After 18 months of shutdown, A Noise Within (ANW) returns to live theatre with a one-person show of Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare’s modern-day retelling of Homer’s epic “An Iliad.” Directed by Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, it features two ANW powerhouses Geoff Elliott and Deborah Strang in alternating performances as “the poet” and will be on stage through Oct. 3, 2021.
Speaking with us by phone, co-producing artistic directors Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott explain the theme of their 2021-2022 season, which marks their 30th anniversary, and detail ANW’s protocols to assure theatre-goers that their safety is a top priority.
Asked if there are plays they had originally planned for the previous season that will be included, Rodriguez-Elliott replies, “Yes, we brought back ‘An Iliad’ and ‘Metamorphoses.’ We have just experienced so much change in the world we live in, so our season’s theme ‘We Shattered the Chrysalis’ seemed like a very appropriate one to examine. And ‘Metamorphoses’ is at the center of that because it’s a play about transformation and the healing power of love as a change agent. We felt it would fit into the 30th anniversary season.”
Continues Rodriguez-Elliott, “‘An Iliad’ is a play with one actor and no intermission so it was a means for audiences to get used to theatre again before we get into full productions. We figured we would learn a lot with this first show and any adjustment that we needed to make, we would be implementing in the following show, which has more cast members. More importantly, this play is always relevant; but more so right now, as we see and read about the rage and conflict going on everywhere. And with the Afghanistan withdrawal, it seems like it was written just yesterday. Additionally, it’s a brilliant piece of writing, and Geoff and Deborah are magnificent! It’s just a wonderful way to re-enter the world of live theatre.”
Prior to reopening, ANW developed and refined extensive plans to keep everyone safe which they outlined in a press statement. These procedures include, but are not limited to: staff and crew certifying as COVID compliance officers; initiating a deep clean of its HVAC system for optimal turnover of fresh air; routinely disinfecting high-touch areas; providing PPE; and following LA Department of Health guidelines.
Besides requiring full vaccination for all staff, artists, and volunteers who work onsite, ANW has also put into effect strict guidelines for theatre-goers. Before being admitted into the theatre, all audience members must provide full proof of vaccination. Masks are required regardless of vaccination status and will be available on site until such time that LA County stops requiring masks indoors. At that point, masks will continue to be strongly recommended.
During the months when the theatre was dark, ANW filmed ‘An Iliad’ with Elliott and Strang alternating as “the poet.” Elliott performed it on opening night for a live audience and relates the experience. “It was surreal on a certain level. Like everybody else, other than doing online things here and there, including filming ‘An Iliad’ a while back, we’ve been dormant for a year and when I got out there, I wasn’t prepared for all of the masks. It was a really surreal experience – I had to adjust as I have never done before. It’s beautiful to be back, but also very strange.
“From an actor’s perspective, it’s a totally different feel. We rehearsed it differently. We knew we had to do it in a certain way because we only had limited time with the resources. It was a three-camera shot. There are seven chapters in ‘An Iliad’ and Deborah and I alternated performing in each chapter. We were very happy with the product but this play was meant to have a live audience for the actor to connect with them. Hearing their response propels you as a performer and you learn something new each time you do it – which doesn’t happen when the show is filmed. There’s something about everyone being in the same room, watching and listening to the story, and everybody relating to what’s happening on stage. You can’t have that anywhere else. It’s a kind of communion; there’s something very healing about it.”
“The show is really a conversation with the audience and when you do it on film, you’re missing that piece because the camera becomes your partner in a sense,” adds Rodriguez-Elliott. “It’s also different from the directing perspective. When you’re filming, the director or director of photography is making choices about what the audience is going to see, whereas in a play you’re on stage and you have a much more open canvas. As an audience member, you get to choose what you want to be looking at at any given time. Essentially, the audience members are much more active participants in a live version then in a film version. And it’s been interesting because a lot of folks who saw it on film have returned to see it live and almost everyone said they like the live version so much more.”
Audiences who have come back to watch the play are reacting positively to ANW’s strict protocols as well. Elliott says, “Overwhelmingly so. The feedback we’re getting is that people are thankful we’re requiring those and that we’re diligent about imposing them. If someone takes their mask off during the performance, our house manager and ushers gently remind them to put them back on, which makes everyone around them feel safe.”
ANW is bringing back their popular holiday show this year and Rodriguez-Elliott addresses it. “We’re making an accommodation for ‘A Christmas Carol’ because it’s all about families coming to watch the show together. We’ll move to requiring children 12 and under to show proof of negative test for COVID. I think by then people are used to that because that’s being done in schools.”
Concurs Elliott, “The joy of the show is having families and their kids there. I have to say that I’ve read reports about Pfizer coming out with a lower dose vaccine for kids which they think will be available by Halloween. I hope – and I have my fingers crossed – that a lot of kids will be able to get vaccinated by then.”
While looking forward to things getting better by the end of this year, they recall the challenges of the past 18 months. Rodriguez-Elliott says, “Like other theatre companies, we tried to find opportunities to stay connected with our audiences on Zoom. We also wanted to keep the artists engaged. It was a challenging time for performers because the lockdown happened very unexpectedly, so they were quickly displaced and essentially out of work. As an artist, what fuels you is working on the art. As an organization, we were ultimately lucky despite all the challenges because we have such a strong support system. Our board did an amazing job of helping us navigate the challenges of the moment. Our supporters and donors responded and supported us in extraordinary ways, as did the foundations. Certainly, the government support was critical to surviving 18 to 19 months and not producing theatre nor having opportunities to generate revenue. It’s unheard of.”
“And, again, from a performer’s point of view, these Zoom readings are such a cheap knock-off,” Elliott expresses in frustration. “The artist is just trying to hang on, trying to connect with partners because the reality is actors feed off of each other. But we’re not in the same room so I’m not really looking at them when I’m speaking to them in a scene. We have to just imagine all that and, man, it’s so synthetic; I don’t think I will miss it.”
Rodriguez-Elliott declares, “It was a place holder but definitely not a substitute for real theatre. That said, in terms of the artistic piece of it, I think we got so adept at the Zoom world that it has been useful in things like being able to provide resources for audiences. Now we’re doing these deep dives where we have directors and artists talk about the play and audiences can participate in advance of attending a production. There are things that can enhance the theatre-going experience but not a substitute for it.”
“Plays like ‘An Iliad’ aren’t really suited for film; and performing on film isn’t what we do as a theatre company,” Elliott states firmly. “At the same time I take my hat off to all the performers and directors who were involved with it because it’s not easy to do. And as Julia said there was a learning curve but I think we actually got very good at it.”
“We also held two virtual annual fundraising dinners, believe it or not,” Rodriguez-Elliott says. “The first one came up really fast right after everything shut down and the second one was last April. That we got adept at doing – we partnered with a caterer and had dinner delivered to people’s homes. We tried as much as possible to recreate the feeling in the room when we have events.”
While ANW will now stage all plays with live audiences, they will keep some of their virtual programming. Rodriguez-Elliott discloses. “We’ll have the post-show conversations so even if people don’t watch a show on a night with one, they can still participate. We’ll also keep the ‘deep dives’ which our audiences enjoy.”
As much hardship the pandemic and resulting shutdown presented, there were lessons gained, which Rodriguez-Elliott expounds on. “We were still doing a lot of work. We still had to figure out what to do next and how to get through the next three months, but we were able to do it in comfortable clothes. It gave us a chance to consider a work/life balance and I think that’s a positive take-away. The other piece is that we learned to be flexible. It really called on us to change direction a number of times and I think one of the advantages for us was the size of our organization – we’re rather nimble so we were able to make changes as things were coming at us 24/7.
“It has been very moving to see how important the arts are in people’s lives because that’s what we heard over and over again with our community during this period of shutdown – the importance of theatre and community and coming together. On that note, I would like to say that this is a great time for people to support local theatre in the same way that we’re dining out to support restaurants. I think there’s a level of hesitancy. But once they come and they see the protocols that are being followed, and that we’re taking safety seriously and meeting them where they are, I think people will feel more comfortable attending live performances.”