Might sound strange, but the COVID-19 pandemic has worked to revitalize one Surrey-area theatre company.
The reader’s theatre shows done by Naked Stage Productions Society have, like pretty much everything else in life, shifted to an online platform, including all shows since springtime and a Christmas reading planned this month.
It’s not an ideal situation, but the pandemic has also given caretakers of the company time to plan and ponder branching out beyond the live performances they’ve done at Newton Cultural Centre over the past few years.
Colleen McGoff Dean, president and artistic director of Naked Stage, explains the situation.
“One thing we were just starting to work on when COVID hit is doing more, because our shows are so portable, with only actors, script, stools and stands,” McGoff Dean said. “Yes, we want to still perform at the cultural centre, our home base, and we were looking to go into seniors residences and other community places. Our big vision is to try to reach out to some of the wineries, to do summer programs there. That’s something we’re aiming to do when we can get back to performing with an in-person audience.”
McGoff Dean recently organized a Zoom conference with the Now-Leader and others involved in Naked Stage, including Kelly Thompson, Paddy Tennant and Jim Trimble.
Zoom is how the company’s live shows were presented during the early days of the pandemic, but the company has since shifted to YouTube and pre-recorded performances.
“Like everyone else, we’re kind of adapting and making things up as we go here, to stay alive as a theatre company,” said Thompson, an actor, resident producer and vice-president of the arts organization.
“Things have moved around, dates have changed, and we’ll just keep moving along online until we have permission to go live again,” added McGoff Dean, who is currently teaching online classes for students of Bellingham’s Whatcom Community College.
“Part of that is building our audience base, which we’re actually hoping to do with our online shows right now, because those can be easier for somebody to watch from home than coming to the theatre, so that’s possibly a new audience for us.
“We’re still a small, fledgling company,” she said, “and we don’t want to disappear from the landscape of performing companies here.”
For those who don’t know, Naked Stage shows are performed with only scripts and chairs for the actors – no costumes or sets, only a lit “naked” stage. The company launched in Surrey four years ago, in the summer of 2016.
Their first online show, The Velveteen Rabbit, was done last June in a free offering for audiences, followed by Freud’s Last Session and Murder by Default, both of which required tickets to view.
Now, seven actors and others are focused on producing Maybe This Christmas Means a Little Bit More for an online audience from Dec. 21 to 24, again for free.
Said McGoff Dean: “With Kelly and (stage manager) Bridget Browning, the three of us are putting together what we’re calling a Christmas collage, a script that was compiled about COVID-19, some of the funny things people have said about that, and a couple of classic Christmas stories, such as The Gift of the Magi. We’re using the radio script for that, and a couple of other stories, some music, and we have somebody helping us with the filming that will put it all together in a much more fluid, professional way. Zoom, great as it is, has its limitations from a creative standpoint.”
Thompson and McGoff Dean will both read in Maybe This Christmas Means a Little Bit More, along with George Stone, Joyce Gillespie, Kailea deLeon, Gordon Law and Tony Loyer.
“This is an experiment we’re really hoping will work, and we’re going to offer it free of charge for people to see, because it is mostly an original work, so the licensing fees aren’t as much of an issue,” Thompson added. “So we’ll put it up on YouTube for a four-day period from Dec. 21 to 24. It’s kind of our Christmas gift to our subscribers, the people who like us.”
For the online showings of Freud’s Last Session and Murder by Default, several dozen people bought tickets to watch, according to McGoff Dean. “I thought that was great and something that could open a door for us,” she said.
Thompson noted that Naked Stage was “fairly nimble” in terms of getting shows out there when theatres were dark over the past several months.
“In March, when things had to shutdown, it was Jim (Trimble) who said we couldn’t just disappear and fade into the woodwork, we needed to be involved and doing something, so that’s when we came up with the idea of offering a performance free of charge, The Velveteen Rabbit, and it’s there on our website in perpetuity, in case anyone wants to watch it.”
The Naked Stage people also took note of in-person and online shows done by Langley’s for-profit Theatre in The Country.
“We were actually going to partner with them for a live show on Nov. 21,” Thompson said, “but then when Dr. Henry said let’s get more restrictive, some of our cast members decided they weren’t particularly comfortable, so even though Theatre in the Country does what they do very safely, and I’ve been to a couple of performances there and felt safe, we decided to postpone that until January, when we’ll do it live, hopefully – that’s Murder by Default, the same show we did on Zoom.”
On Nov. 30, Naked Stage’s Thompson and Stone also did a reading of The Bickersons comedy for Seniors’ Centre Without Walls, a new-to-B.C. program based in Surrey. It’s a free, telephone-based exchange that allows seniors to connect with others from the comfort of their own home, for a variety of audio events including radio plays, fitness sessions, group chats, music trivia, gardening, cooking and more.
Launched in mid-April, the program sounds like something designed for these pandemic, physically-distanced times, but it was actually in the planning stages last fall, months before COVID-19 hit this province in a significant way.
For more details about Seniors’ Centre Without Walls, call 604-531-9400, extension 205, or visit comeshare.ca.