How Ypsi theater companies adapted to – and arose from – COVID-19's challenges

We checked in with three Ypsilanti-based theater groups – including one that started during the pandemic – about how they've continued their work without in-person performances.
From outdoor productions to recorded plays released online, Ypsilanti theater groups are adapting to the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic in creative ways. We talked with representatives from three Ypsilanti-based theater groups to see what their plans are for the 2021 theater season.

Neighborhood Theatre Group: Soliciting original plays and streaming online

Neighborhood Theatre Group's (NTG) last live performance on March 8, 2020 was also the last live event held inside Ypsilanti's Riverside Arts Center before pandemic-related restrictions took effect. The theater group had a musical planned for mid-April last year, but pushed the date back to June.

"It was a little bit of wishful thinking on our part," says NTG Artistic Director Kristin Danko. 

Group members soon realized that live theater was not going to be an option for a long time, and that they had to overhaul their 2020 season. They knew they probably couldn't put on their annual sketch comedy show, but decided to go through with the writing process anyway. They wrote and cast the sketches, and performed them online.

"This was our first thing with Zoom," Danko says. "We were thinking, 'Let's kind of figure this format out, because I think we'll be doing it for a while.'"
Kristin Danko.
NTG went on to solicit original 10-minute plays inspired by a piece of music, and chose five to perform via Zoom each Thursday in October. The pieces, all part of a "virtual film festival," are available on YouTube as well.

Danko says it was nice to work with people again, even if it was done virtually, and to focus more on script development with playwrights. 

This year, NTG staff considered staging plays outdoors but learned the venue they'd hoped to use would not be hosting any in-person events in 2021. That meant the theater troupe had to adapt again and go "back to the virtual stage," Danko says.

Danko notes that the entire 2021 season hasn't been firmed up, but NTG does plan to produce two original one-act plays inspired by the concept of joy. Danko says NTG will film them as staged plays and make them available for streaming.

"We've never done anything like that before," Danko says. "We thought that would be better. It'd get us back on our feet, creating and directing again."

NTG also plans an original family show, "Annie Ypsi and the Case of the Missing Smeet," making reference to a local cryptid.

"It's something families could watch together, and have something familiar and local," Danko says. "We'll be filming that as well."

Additionally, NTG has been staying afloat financially through special offers via its Patreon page.

"We wanted to give content to our supporters who are contributing monthly to us to keep us alive and thriving," Danko says. 

Exclusive Patreon offerings for supporters have ranged from audio dramas to a recording of three poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar for National Poetry Month in April. A newer Patreon offer is a theater toolkit that shares tips and tricks on topics including plot and story structure, how to select and rehearse monologues, and how to create a theater resume.

NTG will host auditions for its one-act plays on May 16.

PTD Productions: A focus on inclusion

PTD Productions canceled its 2020 season since the company's normal venue, Riverside Arts Center, has been largely shuttered since March 2020.

PTD secretary and founding member Janet Rich says she hopes the company will be able to produce a show in November, but those plans will depend on how COVID-19 case numbers are looking and how actors feel about returning to live performance. 

Meanwhile, the 28-year-old theater group continues to focus on making theater accessible for everyone, both behind the scenes and in the audience.

"We started doing pay-what-you-can Thursdays so that anybody who had two nickels and wanted to see live theater could," Rich says. "I really, truly believe the theater experience opens and changes people's lives, and that shouldn't be limited to people that can spend money to see live theater."

Rich says company members were "stunned" when theaters had to shut their doors in March 2020, and it took a while for the company to regroup. Troupe members looked into staging shows outdoors, but they found that outdoor venues are in high demand. PTD, as an all-volunteer organization, couldn't afford to rent any of the outdoor venues its members were interested in.

They decided instead to put on a short, member-written virtual show called "Advice for Losers," but Rich says the process involved "a learning curve for everyone."

Marie Jones, president of PTD, says navigating new technology was "challenging" for some, but the chance to meet together and do something creative was appealing. In addition to the one-act play, PTD members got together and did what she calls a "choral reading" of a work meant to be read out loud on Zoom together. 
PTD Productions president Marie Jones at Riverside Arts Center.
"At the time, we decided not to [officially produce] it because of having to pay for royalties, but I'm hoping we can do it in the future, because it still speaks to what we're all going through during the pandemic," Jones says.

PTD Productions is now working on its next streaming show, a comedy called "Your Call is Very Important to Us," written by a former PTD member who has moved out of state.

PTD members have also been using the down time to host monthly Pandemic Players meetings via Zoom, where they read sections of new plays or plays they've always been interested in but haven't had a chance to read from before.

"That's been really exciting as far as keeping company members involved in theater," Rich says. "It's rejuvenating our understanding and belief that theater is really important."

Jones says PTD Productions will continue to put out calls for play submissions, read new plays, and "create a balanced season every year."

"We're really hopeful and excited, looking forward to the possibilities," Jones says. 

Professional Youth Theater of Michigan grows out of COVID

Ypsilanti-based Professional Youth Theatre of Michigan (PYTMI) didn't just survive COVID-19 but grew out of the pandemic, says artistic director Megan Wright.

Wright and her PTYMI co-founder Drue Gray had been working together at a different youth theater company when their production completely shut down two weeks from an anticipated opening due to the pandemic.

"We didn't know how to do this online thing, but we knew the kids needed to finish this show," Wright says. 

They finished rehearsals on Zoom and filmed the show to be released online, but the theater company wasn't planning to do anything else for the rest of 2020. Wright says she and Gray didn't know what to do with themselves. Wright is a freelance teaching artist who works with a variety of organizations, including schools that don't have their own theater programs, but all that work ended when the pandemic hit.
Professional Youth Theatre of Michigan director Megan Wright at the Ypsilanti Community Center pavilion.
"There were no theater opportunities for anybody, and that was such a loss in our community," she says. 

She and Gray wanted to do anything they could to get back into theater. That led to the formation of PYTMI and its inaugural virtual musical, "The Show Must Go Online," within a month of Michigan's first stay-home order. Wright notes that just because the show was virtual didn't mean that its over 40 young players got to slack off, or that the show would be a bunch of boring talking heads on a screen.

"We wanted it to be a full theater experience for the kids, acting in their spaces, using their creativity," she says. 

Wright notes that in live theater, a crew usually takes care of lighting, costumes, and props, but that wasn't the case with PYTMI's first online production. The young people had to create all those additional pieces themselves.

They also had to learn how to play to the camera, and learned about the idea of how to split their spaces into "zones" from zone one, which is very close up, to zone three, which is as far away from the camera as possible.

PYTMI also put on a production of the musical "Annie" with two casts of about 30 kids each, wanting to explore a more mainstream show that more people would be familiar with. The theater company will continue in that vein with planned productions of "The Little Mermaid, Jr." and "Beauty and the Beast."

Wright says she and Gray noticed that teens tended to be able to learn a play faster than younger children, so they launched a Teen Company that includes chances for teens not only to act but to stage-manage and direct.

Next, PYTMI will present a series of theater summer camps at the Ypsilanti Community Center pavilion. The full-day camp option will include doing a production in one week, from reading through the play the first day to putting it on by the fifth day of camp. A half-day option will focus on theater basics like costuming, music, and acting.

"It's more for a kid who hasn't done theater and wants to explore," Wright says.

By fall, Wright hopes to be able to present an in-person musical as well. However, the theater company will likely continue to offer a virtual option for some time, since children from as far away as New York and Connecticut found the theater company and participated in virtual productions.

"We don't want to lose that," Wright says. "There are also some kids or their parents who aren't yet comfortable meeting in person, so we'll continue to offer virtual experiences."

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

Photos by Doug Coombe except Janet Rich photo courtesy of Janet Rich.