Austin Playhouse was supposed to open their production of Paula Vogel’s Indecent this week. That didn’t happen, of course, because the theater was closed along with most other gathering places in town (they are now hoping to mount Indecent in the fall). Like many local theaters, the playhouse began looking at how they could continue to connect with their patrons during a time when they couldn’t perform onstage. Without much of a back catalog of recorded plays to share online, co-producing artistic director Lara Toner-Haddock began thinking of another upcoming project, Today’s Gratitude.
“[In early March], we announced this workshop of Cyndi Williams – who’s a local playwright – of her new play based on these Facebook posts she’d been making, these “Today’s Gratitude” posts,” Toner-Haddock says. The play was still in a very early stage of development at that point; it was going to be based on Williams’ popular posts, but not much else was determined yet.
“We didn’t know exactly how it was going to look, whether it’d be a one woman show or [have] a lot of different actors involved,” Toner-Haddock says. “And we were going to workshop it in August… and then when this happened, we decided to move it online. And I thought it was kind of ideal – different actors just in their houses are able to records themselves and we’re posting these monologues every weekday.”
And like that, the workshop process of Today’s Gratitude went online and became a little more communal. The feedback that Austin Playhouse gets during this period will help shape what the play actually looks like when it becomes a full-fledged stage show at some point after the lockdown ends. Those daily installments of Today’s Gratitude form a large part of Austin Playhouse’s new online content, which they’ve dubbed “Home Theatre.” The new portal also includes some interviews and behind-the-scenes looks at the theater, along with some storytelling videos (for kids and adults) by company members.
“Everything happened so quickly, too,” says Austin Playhouse marketing manager Marie Fahlgren. “It was like we were announcing the postponement of Indecent one day and the next day we were launching the website, pretty much. So that turnaround was wild.”
While the “Home Theatre” initiative was created as a direct response to the pandemic and the subsequent shelter-in-place order, it’s also intended to be an ongoing series when life gets back to normal. “I think what theaters are doing around the world in kind of amping up their online content is something that’s going to continue,” Toner-Haddock says. “You know, audiences are getting to watch shows in Oslo, in South America, in England that they never would’ve had access to before. And I think as theaters, we’re just kind of having to make that adjustment to being part of this worldwide community really quickly, but I do think a lot of troupes will keep that programming going.”