By Lou Fancher
Scary, challenging, cosy, open, hard, easier, pressured, drifting, deep systemic problems, wake us up, virtual, live, momentum, aesthetic, obvious, racial shift, astonishing, polished, raw…the words and phrases of Shotgun Players Artistic Director Patrick Dooley pour out in an interview. Describing life in the theater—if not the world—during the pandemic, the upstart theater company since its inception by Dooley in 1992 has gravitated toward one key word: sanctuary.
Achieving its 30th anniversary in the former church on Ashby in Berkeley, Shotgun’s 2021 Zoom commission, Every Time I Feel the Spirit, receives its world premiere April 2. The virtual presentation written by Noelle Viñas is directed by Elizabeth Carter with dramaturgy by Laura Brueckner. Utilizing high-end cameras and groundbreaking lighting to create an immersive livestream experience, the production is a partnership with Leanna Keyes of Transcend Streaming and is supported by a grant from The Tournesol Project.
Every Time tells the story of a young, queer pastor balancing the needs of her new congregation as she and they shift from live gatherings to online worship due to COVID-19. The cast in the 80-minute, no intermission production, Vero Maynez, Fred Pitts, Lauren Garcia, Jean Forsman, Akaina Ghosh, J. Riley Jr., and Linda Girón, take on characters whose separation is more than physical. Unable to cook, worship, sing and pray together, they struggle to maintain a sense of community, to hold onto hopes and kindness more easily grasped by people gathering in person to worship a power greater than themselves—or any illness, disease or societal condition.
“The content has obvious overlap for the theater situation,” says Dooley. After speaking about the resiliency of actors and other creatives in the theater world and admitting the devastating impact of pandemic lockdowns on everyone, he says audiences are also “hungry to see each other, to be in community.” Recently, he invited close friends for the first time in a year to come to his home for pizza. “I almost cried, just to see their faces. There are profound elements to connecting. That’s our calling and during Covid it has been taken from us. In our theater people can gather and hear a story that reminds us of our community. It sounds hokey, but it’s a unique way to have and experience art. It’s a transcendent experience for us.”
It’s true, people have been gathering for centuries to tell stories, play drums and other instruments, chant, sing, dance and meditate as they tap into a shared experience. Dooley says the metaphoric realm of theater allows people to process tragedy, celebrate joy, recognize power or call out injustice and more.” When live performances resume, he believes people will return. “The front page might be hard to process, so that’s why they’ll come back to us. People will circle and return to gain back what is their communal family.”
Of course, the “people” never truly left Shotgun while sheltering in place at home. “What we learned during the pandemic is that we have a deep and loyal following. There are people who care about the longevity of the organization. I was stunned by the donations from fellow artists and small dollar donations from people who had never given to us before. I wasn’t surprised, but it sure felt good to be confirmed. That has carried out throughout the whole year.”
The support has allowed the company to repaint the lobby—no worries, it’s still the signature Shotgun red and black. The lobby area has been expanded by removing walls that cubbyholed small closets and office spaces. The ease of entering the lobby in a wheelchair is noticeably improved. Ten listening devices where before there were none will improve the experience for people with hearing disabilities, along with an upgraded sound system that will benefit all audience members.
“Inside the theater, we have a new HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) system,” he says. “It’s energy efficient with great filters. We got it because we were anticipating more forest fires after last year and it timed out well for post pandemic needs.” Regular theater-goers at Shotgun know the heating and cooling were inconsistent and varied from extremes of near-freezing to suffocatingly warm. “We’ll have better temperature control too,” Dooley’s quick to add.
Initially invisible, but certain to be reflected from now and into the future are the deepest changes made after a reckoning at Shotgun. “This is a reckoning that came across all of American theater,” says Dooley. “We had to confront that administration, the leadership, is mostly white people. Folks who lost their jobs during the pandemic, the BIPOC people in theater, are typically actors, not artistic directors. They were the folks working in the lobby and the actors. When the We See You, White American Theater document came out, all us had to look at ourselves. (The letter written in 2020 by a collective of BIPOC theatermakers outlined the indignities and racism that BIPOC, and specifically Black theatremakers, encounter on a daily basis. It called for equity and safe spaces for BIPOC communities in the United States and inside American Theater.) “We’ve done a terrible job of giving opportunity for BIPOC people to be in leadership in our theaters,” says Dooley. “There’s not a pipeline and there are deep systemic problems.”
Dooley believes the Bay Area theater community did a solid job convening local theaters to work toward and along with audiences who will hold each other accountable for changing boards, undoing patterns and biases through training, and replacing people on staff to create more opportunities for people of color, women, and other marginalized contributors. “The time for incremental change is done,” he declares.
Recognizing the topics—diversity, access, systemic racism, equitable opportunities—connect to accountability and addressing whether or not real change will happen, hold, and become the normal way of operating, he says is “a huge conversation I would love to have with you again in the future.”
In the meantime, Dooley holds mixed perspectives on Shotgun’s virtual and livestream hybrid that will eventually transition into live MainStage productions when the county says it is safe. Shotgun will continue offering some works on an online platform indefinitely because it serves as an additional tool for reaching people who for geographic, health, safety, or other reasons find that attending live theater is an insurmountable obstacle. Even so, he says, “There’s nothing the same as direct eye contact, hearing someone’s breath, feeling energy in the room that’s palpable, or the accident of running into someone and sharing a drink. The experience of being in the same space is instantaneously magical. We’re social; we’re not meant to be alone. We’re meant to engage and connect, including with the actors onstage. They can sense if an audience is falling away or drifting and there’s an accumulative momentum when a story is propelling along and everyone connects to that trajectory.”
Life especially during Covid can dull us to experiences. Headlines news and things that distract us are like an anesthetic that makes us forget our humanity. “Theater and art are meant to wake us up to each other,” says Dooley. “It’s electric, it’s beautiful, holy and sacred.” Theater is, in a word, sanctuary.