‘Christmas’ in April: For Out Front Theatre, the Show Goes On Online During COVID-19
Even as he applied for unemployment Tuesday morning amid the darkened post-apocalyptic playground set still on stage from the shuttered production of “Warplay,” Out Front Theatre Company artistic director Paul Conroy remained optimistic. Like every other theatre company in Atlanta, the COVID-19 novel coronavirus pandemic has upended Out Front’s theatre season, along with those across the globe.
But for Atlanta’s only LGBTQIA+ theatre company, which will announce its fifth season line-up Wednesday night at 6:30 via Facebook Live, an unexpected shutdown is especially frightening for a still-fledgling nonprofit.
“The scary reality is we might see a few less theatre companies in Atlanta and around the country as a result of this,” says Conroy. “Ours is such a precarious profession anyway. If you put one show up that doesn’t sell, you hope against hope the next one brings them in. In this business, there are always hills and valleys. And if you were in a valley when this hit? It’s just going to make getting back up that hill after this that much harder.”
Thankfully, for Out Front Theatre supporters, Paul Conroy plans for the unexpected.
“Warplay,” a daring and sexy two-person modern retelling of Homer’s epic poem “The “Iliad,” opened at Outfront on March 12. Due to the pandemic, just four performances into its run, the show was abruptly shut down. But even as the “Warplay” set remained darkened on the theater’s West Midtown stage, the show starring Greg Piccirilli and Andy Stanesic went on nightly, even hourly through March 29.
After receiving permission from playwright JC Lee, Conroy had an early performance of “Warplay” filmed. When the city shut down, the digital version became available on the Out Front website to view in exchange for a $20 donation. For house-bound patrons eager to donate to the nonprofit and watch quality local theatre, it became an ideal alternative to binge-watching “Tiger King” on Netflix again.
“My mother has always worked in the medical field and I watch a lot of news so I always want to have a plan,” explains Conroy. “Seeing how things were going, about 10 days before we opened, I sought permission to film the show, just in case. We were really excited to present ‘Warplay.’ It’s a show that explores the vulnerable side of masculinity. We ended up getting a great reaction and I’m happy people did get a chance to see it.”
As many theatre companies attempt to present more online offerings currently, Conroy says obtaining performance rights and negotiating with Actors Equity remains a challenge. But thanks to some advance planning (and perhaps cribbing a strategy from the Hallmark Channel playbook), OutFront Theatre will continue entertaining patrons throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
Beginning this week, Out Front is bringing its wacky and campy “The Ethel Merman Disco Christmas Spectacular!,” the theater’s mega-successful 2018 holiday offering, starring Lynn Grace in the title role to living rooms across Atlanta and around the globe, thanks to a previously filmed performance. Since Conroy wrote the script, he owns the rights to the show, which will serve as an ongoing benefit for Out Front (patrons can donate whatever they can, from $1 to $50 in exchange for a one-time digital download of the show).
“I can’t watch the news right now,” says Conroy. “I just got up one morning and thought, ‘What makes people happy? It’s the holidays when you get to spend time with your family, tell stories and drink.’ Right now, I want to watch something campy and funny plus we could all use a little Christmas right now.”
Like many of us, for the duration of COVID-19 outbreak, Conroy has to be away from older, more vulnerable relatives. “I love Ethel Merman because she’s loud and opinionated and does things her own way,” he says. “I wrote the role with all the strong women I have in my life in mind. My mom, my dad and my sister are all in Massachusetts. The Ethel in this show represents getting that big hug from those people in your life you can’t be with right now.”
And Ethel’s portrayer, Lynn Grace is delighted Christmas is coming early for Out Front fans this year. “I’m thrilled that people who haven’t had a chance to, will be able to see it, along with people from across the United States,” Grace said Tuesday. “It’s a joy to get to share that show and that performance with family and friends who didn’t have an opportunity to travel to Atlanta to see it in 2018. Plus, it’s a great opportunity to raise money for the theatre, pay the bills right now and keep it going.”
As for now, Conroy, the only fulltime Out Front staffer, has furloughed himself and the theatre’s three other part-time staffers until COVID-19 — and social distancing becomes a distant memory.
Conroy says his vision remains firmly fixed on the future. Out Front fans will want to tune into the theatre’s Facebook Live Season Five reveal Wednesday night at 6:30 when the 2020-21 Season is announced, which will include news that Ethel Merman — and Lynn Grace — will be returning to the OutFront stage this coming holiday season in a new Christmas show which Conroy promises will be just as campy as “Disco Christmas Spectacular” and 2019’s Joan Crawford send-up, “Christmas With the Crawfords.”
“With our annual holiday show, we’ve found our formula,” says Conroy, laughing. “Yes, you will see Joan Crawford again, you’ll see Judy Garland again [who popped up as a special guest star in ‘Christmas With the Crawfords’] and for the third year in a row, you’ll see Ethel Merman, too. Right now, it’s really important to give people something to look forward to. Hopefully by the holidays, maybe things won’t be exactly the way they were but they’re going to be a lot closer than we are right now.”
Read the 2018 Eldredge ATL feature on Out Front’s “The Ethel Merman Disco Christmas Spectacular!” here.
Watch “The Ethel Merman Disco Christmas Spectacular!” and donate to Out Front Theatre here.
Join Out Front artistic director Paul Conroy for the exclusive Season Five reveal announcement on the theatre’s Facebook page Wednesday at 6:30 pm here.
Richard L. Eldredge is the founder and editor in chief of Eldredge ATL. As a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta magazine, he has covered Atlanta since 1990.