The setting? Empty venues all around Atlanta. The players? Literally everyone. And you know the 2020 themes all too well.
That’s the scene at Out Front Theatre Company, Atlanta’s exclusively LGBTQ troupe in West Midtown. Luckily, a plot twist of high gumption and big schemes will make queer theater arts happen this year despite COVID-19.
Financial hardship has permeated every aspect of the venue’s work, but the bigger loss is the human connection of the live experience, said Founder Paul Conroy.
“The biggest impact on the theater overall is our patrons not being able to interact with us as they normally would,” Conroy told Project Q. “The magic of live theater is to be there in person with a group of people watching a show that is alive in front of you.”
The last live audience at Out Front was in March. The three big shows of the year were canceled, erasing opportunities for working artists on and off the stage. The company won’t invite audiences back until 2021.
On the business side, three part-time staff members were furloughed. A small amount of federal assistance didn’t go far, and an SBA loan came through as a huge relief, but it creates debt.
Through the year, the troupe hosted some free online events to keep the theater name at top-of-mind for audiences. Last week’s Rainbow Ball fundraiser went virtual and raised about half of what it normally would.
“Unfortunately, free programming doesn’t help in paying salaries or overhead costs in keeping our space,” Conroy lamented. “If it wasn’t for a very small number of donors giving impactful donations over the past six months, I don’t think we would be able to stay afloat, and the Atlanta queer community would lose another space to gather.”
Technically, the theater could open with reduced capacity under state guidelines. As nice as that sounds at first blush, Conroy and crew rejected the idea in favor of a commitment to total safety.
“We don’t think [reopening] is the responsible thing to do for our audiences or our artists,” he said. “We don’t want to risk even a single person being at risk, so we are keeping our doors closed by our own choice.”
Times are tough, but a few things did start looking up for the venue in September. Furloughed staff members returned to the payroll. A generous deal with the landlord eased rent concerns, and overhead on productions remains nil with the venue closed.
“It’s not all doom and gloom,” Conroy said. “Still, it is a scary time to be a non-profit when so much of the focus is on small for-profit companies.”
Divas, Colors, Patterns & Santa
Ideas continued percolating through lockdown, and a plan came together for a digital fall season. A virtual show each month through the end of the year provides opportunities to be entertained and to support Out Front.
Oct. 23-25 sees “DIVA: Live from Hell.” The play tells the story of a very dramatic drama club president who responds with lethal force when a hotshot threatens his perch. Now he’s stuck in the Seventh Circle, Hell’s most squalid cabaret venue.
Out Front brings “Bright Colors & Bold Patterns” to home screens on Nov. 20-22. A loud friend upturns plans for a sophisticated gay wedding. In the aftermath, the play asks, “In the struggle for equality, what do we really want? What do we lose? And is there any cocaine left?”
Fall wraps with “The Santa Closet” on Dec. 11-13. The North Pole denies a little boy’s gender-atypical gift request, and a series of subsequent letters nudge Santa to come out. A funny, sensitive tale emerges amid a culture-war scandal known as “Santa-gate.”
All three shows stream for 72 hours from opening night on Friday through the weekend. Each is $15 for unlimited viewings during that time. The performances are each one-person plays produced on the Out Front stage with the actor performing multiple roles. The format provides safety to the team, and it offers an opportunity to try different types of material.
“I’m very excited about the digital programming we have coming up, because they are shows that we might not have produced otherwise,” Conroy said.
“Shows like these are true tour de forces in theater, a marathon of memorization and timing,” he added. “It is a dream come true for an actor and director, and I think audiences will really enjoy seeing these stories in this format.”
Call to action
The potential audience reach for each performance goes way up as well.
“There are literally no limits to where people can watch from,” Conroy said. “Far beyond the borders of Atlanta or Georgia, people can check out our programming. Traditionally someone would need to come to the theater, but now someone in Atlanta could organize a watch party with friends around the country or the world.”
Grateful audiences can turn into supporters of the city’s only specifically LGBTQ professional theater, Conroy hoped. Word of mouth, social media shares and tax deductible donations would go a long way any time, but the difference one person can make is even bigger this year.
“It’s like a spider web,” he said. “The more people taking small steps to let others know about us makes the web bigger and stronger.”
With dozens of productions, group events and benefits for several of Atlanta’s LGBTQ nonprofits under the venue’s belt, Conroy positions Out Front among the important safe spaces and groups in the city.
“This is a call to action for every queer person in Atlanta to make sure these spaces stay that way for all of us,” he said. “Our doors are closed right now, but I hope we can reopen them again for those groups and for every queer person who needs a little art or happiness in their life. It’s going to be vital on the other side of COVID.”
Photo by Michael Boatwright Photograph courtesy Out Front Theatre