The Penobscot Theatre Company in Bangor has revamped and reimagined its 2020-21 season, jettisoning its previously announced selection of plays and musicals for something totally different to fit the era of COVID-19.
The all-virtual, multimedia season, dubbed “Digitus Theatrum,” will feature a mixture of fully staged live-streamed performances, filmed plays and TV series, audio dramas, children’s shows and live music, magic, and dance, from both local talent and performers from around the country.
The first offering, “Ghost Postcards from Maine,” a series of spooky, streamed audio dramas written by Maine playwrights and novelists, starts on Oct. 15.
As Bari Newport, the theater company’s artistic director, said in a live-streamed town hall meeting on Monday night, she, new managing director Jen Shepard and the PTC board came to the realization early in the summer that any attempt to push through the previously announced season was simply not going to happen.
“I’m not going to lie, I was pretty blue,” Newport said. “But it was something my father said to me that I really took to heart. The job I’ve been hired to do is to keep the theater alive. And that’s what we have to do.”
Shepard, whom PTC audiences will remember from shows such as “Don’t Dress For Dinner” or “Ripcord,” and as the co-owner of comedy theater ImprovAcadia in Bar Harbor, joined the PTC crew in late June. Together, she and Newport hatched a scheme to re-imagine what a theater season in the year of COVID-19 looks like.
“We have had to completely let go of this one thing, and free ourselves to think of things in another way,” Shepard said. “We have to think our way around the problem. That’s what theater people do.”
A normal Penobscot Theatre Company season takes many months to organize. But this upcoming season, the company’s 47th, is anything but normal, given the fact that large indoor gatherings of more than 50 people are still not allowed. The Bangor Opera House’s doors have been closed since March, and the last two shows of the 46th season, “Becoming Dr. Ruth” and “9 to 5,” were canceled. “Safety Net,” which was due to start just as the pandemic began, was live-streamed.
To that end, all the offerings that were announced on Monday are virtual, whether they are live-streamed or pre-taped. Newport and Shepard put the entire season together in less than two months. Newport said that while it is a scary time to be in the arts in any medium, the fact that all the upcoming performances are virtual means that they can collaborate with artists they’d never had the chance to work with, and produce plays and other performances that wouldn’t typically be financially feasible.
“That’s how we survive: by changing and answering the demands of the moment,” Newport said. “We are thrilled to be creating, exploring new technological mediums and producing dream projects we otherwise couldn’t.”
Nevertheless, Newport said PTC will hold one slot open for a traditional live, in-person show in late April 2021, in case audiences will be able to return to live performances safely. That surprise show, if possible, will be announced over the winter.
The season will have two subscription packages, “Main Courses,” geared toward adult audiences, and “Family Style,” for all ages. Main Courses starts with the “Ghost Postcards” audio dramas, and continues into December with a production of “A Christmas Carol,” based on the version written by local actor and playwright Ken Stack. Atlanta-based theater company The Object Group will create marionette puppets to be puppeteered on a toy theater set as well as captured in stop-motion animation. Stack will narrate, and the performance will be filmed.
From Jan. 21, 2021, through Feb. 7, PTC will then present “Flyin’ Solo,” a series of one-person shows developed by 12 individual PTC actors. From March 11 through April 3, the theater will present “White Rabbit Red Rabbit,” an avant-garde play by Nassim Soleimanpour in which the actor receives the script just as the performance begins. Both shows will be live streamed.
The Family Style package includes “The Glitch Witch,” an original musical about a good witch in New England by Maine theater artist Brittany Parker, (Oct. 11-Nov. 1); “Exceptions to Gravity,” a series of performances by Maine circus arts performer Avner the Eccentric (Nov. 8-29); “Mr. Ben’s Playhouse,” a new, original series starring PTC education director Ben Layman; “The Tiniest Librarian,” about a librarian who makes books come alive (Feb. 7-28); and a series of performances by Maine indie-pop band Bee Parks and the Hornets (April 11-May 12).
PTC will also offer a “Sides” package, including a series of Bangor Opera House ghost tours in October; “Deck the Balls,” a holiday-themed adult-only improv show from ImprovAcadia; and “Matt Marcy Magic,” a comedic magic show over the New Year. All three shows will be live-streamed. A fourth show, “Dog Operas,” will be pre-taped, and will feature local dogs “performing” new versions of classic operas, such as “The Barker of Seville.”
Finally, there will be free entertainment on the PTC Facebook page all season, including “Dishin’ in Drag,” featuring drag queen Priscilla Poppycock; “Overheard on the Headset with Meredith Perry,” in which PTC stage manager Perry tells all; and “Meet the Game Dame!” with Jen Shepard, an interactive game show.
A season subscription for the Main Courses package is $150 for one household, a season subscription for Family Style is $120 for one household, and the Sides package are each priced individually. Each show is also available as a single household ticket. For a full breakdown of ticket prices, visit penobscottheatre.org.