Arts & Culture

Local theaters streaming shows, bringing stage to screen for home viewing

Anthony Hendricks is among the stars of #x201c;Songs for a New World,#x201d; filmed at Coralville Center for the Perform
Anthony Hendricks is among the stars of “Songs for a New World,” filmed at Coralville Center for the Performing Arts. City Circle Acting Company’s production of Jason Robert Brown’a first musical will stream online Friday and Saturday. (Evan Hilsabeck/Coralville Center for the Performing Arts)
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Two Corridor troupes are merging theater and film, with all the personnel and production bells and whistles, to stream events Friday and Saturday night.

“We have all the community of theater people it takes to put on a show — except for the audience,” said Elizabeth Tracey, director of “Songs for a New World.” The City Circle Acting Company production was filmed Sept. 18 and 19 on its home stage at the Coralville Center for the Performing Arts.

Theatre Cedar Rapids commissioned Iowa City playwright and actor Megan Gogerty to adapt one of her previous solo shows to be filmed on the TCR stage as part of its fall virtual season. She upped the ante and wrote a new screenplay to reflect the times, titled “Feel Better.”

Both shows are ticketed, with viewers choosing the night they wish to watch on their own screens.

‘Songs for a New World’

Before his Tony-winning turns with “Parade” and “The Bridges of Madison County” came Jason Robert Brown’s first produced show, more in the style of a musical revue. “Songs for a New World” ran off-Broadway in 1995, but fits well with the current times, said Tracey, 59, of Iowa City.

Unlike a traditional musical, this script features a series of songs Brown had written for other plays and events, along with some new pieces, all reflecting a moment of decision.

“We were looking for material that wouldn’t require as many performers,” said Tracey, who also is the full-time artistic producer for City Circle and the Young Footliters. “I like the untraditional nature of this in that the topic really speaks to what’s going on at the moment. But also, I like the idea that I could approach this as a musical that I wouldn’t have to worry as much about COVID, and how we could perform it and keep it safe.”

Suggested by one of her musical directors, she fell in love with the show’s theme during the pandemic lockdown, as she listened to the music while walking in the park behind her house.

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“I really felt it spoke to all the emotions and the turmoil that we’re all facing at the moment,” she said. It reflects the themes of “hitting the wall, having to make a decision and getting on with life,” Tracey said.

She increased the cast size from four to five, and rather than have the show feel like a musical revue, she tasked each actor with creating a character and through line for the various songs they’re singing.

“It gave more depth to the individual songs, instead of ‘park and sing,’” she said. “For audiences, when you do look at something, you try to create a story — our mind naturally works that way. We try to make sense of things, and the actors help that along.”

She also felt it was important to film the play on the troupe’s home stage.

“There’s so many different ways about doing theater right now, and I wanted it to feel like theater,” she said, “and also to really convey the message this is our space and we want you to come back here someday. There’s a little element of melancholy in that — you see the space, but no one can really enter it.”

‘Feel Better’

Likewise, when Theatre Cedar Rapids approached Gogerty about “dusting off” one of her existing scripts and adapting it for film, she couldn’t do it.

“I said, ‘No — that sounds terrible.’ All my old shows were made for an audience that could attend, and I didn’t want to retrofit a show into something it isn’t,” she said. “It would highlight what we don’t have. ... I felt like I wanted to make something that moves us forward, that uses what we have, rather than long for something we don’t have.

“I said, ‘I want to make a movie about theater, and I want to film it in your beautiful, glorious main-stage theater space.’”

The result is “Feel Better,” for which Gogerty, 45, donned three hats: writer, actor and director, filmed with a complete crew over the Labor Day weekend, including local filmmaker Adam Orton.

The one-act, 45-minute show asks, “How do we feel better when everything feels so bad? That’s what it’s about, at the end of the day, because that’s what’s on my mind, and that’s what’s on the mind of everybody I know,” Gogerty said. “We’re all so stressed, we’re all so on alert from invisible threats, that it’s exhausting. I find things that I used to enjoy, I’m having difficulty concentrating on.”

That’s why she kept the screenplay short.

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“It’s about a comedian, Megan Gogerty, helpfully played by me, going to Theatre Cedar Rapids to make a movie in an attempt to distract her audience from the horrors of the world — only to discover she can’t distract herself from those horrors,” she said.

“It’s all about this present moment, and how are we going to get through this present moment? It uses the theater as a metaphor for our present isolation. We can’t gather, so one of the tools we use to feel better is community. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because we all get together — that feeling of togetherness, and how do we achieve that when we can’t get together?”

And while it’s a comedy from the playwright who currently is teaching a stand-up comedy class at the University of Iowa, “it also has some stuff on its mind.”

“I feel better when people tell me the truth,” she said. “And I think part of what’s difficult about this moment, is that so many people are invested in downplaying the threat, in not telling us the truth, in hiding what we can see with our own eyes, and that’s part of what has made it so crazy.”

However, there’s one truth she can’t hide from, and another she discovered along the way — her joy in making a film and in directing.

“I never wanted to make a film — ever. That was never an ambition that I ever had,” she said. “It was such a joy making it. It was so fun and it was so challenging in the best ways, and I’m really proud of what we have created, me and the crew. I just might make another one — I loved doing it so much.

“The hardest part though, is having to confront the reality of what you look like on camera. ... The pandemic has not prepared me for the reality of my exterior.”

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

How to watch

• What: Virtual theater productions

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• City Circle Acting Company: “Songs for a New World,” streaming at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, $12 to $17 at (319) 248-9370, email ccpaboxoffice@coralvillearts.org or online at Showtix4u.com/events/17611

• Theatre Cedar Rapids: Megan Gogerty in “Feel Better,” streaming at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, $25 at (319) 366-8591, email boxoffice@theatrecr.org or online at Theatrecr.org/event/feel-better/2020-10-02/

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