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In the midst of a pandemic, the performing arts industry has suffered greatly. While writers are still penning their most creative narratives – stages around the country are bare, actors are looking for work and fear of the unknown has caused uneasy pauses for many productions.
For the legendary Jubilee Theatre of Fort Worth, the show simply must go on.
“We’re like most organizations – COVID-19 has thrown us for a loop,” shares Christie Howard, Managing Director for Jubilee. “Typically we announce the season in late April, but this past April we were all still learning about the fierceness of the pandemic.”
Although the performing world collectively took a deep breath and has yet to exhale, the Jubilee Theatre pivoted immediately.
The Actors’ Equity Association, which in essence is an actors union, stopped how theaters do their jobs because of the pandemic. Strenuous Covid-19 guidelines were immediately put into place, putting many productions out of the reach completely. Jubilee Theatre is the only such performance venue in this area of Texas still planning six full shows.
Part of the initial pivot was the decision to offer streaming of the final two productions of Jubilee Theatre’s 39th season as at-home musical experiences. To prove to viewers that the pandemic wouldn’t kill the Jubilee spirit, both “Da Kink in My Hair” and “How I got Over” were repeatedly streamed for audiences.
“We are free to use non-union actors and DFW has a wealth of actors who are willing to work,” Howard offers. “There is viability in having a space for them to practice their craft.”
The Jubilee staff has had very candid Covid-19 conversations with the actors, instructing them to operate as if they were in a bubble. When they show up, temperatures are taken, and a Covid-19 pre-check is done. If actors need to go away for 14 days and that impedes the production – the staff wishes them well. There are medical grade filters throughout the building and there are thorough cleanings performed each day that the space is occupied. Anytime refreshments are served, they are individualized. There are even stalls in the dressing rooms with plexiglass.
The interest of such an abundance of actors still wanting to work with Jubilee is a testament to their efforts to make people feel safe. There are three full-time staff members, including Howard. They all work separately until there is an absolute need for them to gather, and then they do so safely.
Because of their dedication to safety, Jubilee was the only theater in North Texas that decided to open in late June when the governor of Texas gave the option.
The 143-seat Jubilee Theatre is a very close and intimate space. In order to safely welcome audience members, the Jubilee staff managed to produce shows with 60 people distanced in-house. Not only did the show go on, but also the team made special effort to implement practices and systems that would allow productions to stream for supporters at home.
In Jubilee Theatre fashion, the full staff has successfully produced a traditional six shows for season 40 – all streaming for viewers. The high-energy season 40 has opened with a brilliant double-header.
“N” by Adrienne Earle Pender began streaming December 9th for Jubilee fans and supporters and will continue through January 1st. The production is a tribute to Broadway. The Broadway stages are dark, and although anticipation looms that action will return to the big stage in 2021 – there is simply so much uncertainty about a date.
Jubilee thought no better time and opportunity to honor Broadway than to usher in season 40 with “N,” which highlights the journey of Charles S. Gilpin. The Broadway champion was the first African-American with a lead role in a stage play, during a time where white men in blackface previously played roles of color. This play tackles the complicated narrative revolving around two legendary icons as they clash over a single word – N.
Actress Rita Kotey truly steals the show in “N,” capitalizing on several moments to further examine how fame looked for an African American on Broadway.
“Most memorable for me was the experience of working with my cast mates – because we were such a small cast, we really had to trust each other,” explains Kotey. “My character had to be both tough and compassionate. The cast pushed me in a way that helped me bring out my character’s beautiful balance of strength and love.”
Christmas time has always been one of Jubilee’s best selling shows. The staff didn’t want to let this holiday season go by without a nod from Jubilee, so they consider themselves fortunate to be able to pull some of the hidden talent in DFW and produce an uplifting and encouraging production.
Enter “A Funkytown Christmas.”
This holiday production is sure to lift spirits and promote a sense of togetherness during an anything but typical holiday season. The production promises to boast traditional holiday songs like, This Christmas, Little Drummer Boy, Baby It’s Cold Outside and Joy to the World – all accompanied by a an authentic Funky Town Beat. “A Funkytown Christmas” is set to stream December 9th through January 1st.
“We wanted to inspire people to seek the positive and to find reasons to be grateful in the midst of a pandemic,” Howard insists.
Early into the pandemic, the Jubilee staff decided that if they get to a point in 2021 when live shows are permissible and safe that they will indeed plan such performances. As for now, they are beyond excited about the opportunities streaming their productions has afforded them.
In the past, Jubilee Theatre has completed six productions, with 24 performances each. That accounts for 144 shows each season, with a potential for 143 people in each audience.
“We realize that we have to reach people in different spaces,” Howard says. “We hope that these new platforms will appeal to all people.”
Currently Jubilee is taking advantage of Vimeo on Demand to stream shows. There is no seat limit when streaming. They can attain far more than 143 viewers, as streaming allows them to expand their reach. The company has even been able to stream internationally.
Now more than ever before people are in desperate need of the mental break that a musical or a play can provide. By streaming these productions, viewers don’t have to rush home from work, get dressed and drive to the show. This is the new way of the world, and instead of fighting change – Jubilee is embracing it. The theatrical experience is not as much for the new generation, as it was previous generations that didn’t have the joys of the arts at their fingertips via cell phones, computers, social media and smart televisions.
“Streaming is a way to cultivate that next generation of theater-goers,” Howard says.
Jubilee Theatre is very patron-based. Single ticket sales are typically 30 to 40 percent over predictions. In fact, there has always been a group of individuals who are season supporters, simply because they love that Jubilee Experience. The goal is to keep that group in the loop. Jubilee is using print media, radio, their affiliates at WFAA and NBC5 to keep supporters up to date on streaming availability. Plans are even in place to create a more robust ticketing platform.
“We are really excited about this period,” Howard says. “We will find a way to thrive in the desert.”
Both Howard and Jubilee Theatre’s Artistic Director Wambui Richardson are thrilled about the theater’s advancements during such unprecedented times in the world. They don’t want the spotlight to only be on the shows, but also on Jubilee’s history, the brand and their strong sense of community.
Everything at Jubilee is intentional. The team is really dealing with heartstring stories.
Founded as an African American theater, Jubilee has a way of pulling together American stories and garnering the attention of very diverse audiences. African American experiences after all are indeed American experiences. Two of the programs they’re adding this year are tributes to Jubilee founder – the late Rudy Eastman and his wife Marian.
Eastman created a grassroots theater that would outlive him and be celebrated far beyond the confines of Fort Worth, Texas. When he didn’t have a theater, he made performances happen at local theaters and nightclubs, occasionally getting weekend runs. It’s such a novel history of what Eastman was able to accomplish and build.
The 40th season is a true testament to the Jubilee Theatre’s resiliency.
“We want to get back to how we were founded,” Howard says. “Mr. Eastman wrote many of the plays that were produced. We are reaching back to the playwright who needs his start and who needs to hear his words from someone else’s mouth.”
Both the Rudy Eastman Reader Series and The Jubilee Theatre Book Club will be welcomed additions in 2021. Because great plays and productions start on paper, the reader series will serve to spotlight three works, all of which will align with the season’s productions. The book club will analyze three literary works throughout the season.
For Jubilee Theatre, both reverence for its foundation and commitment to the community will be driving forces in a 40th season of so much promise.
“Patrons and supporters of Jubilee Theatre should expect to see high-quality theatrical performances that bring the entire family to the screen for laughs, tears and togetherness,” Richardson says. “Most importantly, what viewers can expect is a small taste of normalcy.”
Jubilee Theatre’s 40th season will be complete with:
By Katori Hall
Directed by: D. Wambui Richardson
STREAMING: JAN 29th – FEB 28th
Written and Directed by Moses T. Alexander Greene
STREAMING: OPENING NIGHT APRIL 2nd – APRIL 25th
Written by Angelica Cheri
Directed by: D. Wambui Richardson
STREAMING: OPENING NIGHT JUNE 4th – JUNE 27th
Written by Kathy D. Harrison
Directed by: D. Wambui Richardson
STREAMING: OPENING NIGHT AUGUST 6th – 29th