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THEATER

Columbia’s Trustus Theatre returns — virtually — with first production during COVID-19

Back to the Stage

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Trustus Theatre's production of "The Thanksgiving Play" can be viewed virtually through Nov. 20.

One by one, theater groups are getting back to doing what they do best: staging live theater.

Now Trustus Theatre steps up to the plate with a "ticketed on-demand" production of Larissa FastHorse's "The Thanksgiving Play," filmed on the Trustus stage in advance and made available for streaming to ticket purchasers.

Trustus, the Midlands' longest-running professional theater, has been striving to keep its audience engaged throughout the pandemic and quarantine, streaming assorted free broadcasts, including tapes of previous performances and new work.

"Like most of the theater world, we went virtual so we could continue creating and reaching our audience," said Abigail McNeely, Trustus’ administrative assistant of production. "What came of it was some really awesome work — (a reading of) 'Something to Vote For' for the women's vote centennial, 'Down in the Holler' as the first reading of our Playwrights Festival winner, and — my personal favorite — the FEST24 Homecoming series, bringing together artists from across the nation to make six unique, brand new pieces of theater using only Zoom, (Open Broadcaster Software), and our imagination."

“The Thanksgiving Play” will be a step up from these previous online efforts, contended Producing Artistic Director Chad Henderson.

"That’s why we feel confident selling tickets to it,” he explained “Four cameras and six microphones are capturing the work of a full team of Trustus creatives."

Henderson credited the behind-the-lens work of "Wade Sellers at Coal Powered Filmworks, and Daniel Machado, who’s been working on documentaries between his music cycles” for pulling all these pieces together, and compares the visual effect to some of the Broadway shows captured on film for PBS's "Great Performances" series or the "Hamilton" film on Disney+.

"The Thanksgiving Play" concerns four white theater artists who are determined to mount a politically correct, culturally sensitive retelling of the upcoming holiday's roots, their own inadequacies and preconceptions notwithstanding. Henderson had already intended to produce this satirical look at good intentions in November to coincide with Native American Heritage Month, and its small cast and simple set allowed the company to pivot into a virtual incarnation.

The cast includes Trustus Company members Patrick Dodds, Kayla Cahill Machado, Brittany Hammock and Clint Poston.

McNeely, the director for this production, said comedy is a valid and viable tool for confronting controversial societal issues.

"I think we have to laugh,” she offered. “We have to. I think it's one of the many ways to break down barriers in a room, to cut the silence, to break the ice. Be funny."

She noted that the playwright, a 2020 recipient of MacArthur Fellowship recipient (the so-called "Genius Grant") and an enrolled member of the Sicangu Lakota Sioux nation, has often encouraged audiences to laugh freely at uncomfortable moments in her works, even if there is accompanying guilt.

"If we cut ourselves off from laughing and calling out just how ridiculous some of our current political climate is, we give ourselves permission to shut out everything, which isn't okay," the director said. "We can't turn a blind eye to it. We have to keep discussing, keep fighting, keep laughing."

McNeely, a member of the theater' s improv troupe, The Mothers, last directed the main stage production of "A Christmas Miracle at the Richland Fashion Mall," and faced new challenges when rehearsals for “The Thanksgiving Play” began.

Finalists for SC’s 701 CCA Prize display works that are varied and engaging

"First two weeks were on Zoom, working on characters and intentions and some blocking, then the next two weeks were in the space, re-blocking and running and doing camera and sound tests," she recalled. "All actors were asked to quarantine and get tested throughout the process, and masks were worn any time they weren't onstage. Yes, it was fun, but it was safe, too. Safety was our top priority. It was a whirlwind process that took the entire month of October."

While the end result may be virtual and confined to a screen, McNeely expressed confidence that "audiences (will) still get the Trustus experience at home."

The story felt perfect for the current climate, and we wanted to challenge ourselves to bring it to life in a space with no audience.”


"The Thanksgiving Play"

Nov. 11-21. $20. trustus.org.

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