The wandering troupe is returning home.
In 2020, they were on Zoom. In 2021, they were outdoors. Now, for the first time since 2019, the Chautauqua Theater Company will tread the boards in their beloved Bratton Theater once more. The company’s 40th season is an expansive and ambitious one, featuring the first pre-season New Play Workshop and a large-scale production of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel’s Indecent.
Simply put, “this is our biggest season ever,” said Arts Marketing specialist Makayla Santiago-Froebel.
CTC’s new General Manager Emily Glinick agreed with that assessment. Artistic Director Andrew Borba, who has served in his role since 2016 and announced in November 2021 that this will be his final season, also noted the expansiveness of the season.
“Some of it probably has to be attributed to me being on my way out,” Borba said. “I was like, ‘Well, I’m not going out small. Let’s go big and go home.’ ”
CTC has to flex muscles that have not been fully used in the past couple of seasons. They have had to reacquaint themselves with the logistics and management of a staff of over 100 while working within the parameters of the ongoing pandemic. There’s the enthusiasm of returning to Bratton Theater and a sense of normality, but also the trepidation and adjustment.
“There’s a lot of literal and metaphorical cobwebs to wipe away,” Glinick said. “It’s new again for a lot of our staff and artists. So, with that comes a little bit of anxiety, and a little bit of fear at congregating again to create art together, but we’re also met with incredible excitement and joy.”
Although the productions will take place within four walls rather than the great outdoors, the season is not hemmed in by any means. The theatrical process is taking place beyond the gates of the Institution as CTC rehearses at Chautauqua Lake High School and builds sets at SUNY Fredonia. These locations offer updated ventilation systems in compliance with COVID-19 regulations.
The programming itself is blossoming beyond the bounds of the regular season, with the New Play Workshop of Lee Cataluna’s Flowers of Hawaii taking place during what is known as Week Zero. And the opening mainstage production, Indecent, pushes boundaries. It blurs the line between play and musical as it centers on the first lesbian kiss on Broadway.
“Indecent is a musical that masquerades as a play, and a musical is just a bigger beast,” Glinick said.
CTC has never mounted a full mainstage musical before. The cast is bigger, including musicians and actors. The creative team is bigger, with a music director and a choreographer, as well as a director. The material is big, too, touching on an array of topics, including immigrant communities, LGBTQ experiences and Yiddish theater.
“I’m quoting some critic here, but (Indecent) is a love letter to the theater, ” Borba said. “It’s too big for us to do, quite frankly, which I love. Why not? Let’s do this play.”
Borba identified a throughline of humanity that drives the season.
Flowers of Hawaii, which ran this past Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, centered on the conflicts and love of a dysfunctional Hawaiian family. Borba said that he admired the humor and compassion in Cataluna’s voice.
He called the mainstage play, Animals Out of Paper, by Rajiv Joseph, a hidden gem that is not produced as often as it should be. It’s about origami, isolation and unlikely friendships. The art of origami is featured both literally and as a metaphor for the unfolding of the human heart.
The two additional New Play Workshops — supported through the years by the Roe Green Foundation — tackle complex, topical issues through the lens of humanity. Through the Eyes of Holly Germaine, by Y York, is a play about climate change and the environment that communicates a message without talking at the audience, Borba said.
“It’s not so much a play about the environment as a play in which the environment is a key factor,” he said. “We’re not really interested in polemics, we’re interested in stories.”
The new play Black Like Me, by Monty Cole, is a study in transformation. It’s based on a 1961 nonfiction book by a white journalist, John Howard Griffin, who disguised himself as a Black man in the South in order to personally experience the oppression that Black people face. The book was adapted into a film in 1964, and Borba thinks that many members of the Chautauqua audience will be familiar with the story. Cole, who will also direct, is transforming the material again — his adaptation depicts a modern Black audience watching the film. The play interrogates the problematic aspects of Griffin’s project through contemporary eyes.
The season will close out with Edward Albee’s classic domestic drama Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? CTC has never mounted the show before, and Borba said he has been itching to produce it for years. He will take on the role of George, the male lead in the show, in a fitting conclusion to his tenure at Chautauqua.
Even with the challenges of producing such a sprawling season within the pandemic, CTC’s team is thrilled to return to live theater, with all its enchantments.
“We’re a communal art form,” Borba said. “To be able to be back in the room together is beautiful, and it’s magical, and it’s curative.”