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It's Zoom Zoom Zoom Time as Stages Re-adjusts Its Schedule

The next time you see Ryan Schabach as Buttons, he may be living in a plexiglass house.
The next time you see Ryan Schabach as Buttons, he may be living in a plexiglass house.
Photo by Bruce Bennett

Pivoting with the best of them, Stages has once again redesigned its 2020-21 theater season, moving three plays to virtual viewing status, replacing some plays with ones with fewer cast members on stage and — perhaps most surprisingly (and ingeniously?)  — working with playwrights to rewrite some scripts to acknowledge the current COVID-19 conditions.

This week, Artistic Director Kenn McLaughlin took time out from strategizing (alternate plans abound depending on the status of the virus in coming months) to explain the latest set of changes, the challenges ahead and also the unexpected discoveries they've made.

As most of Houston's theater world knows, Stages went through five years of heavy duty fundraising before breaking ground and opening their brand new $35.4 million facility, The Gordy. Opening night began with The Fantasticks and everything was looking bright and bigger than life. Seven weeks later as they were prepared to open their next play, Sensitive Guys, coronavirus made its presence known and they and other live stage venues had to shut down in short order.

Also like other theaters, Stages hoped to resume its season by summer and then by fall. But as COVID-19 continues its hold on Houston, one that has even accelerated in recent weeks, hopeful schedules were scrapped again and again. Now as they venture into the future, they're hoping to take their audience along with them, one and all adapting to filmed versions of live plays delivered via Zoom.

the actor's equity unuon has not yet released contracts for actors to come to the theaters.

Bothe Sensitive Guys and A Woman of the World are being filmed in the actors' homes, McLaughlin said. "Sensitive Guys takes place on a college campus and in a meeting room on a college campus. And because college campuses throughout the spring, or course, and perhaps through next year, transferred to a Zoom platform for their classes, it really occurred to us that the play is incredibly modern. So we got on the phone to the playwright and the playwright did some rewrite to make the Zoom logical but essentially Sensitive Guys makes sense on Zoom because that's how college kids are living now."

Originally they came up with all sorts of elaborate sets ideas for the actresses in Sensitive Guys. "We realized about halfway through the rehearsal period that that didn't make any sense that the reality was: embrace the truth of what we had.

So instead they filmed the five women in their homes,  "essentially using their environment as the characters' environment." They did drop off some props, costumes and lighting equipment so the women could set up for their individual scenes, he said.

"Then for A Woman of the World we went all the way in. We built the set — a background, walls, chairs, furniture — that is actually being installed in [actress] Sally Edmundson's office, "McLaughlin said. "They're taking over Sally's space inside her own home."

Pieces of the Moon was repurposed and made into a radio play.  "It's a modification of the script. They went in one by one i- the actors went in — into recording studios in New York or their own home.and recorded it and they brought in an amazing sound engineer who pulled it all together."

"So the projects have come together in different ways based on where the actors are, based on what the actors can access," McLaughlin said.

Sensitive Guys had been about ready to go when it was shut down. "I had seen it and it was spectacular. ?It was a powerhouse of a show," McLaughlin said. "And I was determined this show was coming back no matter what. And it was pretty clear in May that we're not going to come back into the building, that's when I started trying to figure out how to save this work."

They started talking  with the actors again about a virtual concept at the end of May and McLaughlin said they were very, very anxious not only because they had been away from it but because they felt the sensitive content involving sexual assault was better handled when they could all support and hold each other onstage. "They were really anxious about going through the intensity of this play alone in their rooms or through Zoom.

"What we decided to do was instead of setting the goal that we would record the play, the goal was for them to make their best attempt to record the play , but we would record everything, production meetings, conversations, their anxiety, all of it and that would be the outcome. To address what artists are feeling right now in this transfer from live performance to stage. What ended up happening is once they got comfortable, they decided to go for it, to actually record this play."

The result is not only the play but he making of a documentary — a record of all the challenges they faced in transferring it to the Zoom platform. "We’ve actually captured a historical fact, an artifact about this moment. And that was because of the actors themselves really being willing to reveal their own sense of anxiety."

For budgetary reasons as well as health concerns, some shows were dialed back from larger productions. "We don't actually gather more than five people in the room until next spring,' he said. Nashville Jukebox Live was replaced with the hit Billie Holiday musical Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.

At first, McLaughlin said he declared "There's no way we can do a Panto this year," But then he got to thinking. "What would it be like to have a Covid Panto? And the one person you could not miss is  Buttons."  So he got on the phone to his co-writer David Nehls and they were able to work something up and get really creative. 

"Buttons is perhaps going to be in a plexiglas house," he said with a laugh.

McLaughlin is in the habit of counting his positives. They haven't had to furlough a single staff member and because of that they have a whole team working on what comes next from how their spaces might be reconfigured to the scenery to devising safety protocols for the back as well as the front of the house.

"In our best world we get back and we are  allowed to congregate. There are scenarios where we're back and we're socially distancing at a particular level. There's scenarios where we're back and we're socially distancing at a higher level.

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"We have a plan where we can be outside ,where we can be out of doors. So we've really maximized our flexibility," McLaughlin said.  "First and foremost it has to be safe; there’s no point in getting back together if we’re not safe. What that means how we learn about this virus, how we learn to live among this virus — that's where we will come to. "

Stages’ 2020-2021 Season as of July 10, 2020:

PIECES OF THE MOON
Streaming Online
By Nick Flint
A co-production with One Year Lease Theater Company

A NEW STAGE PLAY ADAPTED TO A RADIO PLAY FOR LIVE STREAMING

July 20 – August 2, 2020

America in 1969 – a country divided, or a country unified in hope. Which lens is yours? Prepare to blast off on an exploration of two Americas told through the true stories of the three Apollo 11 astronauts and the magnificent artistry of Gil Scott-Heron. Pieces of the Moon is a theatrical jazz riff blending clashing economic and social priorities, the rise of the Black Arts Movement, and the historic events that created the race to space all culminating in a moment-by-moment theatrical recreation of the iconic landing on the moon.

Pieces of the Moon is co-produced by Stages and New York’s One Year Lease Theater Company. Stages previously collaborated with One Year Lease on the Houston and New York productions of Balls (2017).

SENSITIVE GUYS
Streaming Online
By MJ Kaufman

REGIONAL PREMIERE

August 13 - 23, 2020

At a small liberal arts college, two student-led support groups work to help mitigate sexual assault on campus. But a shocking allegation divides both the Men’s Peer Education group and The Women’s Survivor Support group as they struggle to take effective action against the toxic culture of the school. Five women perform all the roles in this compelling satire about society, gender roles and contemporary college life.

Sensitive Guys was originally scheduled to open in March 2020 but was postponed due to the COVID-19 shutdown. The ZOOM-captured performance will be offered in conjunction with a “making of” documentary that explores the challenges encountered in transferring the production to a virtual medium. Sensitive Guys originally premiered at InterAct Theatre Company in 2018.

A WOMAN OF THE WORLD
Streaming Online
By Rebeca Gilman

REGIONAL PREMIERE

September 10 - 20, 2020

Mabel Loomis Todd was labeled a “woman of the world” for her free-wheeling and passionate
embrace of life. An accomplished journalist and naturalist, she also held close confidence with
one of America’s most famed and reclusive poets, Emily Dickenson, and in fact was the first
editor of Dickenson’s poems. But Loomis’ story is largely lost to history in favor of a more
marketable version of the Dickenson legacy. Rebecca Gilman brings to light Loomis’ lost story
in a riveting look at a mysterious, and perhaps even dangerous, woman. Scandalous revelations or reckless gossip – you get to decide for yourself in this one-woman tour-de-force starring the Stages veteran Sally Edmundson (Ann, Full Gallop, Steele Magnolias).

A Woman of the World will be offered as a ZOOM-captured performance. The play premiered in New York in 2019 and was produced by The Acting Company, in association with Miranda Theater Company.

HONKY TONK LAUNDRY
Rochelle and Max Levit Stage
By Roger Bean

REGIONAL PREMIERE

October 2 – December 27, 2020

The creator of The Marvelous Wonderettes brings us a brand new boot-scootin’ musical! After inheriting the Wishy Washy Washeteria from her grandmother, Lana Mae hires Katie to help run the business, but the two soon join forces to convert their good ol’ laundromat into the town’s hottest honky-tonk. This hilarious musical is packed with a country song list that spans decades of classic and contemporary hits, from “I Fall to Pieces” and “These Boots Are Made for Walkin” to “Take It Back” and “Wide Open Spaces”.

Honky Tonk Laundry is re-opening after having begun performances in March 2020 just before the COVID-19 shutdown. Honky Tonk Laundry premiered at Milwaukee Repertory Theatre in 2005. A revised version premiered in 2017 at the Broadway Theatre in Vista, CA.

HOLIDAYS AT THE HOPE’S
Sterling Stage
By Ben Hope and Katie Barton

WORLD PREMIERE

November 13 - December 27, 2020

A musical celebration with an abundance of good cheer for the entire family! Inspired by their real-life experience as first-time homebuyers, Stages fan favorites Ben Hope and Katie Barton (Ring of Fire, Hank Williams: Lost Highway) are welcoming the holidays in their signature style, performing favorite holiday songs and sharing stories about their families' traditions—all while decorating the tree, baking cookies and spiking the eggnog! Embrace the joy of winter (even in Texas!) and the hopeful spirit of the season with this world premiere musical treat.

BUTTONS’ SLEEPING BEAUTY: A ONE-MAN OUTRAGEOUS UNBELIEVABLE COVID LOCKDOWN PANTO
Lester and Sue Smith Stage
Book and lyrics by Kenn McLaughlin
Music by David Nehls

November 27 - December 27, 2020

Buttons isn't alone, but he's definitely keeping his distance! Ryan Schabach returns as Buttons in a hilarious all-new, one-man version of our hit holiday romp. While sheltering in place due to COVID-19, Buttons tells the story of Nadia, a courageous heroine battling a wicked fairy. Along the way he's joined by a pandemically appropriate cast of quirky characters brought to life through puppetry, gadgetry and unique theatre magic. Come ready to laugh, cheer, sing and boo with Buttons as he dares to keep the Panto tradition alive all by himself!

Stages produced the world premiere of Panto Sleeping Beauty in 2009 which began a tradition of Stages creating Texas takes on the British tradition of Pantomime, or Pantos, specifically for Houston audiences.

LADY DAY AT EMERSON’S BAR AND GRILL
Lester and Sue Smith Stage
By Lanie Robertson

January 29 – March 7, 2021

It's 1959 in a rundown bar in Philadelphia, and legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday is giving one of her final performances. As she wows audiences with her iconic hits, Billie shares stories about her life, painting a riveting and moving portrait of the lady and her music. Don't miss this exhilarating Tony Award-winning tour-de-force featuring more than a dozen of Holiday's beloved songs, including "Strange Fruit", "What a Moonlight Can Do", "Crazy He Calls Me", "Easy Living", "God Bless the Child" and more.

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill premiered at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia in 1986. It was later produced Off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre the same year. The play was revived in an acclaimed production on Broadway starring Audra McDonald in 2014. She won a Tony Award for her portrayal. Stages previously produced the show in 1997.

THE GIANT VOID IN MY SOUL: A PLAY FOR FOOLS
Sterling Stage
By Bernardo Cubría

REGIONAL PREMIERE

February 5 - 21, 2021

Two fools confront the momentous questions of life after they discover an enormous void haunting their every action. A comic, poetic and strange quest leads them back to one question: “Can anything fill this damn void?” Winner of the LA Times Ovation Award for Best New Play, this brilliant new work is from Houston-born artist Bernardo Cubría in his first-ever Stages production.

The Giant Void in my Soul: A Play for Fools premiered in 2018 at Ammunition Theatre Company in Los Angeles, CA.

Sin Muros (Without Walls): A Latinx Theater Festival
February 18-21, 2021

Stages will celebrate Latinx voices and stories reflecting the diversity of local Texas communities during the fourth annual Sin Muros (Without Walls) Theatre Festival. The weekend will be filled with free public events for audiences and local theater-makers, including workshops, play and poetry readings!

Subscribers may reserve priority advance tickets for $25.

LATE NITE CATECHISM LAS VEGAS: SISTER ROLLS THE DICE!
Rochelle and Max Levit Stage
By Maripat Donavan and Marc Silvia

March 10 – May 30, 2021

Sister is back and she’s feelin’ lucky! The convent has decided that Sister, with her extensive gambling experience running the Church Bingo, will organize a Las Vegas night! Sister will tackle topics ranging from magicians and show girls to live animal acts and the dangers of drive-through marriage chapels. Remember: what happens in Vegas may stay in Vegas, but God sees everything.

BLACK SUPER HERO MAGIC MAMA
Sterling Stage
By Inda Craig-Galvàn

REGIONAL PREMIERE

March 19 – April 4, 2021

When Sabrina Jackson’s son is the victim of a police shooting, she retreats inward to a powerful technicolor universe, living as a comic book superhero named Maasai Angel. Compared to the pain of the real world, this battle is one Sabrina can handle. But will Sabrina stay in this dream world or return to reality and mourn her son? Surprising comedy and grace mark this stunning new play by one of America’s most acclaimed new writers.

Black Super Hero Magic Mama premiered in 2019 at Geffen Playhouse and the same year was awarded the Kesserling prize bestowed by the National Arts Club. In 2017 the show won The Rosa Parks Playwriting Award at The Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival and appeared on Kilroy’s List.

COST OF LIVING
Lester and Sue Smith Stage
By Martyna Majok

REGIONAL PREMIERE

April 9 - 25, 2021

Eddie is an unemployed truck driver whose ex-wife Ani becomes quadriplegic following a tragic accident. Jess is an overworked, under-qualified, and nearly homeless young woman who becomes a personal caregiver for a wealthy graduate student with cerebral palsy. Cost of Living examines two pairs of relationships between disabled and able persons, the realities of facing the world with physical disabilities, and the moral impact of systemic inequities.

Cost of Living premiered in 2016 at Williamstown Theatre Festival and won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018.

MACGYVER: THE MUSICAL
Sterling Stage
Book by Kate Chavez, Robin Ward Holloway, Lindsey Hope Pearlman & Lee David Zlotoff
Music by Peter Lurye

WORLD PREMIERE

May 7 – June 13, 2021

Do you have an extraordinary talent for solving impossible conundrums and global catastrophes with a paperclip? Then we want you! The creator of the classic TV drama brings the world’s favorite hero to the stage in MacGyver The Musical - a rock-n-roll musical comedy that pits MacGyver against the Soviet empire in 1989 East Berlin. Best of all, the leading actor who plays MacGyver is selected from the audience each night. Can you MacGyver your way to the stage and save America? Only one way to find out.

MacGyver: The Musical was developed in partnership with Telluride Theatre. In addition to this production, Robin Ward Holloway has served as the music director for The Fantasticks and Panto Star Force at Stages. Peter Luyre has written music and lyrics for productions including The Magic School Bus, Bear in the Big Blue House, Thomas and Friends, among other film and TV credits.

THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE
Lester and Sue Smith Stage
Music and lyrics by William Finn
Book by Rachel Sheinkin
Conceived by Rebecca Feldman

May 21 – June 27, 2021

Six spellers enter and only one speller leaves! At least the losers get a juice box. An eclectic group of adolescents compete for the spelling championship of a lifetime, while candidly disclosing hilarious and touching stories from their home lives. Winner of the Tony and the Drama Desk Awards for Best Book,The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee has charmed audiences across the country with its effortless wit and humor. This is one bee to remember!

The 25th Annual Putnam Country Spelling Bee was workshopped and developed at Barrington Stage and produced Off-Broadway at Second Stage Theatre in 2004 and was subsequently produced on Broadway at the Circle in the Square Theatre in 2015. The show was nominated for six Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Book and Best Original Score.


Season subscriptions are now on sale and range from $126 to $430. Subscriptions are available through the Stages Box Office (713-527-0123, boxoffice@stageshouston.com) or online at stageshouston.com.

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