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2020 was a most unusual year on the local theater scene

Looking Back

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Eurydice Longstreet Theatre (copy)

"Eurydice" ran in February at the University of South Carolina's Longstreet Theatre.

What a 2020 it could have been: “Amadeus” at the University of South Carolina, the local premieres of big Broadway musicals such as “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” and “The Wedding Singer” at Town and Workshop theaters respectively, an original commedia dell’arte production created by Columbia Children’s Theatre, and the 2018 Pulitzer Prize winner for Drama, “Fairview,” staged at Trustus Theatre.

COVID-19 had other plans, however, leaving local theater enthusiasts to speculate and reminisce like fishermen about the one that got away. And while live performances abruptly shut down for more than half of the year, no Midlands performing arts organization has had to close its doors for good. Yet.

Following techniques used in the classroom, Columbia theaters quickly adapted, using virtual technology and platforms such as Zoom and YouTube to continue classes and ultimately to stream performances.

Columbia Children’s Theatre proved to be an early adopter, maintaining a steady cyber presence during the height of the spring quarantine with nightly readings from popular children’s books. Live improv comedy sessions followed, along with a Zoom-style performance of CCT Artistic Director Jerry Stevenson’s original work from 2016, “The Commedia Hansel and Gretel,” and a virtual teen production of Homer’s “Odyssey,” adapted by USC professor Cathy Brookshire. A full slate of classes and productions continued on into the fall and winter, all done remotely. At Christmas, the theater made available for streaming a filmed performance of “Santa Claus: the Musical” from 2019.

Town Theatre, which earned its designation as the nation’s oldest community theater in continuous operation by weathering both the Depression and World War II, had presented one weekend of the high-flying “Mary Poppins” musical when Columbia suddenly went into hibernation in March. Undaunted, cast members staged a socially distanced parade of cars through Forest Acres and Shandon, generating visibility and good will. After a summer of safety modifications to the nearly 100-year-old building, including an enhanced air purification system, Town revived “Poppins” for an October run, becoming the first major theater company to go live, albeit with significantly reduced audience capacity. Donation of the use of an outdoor space in West Columbia also allowed a performance by the theater’s Teen Troupe to take place.

The University of South Carolina’s theater program benefited from the department’s significant audio-visual resources, as well as savvy play selection. Caryl Churchill’s “Love and Information” is written as brief monologues and dialogues with only one or two actors appearing at a time, focusing on content rather than stage directions or settings, and thus in October became an ideal vehicle for collaboration by student performers in multiple cities, states and countries. Playwright Qui Nguyen had already adapted her work “She Kills Monsters: Virtual Realms” for remote performance during the pandemic, and director Lindsay Rae Taylor solidified her growing reputation for inventive staging by filming her undergraduate actors in front of green screens, allowing for an amusing visual realization of the play’s fantasy gaming storyline.

Lexington’s Village Square Theatre and On Stage Productions, the Fine Arts Center of Kershaw County, and the South Carolina Shakespeare Company’s Upstart Crows youth troupe, all offered a slate of virtual classes and shows for youngsters, with Kershaw presenting an adult virtual production of “The Importance of Being Earnest” in the late fall, while On Stage mounted several live musical revues and youth productions to smaller and safely socially distanced audiences.

Walking on Water Productions, aka WOW, joined in the video fun with a series of virtual “monologue slams,” while performing artist Darion McCloud and several of his NiA Company colleagues collaborated on film projects with the Columbia Museum of Art and the Richland Library. Workshop Theatre managed to get two season productions and a cabaret fundraiser in under the wire before the quarantine closed down the arts scene, and many of those cabaret performers returned for a virtual incarnation in the spring.

Trustus Theatre, the city’s oldest professional acting company, tried a little bit of everything, including streaming presentations of previous seasons’ shows, and Zoom-style readings of the winner of its annual Playwrights’ Festival as well as a virtual incarnation of Fest 24, in which actors, directors and playwrights had 24 hours to create an original, short one-act play. In what may be a harbinger of things to come, the theater filmed a new production, “The Thanksgiving Play,” just in time for the holidays, streaming the show on a pay-per-view basis.

With truncated seasons across the board, is it possible to point to any highlights? For this writer, the answer is yes.

USC’s “Eurydice,” directed by Taylor above, proved to be a mind-bending, kaleidoscopic journey through the implications of mortality, while her realization of “She Kills Monsters” tackled similar themes in a hip, snarky, teenage milieu. Workshop’s “The Boys in the Band” benefited from a heart-wrenching performance by Charlie Goodrich, demonstrating the timelessness of the play’s still discomforting message of alienation and acceptance within the gay community. And while it may have been the play that shocked and/or titillated our grandparents, “A Streetcar Named Desire” as staged by Trustus in February laid bare raw themes of sexuality, abuse, ambition, mental illness and shattered dreams, and solidified its reputation as one of the great American dramas.

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