March is supposed to come in like a lion and leave like a lamb, but this month began mild and turned into a mind-melting dystopian nightmare that would make Mad Max gobble Xanax. This past week in particular was like Thunderdome without the catchy Tina Turner theme song, as countless organizations – including the Fairwinds Broadway series, Orlando Fringe Festival and even Orlando Weekly – announced cancellations and layoffs in light of the COVID-19 crisis. It's challenging to write a column called "Live Active Cultures" when coronavirus quarantine has canceled all live cultural activities, and harder still to stay positive after seeing half of my hard-working colleagues put out of work.
But, to misquote Monty Python, we're not dead yet, and we're going to need the arts if we're going to make it out this situation semi-sane. So as long as we're all still here, I'm going to keep shining a spotlight on creative people who are trying to make the best of this worst-case scenario.
When I attended Phoenix Tears Productions' monthly Ten Minute Tuesdays event back on March 3, I had no idea at the time it would be one of the last shows I'd see pre-shutdown. I knew producers Megan Markham and Mallory Vance from their interactive audio dramas at the Fringe, but that evening was my first visit to their Turpin Garage Theatre.
Said venue is literally a two-car garage in a residential neighborhood south of downtown, with curtains and clip-lights turning it into a simple but serviceable stage. Every folding chair in the driveway was filled as the pair – joined by guest producer Ginger Potter – welcomed the oversold audience to "Ladies, Ladies, Ladies!," their celebration of Women's History Month, by bursting a balloon representing "the fucking patriachy."
The program consisted of two short original plays, both of which were written, performed, directed and produced by women, bridged by a musical set from feminist folk-rock singer-songwriter Maeve Kelly. Playwright Jackie Martin's "Hallmark Doesn't Make Cards for Us" featured Merritt Anne Greene and Cara Noel as a mother and daughter coming to terms with their tattered relationship. Director Elaitheia Quinn, a veteran of Theater on the Edge, drew intensely raw emotional performances from her cast that made me grateful the neighbors (whom Vance says have been very supportive) weren't calling the cops about a domestic disturbance.
Carol M. Rice's "I Shot My Husband" was equally dark, but much funnier and less shouty, thanks to slyly comedic performances by Markham as an attempted murderess and Vance as her nonplussed gal-pal.
The Ten Minute Tuesdays series has been producing short plays since 2016, curating scripts found through open submissions, performing them using local actors and directors, and charging patrons only $2 to attend. Their next installment was supposed to be Shakespeare-themed, but that April 7 show – like so much of life – is on hold. However, they are still forging ahead with this week's staged reading of Ophelia: A New Musical, albeit in a way no one could have imagined only a few weeks ago.
Jeremiah Gibbons' new musical adaptation of Shakespeare's Hamlet from the depressed Dane's doomed girlfriend's POV was supposed to have its work-in-progress premiere at Dragonfly Studio in Ocoee on Wednesday, March 25, with a follow-up performance March 28, ahead of a full production planned for December. Now, the Saturday-night show has been scrapped, but Wednesday's show will go on without a live audience. Instead, anyone who purchases a ticket can watch the YouTube live stream or view a recorded version that will be available for a week.
While Vance concedes that the past week has been "really rough," both personally and professionally, she told me (via safely distant social media) that her production was "rolling with the punches."
"Phoenix Tears got its start running rehearsals over Skype for shows that were pulled together in two or three days in person," Vance says. "We are still moving forward with the rest of our season and working on some online content to provide our audience while we wait this out together."
Although Phoenix Tears is pioneering live local online musicals, they're far from the only Orlando artists trying to keep hope alive via the Internet. Musician Andy Matchett hosted a "No Days Off "telethon on March 21, featuring acts like the Oak Hill Drifters, Lauren Carder Fox and Eugene Snowden. Performer Chase Padgett has created a Digital Fringe Fest of shows by TJ Dawe, Rob Gee and other favorites streaming on Vimeo; rent them for $8 each or $30 for all 10, with three months to watch them. The nonprofit Timucua Arts Foundation is rebroadcasting past performances (musical and theatrical) for free most nights. And Blue Bamboo Center for the Arts recently launched its Blue Stream pay-per-view series with a concert by Terri Binion and Beth McKee (see Bao Le-Huu's review on page 25) – you can watch live and archived shows for $20 each, with performers getting two-thirds of the fee.
I'll close out with some final words of encouragement from Vance: "I have a lot of faith in the theatrical community. We will pull through this and come out the other side with beautiful art."