The Pasadena Playhouse returns this fall with its 2021-2022 season. Danny Feldman, producing artistic director, couldn’t contain his thrill to be coming back to the theatre with a live audience. And it wouldn’t be just your standard seated audience either. But I’ll let him tell you all about it.
Speaking by phone on a recent afternoon, Feldman enthuses, “We’ll open our season in November with ‘Head Over Heels,’ a musical comedy adaptation of ‘The Arcadia’ by Sir Philip Sidney and is set to the music of the iconic 1980s all-female rock band The Go-Go’s. It’s huge and ambitious. I had been working on this for a long time, but I was planning to do it for a future season – there was no way in my mind we could do it this season. However, a few months ago, I went on an artistic retreat with two extraordinary artists – Jenny Koons and Sam Pinkleton – and afterwards we all thought this show is the only way to come back from a pandemic. It just felt so perfect for the moment even if we only had a short timeline to make it happen. This show is joyful, diverse, and wonderfully inclusive. We want to give people one of their best nights out since the pandemic happened.
“The world has changed. It is pretty unrecognizable to me right now and we want people to have that experience. So we’re completely reconfiguring the theatre – there will be no traditional stage and proscenium. The best way I can describe it is the show happens all around you. The story is about a royal family who goes on a journey to save their kingdom and discovers the joy of each other along the way. It is full of comedy, dancing, and great music, and the audience is coming along with them.”
Amidst anxieties about emerging coronavirus variants and mutations, rehearsals on “Head Over Heels” are well underway. Feldman says, “Like everyone, I’m cautiously optimistic, a little nervous, and really very excited to get things going again. At the same time, we’re being flexible because we realize there’s so much uncertainty. It’s truly a piece of art and theatre being created out of the pandemic. And that’s rare because we’re so close to it. I expect years from now there will be plays about what it was like during a pandemic period and what we have is a piece of art created during one, which takes into account the challenges – audience safety concern and all that. But we still feel we can safely pull this off given the guidelines now and the direction COVID’s going. That said, if things change we will adapt and change with it. This is a new world.”
Except for next spring’s premiere of “Ann,” The Playhouse’s 2021-2022 season isn’t what was originally slated for last year. Feldman discloses, “Everything is going to be new because I took a different approach that is reflective of the world that changed. The Pasadena Playhouse takes great pride in the fact that though we’re a hundred-year-old-plus institution, we’re relevant, we’re responding to the moment.
“’After ‘Head Over Heels,’ we’re staging a play that’s a Pasadena Playhouse co-production with the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. and the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston. Again, this is a new model of creating work. The play is a teenage retelling of ‘Richard III’ with a rather racy title ‘Teenage Dick’ and it’s a pretty exciting new work by Mike Lew, an amazing young playwright. It sets Richard III in high school where he’s bullied because he has cerebral palsy and he’s running for senior class president. It gets into power and what one does to achieve power and status when they’re a marginalized person. It’s both funny and gut-punching and is really a fun way to approach a classic like ‘Richard III,’ but in a contemporary setting. It’s a wild ride. I think it’s a surprising evening of theatre people will not forget for a long time.”
Feldman says further, “‘Ann’ follows in the spring with the extraordinary Holland Taylor, the legend – this is her show. It’s a delightful evening celebrating Ann Richards. It gets into politics in a way that is appropriate for today, that is not trying to separate people or create division but bringing people together. Governor Ann Richards was an older divorced woman, single mother, former alcoholic, Democrat in Texas. And Holland just reincarnates her. She’s coming back alive on stage and you feel like you’re having a visit with Ann Richards. It’s a delightful, soul-soothing celebratory evening. After ‘Ann’ there’s a show I haven’t picked yet.
“Then we close with a party as well – ‘freestyle love supreme.’ This was created from the minds of Lin Manuel Miranda and his collaborators Anthony Veneziale and Tommy Kail who directed ‘Hamilton’ and another production we did with Nia Vardalos ‘Tiny Beautiful Things.’ This will be the first time that the Pasadena Playhouse has a show coming directly from Broadway. It’s a Special Tony recipient and it will be on Broadway for the second time in October, and then it’s coming here next summer. It’s got several things all at once – hip-hop, freestyle rappers, a band, an audience, and no script. The show will be made up every night using words and ideas solicited directly from the audience and then, like magic, you see it appear right in front of your eyes. It’s a wonderful way to round out a season that to me is exciting and pulsating and celebratory and creating a new path forward – different kinds of shows, different ways for audiences to engage with the work.”
While The Playhouse won’t be opening until November, Feldman stayed busy during the pandemic. He says, “We launched our digital platform PlayhouseLive where we had a full program which included commissioned work that was in response to George Floyd and the racial reckoning in America. We also did the Jerry Hermann show about the Broadway composer, which garnered attention all over the country. We offered a Broadway class with hundreds of people across the United States taking it.
“We expanded our footprint. We really worked on redefining what a theatre can be during that time – what it looks like when you’re not confined to four walls of a historic theatre. That was exciting and we’re certainly planning to continue some of our digital work.”
PlayhouseLive was as much a success as it was a revelation. Feldman explains, “The word community changed for us. One of our shows was favorably reviewed by the New York Times. I don’t think that’s ever happened at the Pasadena Playhouse! Our community wasn’t just Pasadena, San Gabriel Valley, and Los Angeles. People from all over the world were watching our content – it confirmed that the name Pasadena Playhouse actually means something around the world. Of course we know that because it’s been here forever, but it really was a fantastic sign of our power and peoples’ understanding of who we are and desire to engage with us.”
Asked what he learned during the pandemic, Feldman replies, “I learned to slow down a little bit. I learned that in the absence of performing art, we realized how much we need it, and how much as humans we’re wired to come together and be together. It’s not just we’re wired to tell stories and hear stories, we could do than on Netflix and HBO. It’s the collective experience of sitting in a room with strangers, having the lights go down, playing make-believe, and having shared experience with the actors on stage but also with the audience – laughing together, crying together, applauding together – all of that. It was an opportunity to understand the value of that in our lives and to make sure that when we came back out of that, that we do it wholeheartedly, we do it with intention, and we do it to create good in the world.
“Our role at the Pasadena Playhouse is to make the lives of our community better – to enrich the community. When I try to pick shows, I ask ‘Is this one going to create good in the community – even the challenging ones?’ ‘What conversations is it going to start?’ This season there’s so much celebration – whether it’s Go-Go’s dancing party at the beginning or free style with The Supremes at the end – and how to get people to laugh and engage and come out of their shells together. Or for those who just want to sit back and experience it their way, ‘How do you create a space for them to do that?’ We take stock in these moments. I’m thrilled to be coming back! I can’t wait!”
Feldman ends with a call to action. “We had a year plus of absence of the performing arts. If any of the readers are like me, that was a part of the pain of the year. Now that we have an opportunity to come back, having community here that is full of rich cultural experiences is so important. It’s why I love living here. And the best way our community can come together to make sure that in this very uncertain period we can have a thriving scene and places to go, is to support cultural institutions. Support us here at the Pasadena Playhouse and other local theatres. You can do that by donating if you’re in a position to do it but, even more importantly, become a member, subscribe. Make a commitment that I’m going there a couple times a year. That’s our lifeblood. We need a robust audience to stand up and say, ‘We want this and we’re ready to come on a journey with you’ in order for us to be here for many years to come.”