By Nick Eustis
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
Few other forms of artistic media were forced to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic more than the theater community. With small spaces lbeing such effective vectors for disease transmission, performance companies large and small have had to take a creative approach to programming to continue on.
Last week, Pittsburgh City Theatre unveiled its upcoming programming for spring/summer 2021. The pandemic’s unpredictable nature has meant City Theatre cannot plan a season as far in advance as it usually would, but Clare Drobot, associate artistic director for City Theatre, said their team was determined to continue their mission even without gathering in-person.
A full City Theatre season for 2021-2022 will be released in late spring or early summer, For more information and tickets, visit citytheatrecompany.org.
“We’re really excited to be able to continue producing work digitally,” said Drobot. “The pandemic has been all about, ‘How do we get creative? How do we stay true to our mission to support artists and also provide art for our audiences.”
This virtual lineup comes on the heels of a very unorthodox 46th season in 2020, after being forced to halt midway through when pandemic restrictions clamped down. After completely rethinking their approach, they hosted the Drive-In Arts Festival at Hazelwood Green in September, which gave Pittsburgh artists across disciplines a platform to safely perform live for an audience in their cars.
With the pandemic continuing, virtual content will dominate the season until groups can congregate safely in a space like a theater again. To that end, the upcoming programming for City Theatre will highlight the digital work of both large, national theater organizations as well as local Pittsburgh creators.
“We’re able to work to share two shows that are from national collaborators,” said Drobot.
Kicking off the season is the world premiere of “The Catastrophist,” a new one-man show by playwright Lauren Gunderson, about the life of virologist Nathan Wolfe. A collaboration between Washington, D.C.-based Round House Theatre and Bay Area based Marin Theatre Company, City Theatre will also be streaming the production. The play follows Wolfe’s life and focuses on his work regarding pandemic prevention.
“I think it’s so wonderful in that it gives you information in ways you weren’t expecting about his work, about what it means to track pandemics,” said Drobot.
“The Catastrophist” is not just a story about the pandemic, however. The story comes from a deeply personal perspective due to Gunderson’s relationship with Wolfe.
“Nathan also happens to be Lauren’s husband, so it’s a very personal story, too. What does that mean to bring a character so close to you to life on stage?” said Drobot.
City Theatre will also be presenting the film adaptation of “Room,” a one-woman show based on the writings of Virginia Woolf. In their 2000/2001 season, City collaborated with SITI Company to bring the world premiere of the stage version of “Room,” and they’ve collaborated again to bring the film production to Pittsburgh. While not specifically about a pandemic, “Room” deals with themes familiar to many of us since COVID-19 began.
“It’s that sense I think we all went through at some point this year, ‘I’m alone with my words. How do I create? Who am I?’” said Drobot.
In addition to maintaining that connection to the national theater world, City Theatre wanted to highlight Pittsburgh creators as well. One response to this was organizing the second iteration of “Homegrown Stories,” a partnership between City Theatre, Point Park University, and City of Asylum. Five local playwrights connected to Point Park were commissioned to write short ten minute plays responding to anything happening now.
New for this year is another commission project, titled “Spotlight.” City Theatre commissioned six local artists and performers to create short digital solo performances. According to Drobot, this idea came from a desire by City Theatre to showcase the creations of people who are performers first, rather than writers first.
“We really wanted to create a medium where we could offer performers the creative reins, and ask, ‘What happens if performers and musicians are the generative artists?’” said Drobot.
Both “Homegrown Stories 2” and “Spotlight” will allow these artists to respond to what is happening in this moment, but instead of a moment of darkness, a moment of anticipation, of anxiety, of hope.
“It will be nice to find out, when there’s a little light at the end of the tunnel, what’s on the artists’ minds,” said Drobot.
A full season for 2021-2022 will be released in late spring or early summer, once clarifying re-opening guidelines are provided by regulators and health authorities. For more information and tickets, visit citytheatrecompany.org.