Staging plays in your backyard and other ways Houston theaters hope to survive

A masked mother and daughter walking down Welch Street happen upon the commotion just about the time a pint-size Edgar Allen Poe removes his cat’s eye with a penknife. The puppet Poe is an eerily gorgeous creation: his face a blueish hue with asymmetrical red-rimmed eyes and cavernous creases that create a haunted topography for his face. His long fingers are tools of menace.

“Edgar” is the creation of Afsaneh Aayani, who stands behind him while he moves along a small tabletop stage during a recitation of “The Black Cat,” a tale of ghosts and guilt. The show is a creation of the Drama Squad, a new pandemic-prompted approach to theater presented by the Catastrophic Theatre.

“When everything shut down, I thought, ‘What did they do in Elizabethan times when there was a plague and the theater was dark?’” says Tamarie Cooper, co-artistic director at the Catastrophic. With dramatic flair, she answers her own question: “The took to the wagons! I wanted to call these Wagon Shows.”

Jason Nodler, who shares artistic director duties with Cooper, asked if she had a wagon.

“And I told him ‘No,’” she says.

So they went with more of a comic-book presentation: Two teams of actors, magicians, singers, musicians and, yes, puppeteers — all masked — dispersed around the city to present theater for people in need of entertainment. The plan for Drama Squad is for each team to put on two shows per day, per weekend through October. Hire a Drama Squad and meet their health and safety requirements and one of the teams will show up in your yard to perform as they did last week in a rehearsal for some friends.

“I’m not good at doing nothing,” Cooper says. “So we’re doing this. The pandemic has forced us to refocus some on who we are and what we do.”

Rethinking theater
While the coronavirus has been an engine for TV consumption, its effect on live entertainment has been devastating. Theaters across the city remain dark, unlike music venues, which have slowly begun to reopen, some using food options to squeak around state regulations that continue to keep bars closed.

Some have continued using their stage, even if the chairs around the stage are empty. Livestreamed performances are a common option. This weekend, Main Street Theater will open Jack Holmes’ “RFK: A Portrait of the Life of Robert F. Kennedy,” a one-man play directed by Rebecca Greene Udden. The show will exclusively be livestreamed. And the Alley Theatre is a participating partner with the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in a production that adapts Sinclair Lewis’ novel “It Can’t Happen Here” into a radio play featuring actor David Strathairn. It can be heard on YouTube at 7 p.m. Oct. 13.

Some theaters have made a practice of thinking outside the box. They naturally sought novel ways to ride out an unusual year.

The Sound Scripts Project was a natural outgrowth of a preexisting writer’s group at the theater company. Started by artistic director Matt Hune and associate artistic director Sophia Watt, the goal of the writer’s group at the outset of 2020 was to try to draw the city’s theater companies’ attention to local writing talent.

“As the shutdown got longer and longer, we had the idea to produce these things as audio plays,” Hune says. “It turned into a bigger project, but one that was better for the playwright. Now they have these produced pieces that they can put into a digital portfolio — they can get their work heard, if not seen.”

The series begins with “Sunrise Coven,” Brendan Bourque-Sheil’s piece about witchcraft in small-town Texas that mixes a comic sensibility with a crime story.

Each play will be available on-demand for a four-day period.

Hune sees the disruption of the pandemic as a way to shake out of old routines.

“Who knows what will happen with theater, my hope is it becomes more and more local,” he says. “In some ways it feels like the ’40s and ’50s when the arrival of the regional theater model was completely new and redefined what theater was and how we consume it. I think this year is a time that allows us to look back and see what has been working and what hasn’t. We should always be asking ‘Why are we doing this?’ We don’t want to be doing theater for theater’s sake. It has this opportunity to be something more. To be necessary.”

Past, present, future
After nearly seven months, the pandemic’s effect can feel like singular trauma producing a large-scale shutdown. But the disruption has been more like a crack in a windshield, with spiderweblike offshoots in all directions.

Certainly at the outset, arts organizations had to scuttle the remainder of their 2019-2020 seasons. But cancellations — and with them lost revenue — were just the first headache. As the shutdown continued, 2020-2021 seasons became compromised and more difficult to create, as theater companies struggled to identify a point in the future at which business could resume as usual.

No single solution has emerged, simply because no date exists for a return to normalcy. But by looking way back — the Catastrophic to wagons in the age of Shakespeare and Rec Room to the New Deal’s Federal Theatre Project and Orson Welles — both groups have found creative energy.

And both groups suggest that projects developed in quarantine could become regular fixtures, as they consider how they’ll operate in a post-pandemic future.

“For Rec Room, it’s about looking at where we are culturally and considering how to communicate what we want,” Hune says. “And to think about where we go from here. So in the spirit of that, I like this idea of trying new frontiers.”

For Rec Room, that new frontier is accessible with a few keystrokes. In the case of the Drama Squad, the frontier travels to you. The vibe is humorous and celebratory. As Cooper says, heavy one-actor theater, like “Krapp’s Last Tape,” is easy to take from location to location. “But that’s not the mood we’re going for.”

The Team B show last week offered some comedic music and rope magic. And while Poe’s story told by “Edgar” centered on an unreliable narrator who committed atrocities, the Catastrophic team found a sweet and funny heartbeat within the story.

During her performance, Cooper sang in French accompanied by poster board translations.

“Life,” read one, “is happy and sad.”