What did actors do in Elizabethan times when the plague hit and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre was closed? Not like they could stream their work online or invite audiences to a Zoom show. Highly unlikely they were sitting at home baking banana bread.
This is what Co-Founder and Artistic Director of Catastrophic Theatre, Tamarie Cooper was thinking about after everyone went into lockdown, companies began to cancel shows and the future didn’t look bright for traditional live performances.
Catastrophic, like other companies in Houston during COVID, released archived and streamed performances in an attempt to stay connected to audiences, but Cooper wanted to do more. She wanted to do something live.
“As far as we know, during the plague actors took to wagons and roamed the countryside, performing for audiences by the campfire and people would throw a few shillings at them for their work”, says Cooper. This inspiration birthed Catastrophic’s latest brainchild, Drama Squad, an hour-long variety-type show that comes to your house and performs on your front lawn.
“Because we are going to be outside at people’s home with cars going by and dogs barking etc. it didn’t seem the right format to do a three-hour Brecht play,” says Cooper. “Instead it needed to have a performative quality. So, we turned to artists to tap into their creativity and gave them a chance to create something.”
Drama Squad consists of two troupes (including Cooper) who perform in a repertory fashion, making it possible for audiences to see one or both shows, either on the same day or on different dates altogether.
Choose Team A and you’ll be treated to a comedy sketch, a mini-opera comprised of a text conversation during hurricane Laura, acrobatics, songs, and a retelling of a Philippine myth. Just as eclectic, Team B showcases music, a magic act, a dance piece, comedy, and a puppet version of Edgar Allen Poe's The Black Cat.
Regardless of which you choose or where you live, safety is a non-negotiable priority for the production. “Every moment of our rehearsal has been masked and outdoors,” says Cooper who stresses that actors, who also wear masks for the performance, have been told that their part of the show does not need to ‘go on’ if they aren’t feeling well.
Drama Squad audience members (ten maximum) will be asked to wear masks and remain six feet away from performers at all times. Additionally, a stage manager accompanies every performance to make sure everyone, including nosy neighbors, comply with the show's safety protocols.
Cooper admits that this intimate performance isn’t exactly an audience building or profit-generating model for the company, but the combination of the low overhead to produce and the urgency to create shared by all the performers in the show was enough of a reason to try the experiment.
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“The pandemic has made us refocus at Catastrophic," says Cooper. “I think before we were in that, OK now it’s our turn to have a giant capital campaign and a brand-new shiny building like everyone is doing.” Obviously, that concept has been put to the back burner, but it also made the team at Catastrophic remember what was unique about them in the first place.
“No matter where we were performing, the important thing was that we always championed local talent and this has given us a chance to do that again, “says Cooper. “Part of our vision is to create a meaningful exchange between the artist and the audience in an intimate setting. And you can’t get more intimate than being at someone’s home just six feet away.”
As for those people who may not have lawns on which to perform, stay tuned, the company is working to secure a large private outdoor space so that more people, perhaps 30 or so at a time, can see the show.
Drama Squad runs October 3-25 on Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 and 5 pm. Performances will take place at the ticket purchaser’s location of choice, provided the space meets some basic requirements. For more information visit catastrophictheatre.com or call 713-522-2723. Tickets are Pay-What-You-Can, with a suggested ticket price of $50 per person.