Since the pandemic made gatherings unsafe and live performance went on hold indefinitely, I’ve felt off-balance and unmoored. I’ve missed theatre something fierce, but more disturbingly I’ve felt numb and disconnected. I have avoided most of the digital content that has exploded onto the scene—those quick and dirty re-imaginings intended to fill that aching gap in our theatre-loving hearts. I understand the artistic need to maintain momentum, to draw audiences and eke out a living, but so little of it has captured my imagination.
As we advance into Stage 3 and its controlled gatherings, opportunities for in-person performance open up and my heart swells. The Guild Festival Theatre is one company making strides to safely reach live audiences. I had the pleasure of tagging along with artistic directors Helen Juvonen and Tyler J. Seguin, and a few members of their rotating team of actors and crew, for a night of Porch Plays.
Borrowing elements from Alice in Wonderland and Salt-Water Moon (two productions that were put on hold when the pandemic hit), these family-friendly performances run about 20 minutes and feature some charming, ear-wormy songs arranged by Alex Eddington and a few familiar Wonderland characters designed by Nancy Anne Perrin.
A sleepy Door Mouse puppet pops out from a giant tea cup. A chomping Jabberwock darts about on the end of a long stick, gobbling up the fears that audience members were instructed to write down on scraps of paper. My favourite was a deceptively simple Cheshire Cat drifting dreamily about with a crescent moon grin and glowing orb eyes.
The team prepares separately and then meets in Guild Park for an hour of distanced rehearsal before marching into the neighbourhood—pink flamingoes held aloft and kazoo buzzing—to perform on local lawns. To avoid crowds, the locations are not publicized. Only the hosting households and their immediate neighbours are given notice.
As I followed the troupe into each space, I was delighted to see the expectant families with their lawn chairs and a few curious passers-by discovering some bit of magic in their midst.
No attempt has been made to hide the mechanics of COVID safety from an audience who is all-too-familiar with the “new normal” of pandemic life. In fact, the precautions are worked into the self-aware performance itself. Colour coordinated masks are a key element of the playful Mad Hatter costumes (hats by Christine Luksts) and hand sanitization becomes a quick, choreographed routine.
It was a thrill to experience that familiar energy of people in a shared space—working together to harness the ever-changing realities of a situation and shape them into the building blocks of a compelling, invented world. With just two hand-held wagons of lightweight props and malleable content, the Porch Plays are designed to engage from a distance and adapt quickly to unforeseen circumstances. The overall effect is whimsical and inviting.
For two nights only, the Guild Festival Theatre will be returning to the Greek Theatre in Guild Park to perform Back On The Stage, an extended version of their Porch Play. Due to COVID precautions, capacity is limited, so you should book early to catch this quaint evening of puppetry, song and dance.
This isn’t an ideal time for live theatre, but there are some intriguing possibilities for safe, innovative productions that foster meaningful connection. The Porch Plays certainly helped dissipate some of my existential dread. Guild Festival Theatre also continues to present a variety of online activities with Beyond The Stage.