Arts / Performing Arts

Texas’ Best Virtual Performing Arts Happenings — From Dallas to Houston, These are the Fall Shows You Need to See

The Theatre Does Go On

BY // 09.12.20

For Texan performing arts lovers perhaps the only figurative light coming from the darken stages across the state has been the chance to play virtual art tourists. For months, companies have reached into their archival vaults and allowed us to view recorded past productions, interviews and special performances. They’ve gifted us a rare chance to see great Lone Star State performances without leaving our hometown.

But as the months under coronavirus burned on, some of those companies began to explore ways to bring new work to avid audience at home.

Still clad in our finest virtual road-tripping pajamas, here’s some of our favorite new finds and upcoming fall performances we can’t miss.

As PaperCity previously reported Texas orchestras have become the performing arts leaders in heading back into the concert halls. Over the summer, Dallas Symphony Orchestra produced four programs in the Meyerson that were recorded and posted on its website, while the Houston Symphony returned to Jones Hall in July for its own series of hour-long live streaming concerts. Now both symphonies are bringing back limited audiences for their new seasons.

But for those subscribers who aren’t quite ready to join the in-person audience, they can view the concerts through on-demand and streaming services.

Operatic Innovations

With multi million dollar productions, rehearsal schedules months in advance and the host of complications that powerful singing brings to COVID-19 safety practices, we would have thought the proverbial fat lady had sung and was done for Texas opera companies for at least a year. Yet the organizations have made some cutting edge changes to bring the music back. Dallas Opera created its own video network from scratch, TDO Network, presenting news, talk shows, encore performances and even late night comedy all with an operatic slant.

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Meanwhile, Houston Grand Opera goes digital with the monthly Live from the Cullen Recital Series, debuting this month with soprano and HGO Studio alumna Tamara Wilson. Thanks to a $1 million gift from longtime Texas opera supporters Sarah and Ernest Butler, HGO will also partner with Austin Opera for the Sarah and Ernest Butler Performance Series that will reach both the digital and drive-in realms

That’s right while opera lovers around the world can access HGO digital content worldwide through a partnership with Marquee TV, Austinites and those Texans willing to do a short road trip can watch Austin Opera filmed productions and concerts at special Blue Starlite Drive-In events in Austin and Round Rock.

Live (ish) Theater

While some theater companies have worked to make their stages as safe as possible for audiences, others have decided to redefine what a stage is. Fort Worth’s Stage West headed to a parking lot. San Antonio’s Classic Theatre will produce an entirely outdoor season with shows at the San Antonio Botanical Garden. Houston’s Catastrophic Theatre plans to invade people’s yards in October and Austin’s Rude Mechs are developing a new app called Cyrano Plays, which will let at home audiences become performers in their own house with their own pod or family.

For new but virtual performances we’ve looked to Houston’s Stages company as they turned one of their Gordy theaters into a concert studio. Their Stages Studio Sessions series of eight live concerts gives a spotlight to a local artists each weekend. Tickets are free, with the concert available for streaming over each weekend. That limited time viewing adds an authenticity to the experience, not quite the you-had-to-be-there feel of the live theater, but close.

Stages will also offer a free virtual production of playwright Rebecca Gilman’s portrait of 19th century writer and editor Mabel Loomis Todd in Woman of the World (running through September 20). The behind the scenes story of creating the one-woman production is a drama onto itself. The show was rehearsed via Zoom with director, Seth Gordon, star Sally Edmundson and artistic crew in separate locations. The production was then filmed in Edmundson’s home in front of a green screen with her daughter Maria Edmundson, another theater veteran, serving as production assistant. Then the crew added scenic elements to the final film.

Theatre Three put together a full, virtual production of The Immigrant by filming actors in front of green screens. (Photo by Jeffrey Schmidt and Christie Vela)

In Dallas, Theatre Three has become something of a regional pioneer at stitching a theater production together by filming actors separately in front of a green screen and then editing them into one production for streaming, as they did in June for The Immigrant. In October, we look forward to their haunted treat, It Came From Theatre Three, a virtual show of tales written by four local playwrights and streamed during usual theater showtimes between October 19 and November 1.

One of my favorite quarantine productions so far has come from Houston’s Strange Bird Immersive. The company created a unique niche for itself in the Houston theater community by pairing the drama and story of immersive theater with escape room antics. Since immersive theater requires an immediacy and often audience participation, I didn’t think Strange could migrate back to live productions so quickly. But with their new original production via Zoom The Strange Secret of Mr. Adrian Rook, they’ve flown home before many traditional theaters.

Strange Bird’s Madame Daphne
Madame Daphne is just one of the Strange Bird residents you’ll meet during the The Strange Secret of Mr. Adrian Rook.(Photo by J. Cameron Cooper)

The simple, but fun, premise asks an eight person party audience to play themselves attending a Zoom open house party at Strange Bird headquarters. Virtually, they’ll meet all the weird tenants and the mysterious landlord, the Raven Queen. The production frames the story with a few taped videos but otherwise the rest of the experience happens live with each party zooming in and out of virtual rooms to talk with the residents. Along the way, the audience helps the Strange citizens solve the mystery of what happened to the Queen’s beloved assistant, the somewhat flighty Mr. Rook.

Besides the live theater feel, the production has the added allure that individuals or groups can purchase a ticket, so not only can you experience real, theater, it’s a great way to safely congregate and theater party with separated friends and family.

Author Home Delivery

With author book tours at a halt across the country, making the in-person public reading and Q&A into a live virtual experience seems like an easy transformation, but Rich Levy, director of Inprint, Houston’s foremost literary arts organization, says it took some real virtual art to bring their Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series into bibliophiles’ homes.

“We connected to a couple of public television producers who brought to us the idea that there’s new software that will enable them create a virtual studio and do we want to work with them in giving that a try,” Levy tells PaperCity.

After refining this virtual studio idea last spring, Inprint is ready for a truly higher quality and intimate author/audience viewing experience with its 40th season, beginning with PEN/Hemingway Award and American Book Award winner Yaa Gyasi September 21 and then Pulitzer Prize winner Marilynne Robinson October 5.

“Everybody’s interested in virtual events, and we wanted to create something that would distinguish us from the typical Zoom or Instagram or Facebook live events,” Levy says. “The whole thing looks like an actual program.”

While the $5 ticket gets an up close viewing with the author, season subscribers also get a special delivery, a copy of each book.

The Arts & Letters Live Series at the Dallas Museum of Art also gets into the book delivery business for its virtual readings the next few months, including Ken Follett and Claudia Rankine. And sometimes like with its Barbara Kingsolver reading (September 23), Arts & Letters Live is even offering a VIP ticket to a virtual happy hour with the National Humanities Medal recipient.

It’s a new performing arts world — and everyone is adapting.

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