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Theatre Cedar Rapids Underground goes online: 10th annual festival pivots amid ongoing COVID concerns

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Performers and writer-director Duane Larson (top, center) of ‘W.I.S.E., Inc.’ rehearse. The play premieres in Set Two of the TCR Underground Festival, Saturday, May 16. — courtesy of Duane Larson

Theatre Cedar Rapids is underground and online this year as they prepare to present their 10th-annual Underground New Play Festival. This year’s theme, The Mysterious, offers theatergoers an opportunity to see 13 original plays written, directed and performed by people with Iowa connections.

The plays will be presented May 16 and 17 in an online format, which has been facilitating innovation and inclusion. To be honest, in researching and emailing with participants of the upcoming festival, I anticipated that the artists would be disappointed with the shift to a digital platform. I could not have been more wrong. These artists are excited to bring theater to us in this brave new way.

Theaters have been shuttered for live performances for the past two months, due to concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic, prompting these new experiments. But actor Sage Spiker suggests that online performance is here to stay.

“I think there’s a strong possibility that virtual performances will remain part of our landscape after this time period passes, and it’s going to be very interesting to see how that influences stage performing,” Spiker said.

The pandemic has challenged everyone involved in the creative processes in theater. But TCR Executive Director Katie Hallman remains focused on the company’s mission and service to its patrons.

“We can’t make theater the way we have in the past and the way we will again in the future — so what can we do now to enrich lives, bring joy, entertain, engage?” Hallman said. “Those are the questions we are asking ourselves about each offering and opportunity we put forth to the community.”

The TCR Underground New Play Festival offers a chance to see what online performance is all about.

Theatre Cedar Rapids has been closed in its physical space since mid-March, because of the coronavirus pandemic. — Little Village

One innovation that has come about as a result of the online format is that actors who have moved out of the eastern Iowa area have a chance to be “on stage” here again. Melissa Chapman moved to Council Bluffs this past spring, and in settling into her new home amid the pandemic found that this was an opportunity too good to pass up.

“I loved the chance to get to do theater in Cedar Rapids even though I’m now living four hours away,” Chapman said. “The compressed rehearsal schedule was a bonus too. I just felt this would be an interesting and fun challenge.”

Spiker moved to New York City last December and was just getting several professional acting projects underway when the pandemic hit. He found that during lockdown, he was missing performing.

“I love the collective energy of a performance,” Spiker said, “whether it’s generated by an audience or between cast members. I’ve done shows at TCR in the past, but hadn’t done the festival before. I’m really happy that they’ve chosen to do the festival virtually.”

Writer and director Duane Larson (W.I.S.E., Inc), who has been involved with the festival since its inception, mentioned the technical challenges of the online format. “Without sets, lighting, etc.,” he wrote in an email, “we will be relying more on stage directions to establish the setting. But I have a wonderful cast and am very excited to see them bring the show to life!” Larson said that even with the limitations, theatergoers can look forward to an escape from today’s reality: “There are some amazing scripts and highly talented actors involved, so it should be a wonderful theater experience.”

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TCR Artistic Director Angie Toomsen concurs: “Audiences can look forward to being the first to hear a variety of charming, creative short plays that have never been performed or shared with others before.”

She added, “The challenge is, of course, the actors can’t inhabit the same space and connect with one another in person. The performers and the writers won’t feel the same immediate communal experience they would with a live audience. But, this is still creative time spent with other human beings; it’s still a performative reading and performance of new work. It’s happening live, and it’s the medium we have until it is safe to gather again. I think there is a joy in working together with others and a reminder that we love theater.”

Marcia Hughes, who appears in Ali Ajram’s Basilicata (directed by Rachel Potthoff) hopes audiences understand that “everyone involved in the online production wishes they could be surrounded by the energy of an audience but is grateful for your support of this new format.”

And Jacob Kostiv, who joins Hughes in Basilicata, said that audiences can “know that they are supporting both theater in the Corridor and local playwrights.”

The festival is divided into three sets. Audience members can register online for the set or sets of plays they want to see. Set one kicks off on Saturday afternoon, May 16, at 2:30 p.m.; set two is Saturday evening at 7:30 p.m.; and the festival wraps up with set three on Sunday, May 17, at 2:30 p.m. Each set includes four or five short plays and runs about two hours. Early registration is recommended, after which participants will be provided a Zoom link (Chapman laughingly noted that “you can take snacks and drinks into the theater”).

The opportunity to see innovative theater performance of this caliber for free is a true reflection of the mutually supportive relationship that performing arts venues have with our community, and keeping theater alive in the long run is essential to the community.

“We are grateful for the patience and understanding our audiences and volunteers have shown as we work to understand when and how we will safely return,” Toomsen said. “It means the world to us, and we will come back stronger and more focused than ever.”

In addition to this weekend’s 10th-annual Underground New Play Festival, TCR is participating in the second installment of a collaborative fundraising event — Songs to Make You Smile — on May 23, with Old Creamery Theatre (which just announced the cancelation of the remainder of its 2020 season), Riverside Theatre and the Coralville Center for the Performing Arts.


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