New Village Arts Theater is postponing its 20th Anniversary Season to 2021 but reinvents itself during this hiatus in production.
By Tatjana Juskov
July 20, 2020
New Village Arts Theater is a small 100 seat theater in Carlsbad which was in the middle of a production of Jen Silverman’s “The Roommate” and one day away from its Annual Fundraising Gala when the lockdown was announced on March 13th.
A lot has happened since this theater went dark over three months ago but they won’t surrender. Quite the contrary, staff and artists are using that time to revisit their culture, reinvent themselves, and find new ways of getting creative while staying true to their mission “to serve its community”.
These are turbulent times for everyone and the picture we draw for the outside world does not always reflect what’s happening inside of us. When asked about the general morale of NVA’s artists and staff during this difficult time AJ Knox, an actor himself and NVA’s Director of Connectivity replied: “From my experience as an artist and arts administrator and throughout all the artists that I have been working with during the quarantine; I think it is a mix of everything. There is some depression, there is anxiety, there is a lot of creativity, there is hope. There are all sorts of emotions being experienced all at once. Which makes it a really powerful, a really difficult, and exciting time to be doing theater. […] For every instance of fear or uncertainty, there are also instances of hope and creativity. Everyone got to think about how we are going to sustain.”
The outcomes of those efforts to sustain the theater are as diverse as the artists that host them. There are online acting classes, a children’s show, cooking lessons, and live concerts, to only name a few. And while NVA has also hosted online cabaret and musical performances, the biggest challenge for theaters still continues to be the question of how to recreate a live theater experience online.
“The most challenging part was and still continues to be, the need to consistently reevaluate – what does theater look like, what does theater sound like? How do you create that same experience? There is a great article that came out a while ago that showed that when people attend live theater their heartbeats actually synchronize and their breathing synchronizes. It’s an amazing phenomenon and you can feel it when you’re in the room and so the question of how do we do that without being there together in the same room. That was and continues to be the biggest challenge.” Knox explains.
While the virtual world does open up new possibilities and allows us to reach broader audiences, there are still limitations. “I don’t think you can recreate that very specific sense. […] Hamilton is online now, and it’s an amazing performance and they captured it very well but it’s not going to be quite the same as being there. So I don’t think you can really solve that.” So there is no way of recreating a visit to the theater until maybe virtual reality productions and gear become an integral part of social life, and even then it is questionable if we will ever be able to do that. But that’s a topic for a different time and is not where the focus lies for NVA.
New Village Arts isn’t only about creating a perfect digital theater experience. New Village Arts is about being part of a community. It’s about “making theater and education accessible for all members of the community.”
NVAs mission is to provide a forum for deeper thinking and a forum for discussion. One way to achieve that is NVA’s newly introduced film club. That is their way of upholding their mission and to create meaningful dialogue. New Village Film Club is a monthly series that is curated and moderated by Milena (Sellers) Phillips and Frankie Alicea-Ford. Each month, NVA chooses “films that are immediately important to social issues” and meets over Zoom for an open discussion.
Other programs that NVA continues to offer in order to live up to their mission is Kids Act (a local youth acting program), Mindful Theater (a program for seniors combating the effects of Alzheimer’s and dementia), and Monday Night Live! (a sketch comedy program with neuro-diverse students).
Speaking of important social issues. The recent discussion about persisting discrimination against people of color and the subsequent demand for more inclusivity also had a big impact on the small theater in Carlsbad.
Knox notes that one of the many important questions being asked after recent social unrest sparked by the murder of George Floyd, is the question of who is leading these discussions, telling these stories; whose voices are being heard, whose voices are being showcased? “And so that idea of making sure that that all voices are included, especially underrepresented voices, it is something that we are working towards every day. We are revisiting our culture. All staff and artists are undergoing anti-racism training we are making plans to increase the representation from BIPOC members of our community on our Board and in our staff.”, he continues.
One outcome of NVA’s effort in playing their part towards a more inclusive society is their Latinx outreach initiative, Teatro Pueblo Nuevo, which is now lead by Frankie Alicea-Ford. TPN began its programming back in September of 2017 with the Hispanic Heritage Month “Celebración” and has continued its event-based programs to reach out to and engage with Latinx families. However, it will now become a core part of NVA’s mission and identity. “We are reaching to extend that program to not just be a series of events but an aspect of new village arts as a whole.” Knox says.
Furthermore, NVA is using this opportunity to ask themselves what they can be doing better and to ask their community what they can be doing better.
NVA’s choice for their next musical reflects those endeavors. “Home” is a new musical about a Black matriarch hosting her family for a festive Christmas Eve party and, in the chaos, rediscovering the strength within herself. Written by Dea Hurston, created and devised by Frankie Alicea-Ford, Kevin “Blax” Burroughs, Dea Hurston, and Milena (Sellers) Phillips.
Right now, “Home” is still in the “writing and creating process” and takes place solely on zoom until it is safe to congregate again.
“There are a lot of great ideas and creativity, you just miss that immediate human element. So far it’s very similar.” Knox said, explaining what a theater production looks like during a pandemic.
But what will theater look like when we arrive at the other end of this crisis? To put it simply: Nobody knows. “Everybody is just taking it day by day, trying to learn and it is very uncertain”, Knox says. “Our hope is that we take the lessons that we learned from this pandemic, both around physical health but also around our social health, around representation, all these issues that came up in the last several months. […] That we take all of that, we learn from it, and we implement all those changes. […] That we come out stronger and better and more well informed at the end.”