The Other Side of the Curtain

Art brings people together. The pandemic has the opposite effect.

After coronavirus reached our country, it brought social distancing in its wake. Restrictions on human contact saved lives, but killed live performances. Concerts yielded to the sounds of silence. Theaters closed. The shows did not go on. Stages emptied and audiences stayed home. People hid from the world — and each other.

That’s the bad news — and you already know it.

Now here’s the good news — let’s talk about The Playwrights Project at Florida Studio Theatre.

It exists to fill the vacuum of live theater. In Florida, that void began with the Ides of March. Social distancing kicked in, and FST’s live productions went dark. After that, they were looking at a silent spring — and summer too. A bleak scenario, but oddly familiar.

At least in the mind of Richard Hopkins, FST’s Producing Artistic Director. He had strange sense of déjà vu. History was repeating itself. This had all happened before. When?

He tried to put his finger on it. Then he knew. Shakespeare’s time.

In the early 1600s, the Black Death ravaged London, and it did so more than once. Shakespeare lived through several epidemics. The Globe Theatre shut down in these seasons of death. Shakespeare stayed home — and did the only thing he could do in a plague year. Write. Hunkered down in periodic isolation, Shakespeare wrote some of the best plays of his career, including King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. And therein lies the lesson …

Isolation is terrible for actors, directors, lighting designers, and scenic artists. It’s lousy for audiences, too. But it’s great for playwrights.

That was the big idea. If Hopkins had been a cartoon character, a light bulb would’ve flashed above his head.

His comrades in FST leadership were thinking along similar lines. Rebecca Hopkins, (FST’s Managing Director), Kate Alexander (FST’s Associate Director At-Large), Jason Cannon (FST’s Associate Artist), and others put their heads together. And decided to steal a page from Shakespeare.

Kate Alexander. Photo by Barbara Banks.

Staging live plays was out of the question. But FST could subsidize playwrights — if they acted quickly. The federal government’s Payroll Protection Program provided funding for salaried employees, but the clock was ticking. That funding had an eight-week deadline. To hire a team of playwrights, FST had to act fast. And it did.

The Playwrights Project got the green light. FST then reached out to scores of modern-day Shakespeares, and finally narrowed it down to a happy few playwrights.

What kind of plays did FST ask for?

The pandemic is obvious subject matter, but FST asked its participating playwrights to avoid this topic like the plague. A glut of viral plays is surely on the horizon. FST wanted something different.

“We’re not looking for plays about the pandemic,” says Hopkins. “That’s hitting the nail on the head — and it’s a wasted opportunity. Again, I go back to Shakespeare’s example. He wrote during the plague years, yes. But he didn’t write about the plague — he explored the human condition in mythic terms.”

According to Kate Alexander, “A heightened sense of life and death was the subtext — but Shakespeare kept it in the background.”

FST Associate Artist Jason Cannon. Photo from FST.

As Jason Cannon puts it, “Shakespeare wrote without judgment. His attitude was, ‘Humans are messy but interesting, and I’m going to show you that messy reality.’ Richard III is evil, but he’s funny as hell. Falstaff is a drunk, but he’s always fun at parties. Iago is a lot more entertaining that Othello. This is humanity — warts and all. That’s what we want to put on stage.”

FST didn’t tell the playwrights what to write. They did offer guidelines – and asked each author to make a pitch. The guidelines in a nutshell …

What would Shakespeare do?

Follow The Bard’s example. Write to the whole human condition. Family, society, history, life and death. All the world is a stage, right? Try to fit that world on stage. Be ambitious. Think big. Pack the stage with twenty characters, if that’s your vision. Or keep it small. Write a two-hander, if that’s your thing. But even if the cast is small, think big.

33 talented writers made the cut — a mix of familiar names and passionate newcomers. That breaks down to 16 playwrights writing for Mainstage productions; five playwrights working in youth theater; four cabaret developers; and seven sketch comedy writers. They’ll all be creating new work.

The Playwrights Project makes it possible.

Along with empowering theatrical art, it also brings people together. There’s nothing on stage to see now. But there’s a lot to see backstage. That show is now in progress, and you’re all invited.

Think of this blog as a backstage pass.

In the weeks ahead, we’ll take you behind the curtain. To the place where the magic on stage begins: The mind of a writer.

Playwrights usually avoid the spotlight. Now we’ll get a rare glimpse of these magicians at work.

Please join us on the other side.