into our season,” he said about the co-production idea. “Now we can say, ‘Let’s let it go at the pace that feels like it’s creating the best work, and when it’s ready, we’ll do it.'”
Currently, the theater is using this time to talk about how to invest in artists in the longterm and “how we disrupt our own process every now and then.”
“We’ve been having conversations about like, ‘Well what would it look like to start talking to an artist, not six months before we do a show but two years before we do a show?’ and ‘What can we change about the way we build and create a show when we think like that?'” Levy said.
Questions about the use of space outside the theater — 1st Stage is currently looking into opportunities to perform outdoors — and how the relationship with the audience will change are also on the list.
While 1st Stage normally starts the theatrical process with a play, Levy said he wonders what would happen if they started with a blank page instead. The theater has also been reaching out to actors to see if they want to write plays and asking playwrights if they have an interest in directing.
“We have long believed that theater gets made in a certain way,” he said. “I think who’s in those power positions are going to be shaken up… Theater is no different than any other institution where those in power can hang onto that power and tend to reinforce it.”
Levy sees art institutions as a guide — “Our job is to be out ahead of governments and for-profit businesses and model what it can look like” — and the questions 1st Stage is tackling fit into a bigger query about how to disassemble power structures.
“I think the kinds of stories we tell are going to change. I think the kind of people that tell those stories are going to change. The ways in which we tell them are going to change,” he said.
Ultimately, Levy hopes the disruption will alter not only future art, but also the ways that art gets made.
“What this is really allowing us is to think about what years from now might look like too. So, to build something that is not about ‘Oh this is a cool show,’ but build something that says ‘This is a way in which we create cool shows’ for years,” he said.
Image via 1st Stage Theatre/YouTube
Madeline Taylor contributed to this report