Tradition Transformed: Chautauqua Theater Company tackles the virtual world

With Chautauqua Institution suspending in-person programming for the 2020 season, Chautauqua Theater Company has made transformations to their programs that adapt the experience of the theater for a remote audience. While there will be no program this summer in Bratton Theater, Chautauquans can experience the work and talent of conservatory members as part of CHQ Assembly. PHOTO COURTESY OF CHAUTAUQUA INSTITUTION

For more than 100 years, theater has played an integral role in the living and breathing culture of Chautauqua Institution. Since its founding in 1983, Chautauqua Theater Company has carried on a rich tradition of internationally acclaimed theater professionals and up-and-coming students collaborating on the production and performance of classic, contemporary and new plays each and every season.

For nearly four decades, CTC’s plays and productions have been immersive in-person experiences, transporting audiences from their seats in Bratton Theater into the worlds woven onstage by actors and set designers. Now, in a time of uncertainty and isolation, with the Institution suspending in-person programming for the 2020 season, CTC has made transformations to their programs that adapt the experience of the theater for a remote audience.

“The current situation has necessitated that we change, and what’s wonderful about that is when you get a group of artists like our conservatory, creativity follows that,” said CTC Artistic Director Andrew Borba. “We have been really delighted and fortunate to have that creative spirit in a time of things being shut down.”

In a typical season, the CTC has a conservatory of about 19 actors and directing and design fellows, but this year has accepted 33, including one conservatory member “commuting” from London. In the past, much of the focus of the program has been producing performances; now, this focus has shifted to put more of an emphasis on education and collaboration.

The annual New Play Workshops have been extended online, and additional classes which focus on topics such as webcasting and various other individual production skills have been added into the program.

“We are trying in many ways to embrace the spirit of what we always do, which is to focus on what the playwright is looking for within the play,” Borba said. “While we also understand that the rules have changed, and sometimes that’s to our benefit.”

CTC is still finalizing what the season will look like for audience members, and is experimenting with various virtual platforms, including a potential livestream performance on CHQ Assembly. 

Managing Director Sarah Clare Corporandy is excited about the promise of keeping traditions alive in a new way, citing the new Cocktails and Conversations program, which emulates the front porch experience remotely. 

One such tradition is the annual Hello Chautauqua performance, where CTC conservatory members introduce themselves to members of the community through a series of performances and monologues, kicking off the season of performances. The CTC opted this year to continue the tradition virtually, ensuring that performers still connect with the community and are given a platform to introduce their art. The performance will go live on the Virtual Porch at 7:30 p.m. EDT on Friday, July 3.

“It’s a crazy time to be making art in our world right now,” Corporandy said. “But there are things that we’re going to learn that will inform us going forward, and I think that’s really exciting.”

Though much of the program has yet to be finalized, both Corporandy and Borba said that what they have seen so far has exceeded their expectations, and that they have enjoyed seeing familiarity joined with innovation as they work with members to create. 

“I’m really excited about how each program will comfort and surprise me at the same time,” Corporandy said.

The CTC is one of the only theater companies in the country that remains operating, and Borba is thankful for the opportunity to continue creating. 

“I’m most excited about being able to produce at a time when everything else has shut down,” he said. “We have the ability to do this, so we will.”

Borba said the upcoming season is “really about keeping people engaged, and allowing a space for people to create and interact. We are still able to create work with a very engaged, diverse and talented group of artists.”

Tags : Chautauqua Theater CompanyCHQ AssemblyCocktails and ConversationsHello ChautauquaNew Play WorkshopsVirtual Porch

The author Maggie Angevine

For her first season with The Chautauquan Daily, reporter Maggie Angevine will be covering the theater, youth programs and recreation at Chautauqua. Maggie, hailing from Virginia, is a rising junior at Miami University in Ohio, studying journalism, political science and French. When she isn’t writing for The Miami Student newspaper, Maggie can be found somewhere outside — hiking, camping, climbing or simply exploring.