Like everyone else, Shakespeare in Clark Park had to cancel their summer plans this year, but that didn’t mean there was no outdoor theater this year. Earlier this month, the company brought socially-distant theater to blocks around West Philadelphia with a specially built mobile stage.
For the past six months, a coalition of West Philly arts leaders in coordination with the Public Health Department of the City of Philadelphia strategized how to create a mobile producing model which centers the safety of artists, staff, and audience members while allowing them to return to the essential communal act of live storytelling. During each step of the rehearsal or performance process, all artists and technicians were empowered and authorized to stop production at any point to voice concerns of their health and safety. Safety superseded all. If it came down to it, “the show must not go on.”
This process culminated in the Pageant Wagon—a mobile stage constructed by Curio Theatre Company’s Paul Kuhn—to bring a modern twist on the medieval play Everyman to eight blocks throughout West Philadelphia. You might not of heard about this: At the request of the City of Philadelphia, performances were not publicized beyond the block where they were performing to keep audiences as small and safe as possible. Actors, crew, and audiences all wore masks throughout the 40-minute family friendly play written and co-directed by Ang Bey. The Shakespeare in Clark Park artistic team, Kittson O’Neill, Paige Zubel, and the ensemble transformed this ancient morality play into a satire that spoke directly to the pandemic overwhelming all of us and the racial justice reckoning that has surged with it.
O’Neill says, “I was a Medieval Studies major. As soon as the pandemic hit I thought of the pageant wagons which were so popular in Europe. They felt like an appropriate solution for a classical theater company and one that West Philly might really enjoy. Everyman is still a remarkably relevant play. If death came for you tomorrow would you be happy with your life? With where you invested your passion and energy? It’s a surprisingly funny play and one that leaves a lot of room for this ensemble to explore and create in their own voices.”
The production incorporated health restrictions into the creative process. For example, masks were incorporated into the actors’ costumes (headdresses and masks designed by Scott McMaster, costumes by Aetna Gallagher). Streets and sidewalks were marked for viewing (preferably with tenants staying on their own property) with chalk to enforce social distancing. The blocks were chosen for demographic diversity, residential density and enthusiasm for the project.
The show ran for 8 performances over 2 weekends this October featuring a cast including Cameron DelGrosso, Ezra Ali-Dow, Marisol Rosa-Shapiro, Katrina Hall, Kaitlin Chin, Ebony Pullom, and James Whitfield. Additional collaborators in the devising process were Eli Lynn and Jessica Money. Sound Design by Tony Award winner Robert Kaplowitz.
Visit shakespeareinclarkpark.org/pageant-wagon for more information.