Playhouses are closed for what normally would be the kickoff of theater season, but regional acting companies are still finding innovative ways to lift the curtain across Middle Tennessee.

From virtual musicals to online education programs and small group productions, regional theaters are keeping the arts alive and connecting with their audiences in new ways.

The pivot is no surprise to Cori Laemmel, artistic director of The Theater Bug, a Nashville-based company that uses the performing arts to inspire young people.

“Theater has been around since the dawn of civilization. It’s survived through pandemics and wars,” Laemmel says. “There’s no part of me that thinks art and theater isn’t going to survive this as well.”

Like other performing arts groups, The Theater Bug isn’t pausing its mission or waiting around for the coronavirus pandemic to end. 

“That’s what art is — continuing to create,” says Laemmel. “It’s just about figuring out the best we do go about that.”

The Theater Bug

Soon after Nashville came under a safer-at-home order in March, The Theater Bug sprang into action by writing and producing Quaranteened: A Virtual Musical.

“We ended up with a cast of 25 kids and they adapted so well to being in community on screen,” Laemmel recalls. “It was great because they simultaneously got to work on their acting chops while getting a crash course in technology by self-taping their own scenes and recording their own vocals, courtesy of Tony and Laura Matula.”

With a soundtrack to be released in the coming months, the project has been accepted into two film festivals — and enough positive feedback to inspire more innovative productions.

“We’re now in the middle of filming a web series called Stories, an original musical told throughout the lens of young people’s Instagram stories,” Laemmel says. 

The first five episodes aims to address the big and small things affecting today's youth against the backdrop of the pandemic. Each episode will premiere through the Stories Instagram page and will be linked to The Theater Bug’s Vimeo for download. 

Other Middle Tennessee theater groups are adapting and creating, too.

Nashville Repertory Theatre

After making the painful decision to postpone its summer musical, Mary Poppins, The Rep jumped in to plan a busy virtual fall season.

"We’ll be offering several new online plays from our Ingram New Works Project, as well as professional development seminars for Nashville actors with both local and national instructors,” says Executive Director Drew Ogle.

The Rep is using the pause in traditional productions to invest more in education. Those include various masterclasses such as a new program based on the monologues of August Wilson, and additional theater instruction at the Johnson Alternative Learning Center, thanks to a grant from the Tennessee Arts Commission.

The company also is transforming its annual Broadway Brunch into an entirely online nighttime gala and auction. And it’s hosting a weekly online gathering of costume designers and other fashion artists called On Pins and Needles.

Studio Tenn Theatre Company 

The Franklin-based company has embraced the unusual theater season with flair.

Its summer web series Studio Tenn Talks: Conversations with Patrick Cassidy features top-flight professional talent, from Tony Award-winning singer and actress Kelli O’Hara to Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander. 

The company recently hosted a Virtual Musical Variety Show, as well as a socially distanced performance by Tony Award-winner Adam Pascal, from the original cast of Rent, at Academy Park Performing Arts Center. 

But its new virtual education program — which covers everything from masterclasses, homeschooling programs, and private lessons — is what the organization is particularly proud of.

“The arts are so important, now more than ever, and kids should not miss out on them simply because school looks different this year,” says Studio Tenn education coordinator Casey Hebbel. “Studio Tenn Education is so excited to offer custom arts enrichment curriculum. We are here to make arts accessible to all with personalized lesson plans, teaching artist visits, and arts integration.” 

That’s why Studio Tenn has added numerous fun and free instructional videos you can access on its website, including a makeup tutorial with Benji Kern, a ballet workshop with Jonathan Sharp, and Interpreting a Song with Sondra Morton from Act Too Players.

Act Too Players

The Franklin-based youth theater school is embracing the new normal by offering more focused training to students through 6- to 12-week sessions, both in-person and online, with limited enrollment caps on classes to follow the guidelines set by the CDC.

“Even though there is a huge missing for live theater, I have found strength in all the innovation I’ve witnessed in arts education over the past months,” says Morton, arts director for Act Too Players. “I have seen programs come up with solutions and interesting ways to teach theater that have just left me feeling awed. I am even more excited to see what innovative theater experiences are created out of such chaos and necessity.”

While adults often need time to adjust to sweeping transitions, Morton observes that kids are super resilient.

 “I have always been impressed with their ability to accept things and to go with the flow,” she says. Naturally, many students miss the live aspect of rehearsals and performances, while others are excited for the online format and to have their performance posted on YouTube. We’ve found that students want to learn and are willing to do whatever is needed to do that.”

Bravo Creative Arts Center

While art and creativity haven’t stopped, it’s required some adjustments to meet the needs of parents and children.

“Parents still want opportunity for their kids to meet with peers to connect and create in a trusted environment,” says Lissa McHugh, executive director of the Bravo Creative Arts Center.

The Franklin-based nonprofit worked in small groups over the summer (with health and safety measures in place) to serve over 60 community youth in tap, musical theater, dance, and improv. More than half of those youth worked on Honk Jr, a production that was performed in August before a masked and socially distanced audience at Jamison Hall at The Factory of Franklin.  

“The production may not have had all the bells and whistles that audiences have come to expect with a Bravo production,” Morton explains, “but there was some very happy youth excited to continue to use their gifts and bring joy to others!”

For more information, visit thetheaterbug.org, nashvillerep.org, studiotenn.com, acttoopplayers.com and bravocreativeartscenter.com.

To check in with other Nashville arts organizations, click here.