The Tidal Flow of Theater

Harbor Stage Company Forges On

by Steve Desroches

Top Image: Stacy Fischer, Jonathan Fielding, Brenda Withers, and Robert Kropf in Dindin at Harbor Stage in Wellfleet. Photo: Joe Kenehan

Art in all its forms is both a mirror and a window through which to examine humanity. And with theater there’s an immediacy to the livewire energy of that process that can thrill and delight as much as it can transform. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed many things, one of which is the importance of art in our lives and to society in general. In particular, those art forms that require people to assemble took a huge hit as stages around the world closed. Virtual technology provided some opportunities, and in turn created completely new expressions of art and media. But it was certainly no substitute for the real thing. Viewing a painting online or watching a performance virtually lacks the connection that is at the core of the respective art forms, not to mention the brass tacks issue of finances, with loss of the revenue that keeps artists going.

The pandemic hit the Outer Cape economically and culturally hard, with tourism as its main industry and the arts central to life way out here in the North Atlantic. Much of 2020 was a total loss, and 2021 seemed to bring brighter days until a midsummer outbreak in Provincetown threw an enormous wrench in already challenging times. But the arts are nothing if not adaptable, and the show in many forms continues on. With pivot being the buzz word of the age,  the Harbor Stage Company in Wellfleet returned to live, in-person performance in the theatrical space on Kendrick Avenue in July. The Actors’ Equity Association changed their rules regarding live performance just in time for them to put together a season mid-spring. The celebrated theatrical troupe first presented Stand Up If You’re Here Tonight, a new play written by John Kolvenbach and then mid-run opened with the concurring performances of Dindin, the premiere of a new play written by company member and co-founder Brenda Withers. Each performance felt like a triumph in that it happened at all as the times being what they are its impossible to plan with any degree of certainty. But what also made each night a celebration is that the magic and gravitas of live theater was still there.

“There is a set time for everyone to gather together to listen to an argument and consider it and then discuss it afterwards,” says Withers. “That’s what I missed most about live performance. We tried a virtual thing here and there, but that’s just not who we are or what we do. Getting back into our theater, working together, and having an audience felt so good. That exchange with an audience feeds what we do. It’s why we do it. ”

With much more time at home, Withers, like many of us, laughs that much of lockdown was filled with anxiety rather than diving deep into creative pursuits. But nevertheless she was able to fine tune Dindin, a dinner party play that has the four company members cast as two couples dining together. The dark comedy explores class, loyalty, and infidelity all over a beef brisket, which means the play also touches on animal rights, says Withers. It feels like the right time for this play not only because of some of the themes, but personally for the Harbor Stage Company, as it brings together all four company members: Withers, Jonathan Fielding, Stacy Fischer, and Robert Kropf. The reunion on stage is emotional and fulfilling, as is having an audience, even if it’s intentionally not filled to capacity and with everyone wearing masks.

“It’s a different experience in an intimate theater where you can see everyone,” says Withers. “Now you can only see half of everyone’s faces. It changes the audience’s reactions, their volume and response. It’s not negative. It’s always good to be challenged and learn new things. As actors we need to be nimble to adjust to where the audience is at.”

Finding where the audience is at mentally is an added test. Things may be different than they were in 2020, but these are still times of political tumult, climate change, racial reckonings, culture wars, with a pandemic as stubborn as those that ignore the science around it. How as artists do you present work to help digest and interpret a world that feels like it’s on fire in a country with a Tilt-A-Whirl zeitgeist?  At the moment, we’re all still too enmeshed in the chaos of the moment to be able to have much of a perch to be able to address what’s going on and how we’re changing in real time, says Withers. That will be ongoing work for the Harbor Stage Company whether they present a revival of a prescient work or a new viewpoint within a world premiere. But in finding new ways to present their work the Harbor Stage Company did make a film adaptation of Dindin over last winter, which should be ready to premiere this coming winter, if all goes according to plan.

“We thought what better time than now to do this,” says Withers. “It being a play set in a dining room, we could film it all in one room with just a small group of us. It was the perfect time to experiment with a new medium. The time was now for us. Like everyone else, we just looked for ways to do what we do in a different way. I do wonder when the time will come when we’ll have clarity, if ever, on what we’ve been through. Until then we just keep doing the work.”

Dindin plays at the Harbor Stage Company, 15 Kendrick Ave., Wellfleet, Thursday through Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 5 p.m. through September 5. Tickets ($25) are available at the box office and online at harborstage.org For more information call 508.349.6800.

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