The University of Rhode Island Theatre Department opens an uncertain season next month with a play about a pioneering group of women “computers” who helped scientists map the stars and night sky.
Theatre Chair David Howard will be wishing on those stars, hoping the 2021-2022 season’s return to live theater goes off with as few hitches as possible.
With the pandemic still shuttering many theaters, the Theatre Department is planning a full slate of four productions intended to be staged before live audiences, starting with mid-October’s “Silent Sky.”
“It is as close to normal as we’ve been in two years – with every safety precaution baked in and hundreds of alternative plans if necessary,” Howard said. “We have backup plan upon backup plan upon backup plan because we have to be prepared for anything.”
As rehearsals get rolling for “Silent Sky,” Howard’s plan is for actors to put aside masks while onstage and remain about 3 feet apart during productions. More importantly, actors will perform in front of live audiences, who also must follow COVID-19 guidelines. The situation will be monitored throughout the year.
“There are only about three theaters open in the world right now and they’re all on Broadway. So, we’re taking it day to day,” he said. “The big thing that we’re striving for is that our actors who are on stage will be unmasked. Everybody else will be masked.”
To keep actors and the audience safe, temperature checks will be conducted on patrons entering the theater, and theater-goers will be required to wear a mask at all times while indoors. They also must show identification and present a COVID-19 vaccination card or proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within the previous 48 hours. Actors will remain at least 3 feet apart from each other and the audience during performances.
Because of the pandemic, “Silent Sky,” which opens Oct. 14, will be the first full production URI Theatre has staged for an in-person audience since March 1, 2020, when Shakespeare’s “Richard III” wrapped up its run. The final play of that spring, “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” was canceled, and eventually the 2020-2021 season, too.
In its place, the department presented two large productions last year that followed the changing safety guidelines. A collection of five “radio plays” – in which masked actors read their roles while standing 6 feet apart – were recorded last fall and released online. The spring production of “Miss Nelson is Missing!” took a step forward. While masked, actors were able to use all their acting tools as they interacted onstage backed by a full set, music and lighting. The filmed production had a large, if only online audience – 9,000 elementary and middle school students in classrooms around the state.
New season, new direction
In the fall, along with “Silent Sky,” the 2021-2022 season will feature “Clue: On Stage,” based on the 1985 film that was in turn based on the Hasbro whodunit board game. The spring brings Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” and the L. Frank Baum classic, “The Wizard of Oz,” to the stage.
The season will also feature three directors new to URI Theatre in the first three plays. New Lecturer Tracy Liz Miller heads “Silent Sky,” Don Mays, formerly of Providence’s Wilbury Theatre, leads “Clue,” and former Trinity Rep director Tyler Dobrowsky helms “Twelfth Night.”
Lauren Gunderson’s 2015 play, “Silent Sky,” which was originally planned for last season, is the true story of Henrietta Leavitt and her fellow women “computers” at Harvard Observatory in the 1890s. Years before women gained the vote, the “computers” charted the stars while, on earth, their ideas were dismissed or stolen by men.
“It’s a story about hope, comradery and believing,” Howard said. “What’s really interesting about it is, even though it’s about physics and things that none of us can understand, it re-envisions how we perceive those things so we can start to understand.”
The play will have a cast of just five actors. During rehearsals, all members of the company have been required to be regularly tested for COVID-19, along with following all University guidelines. The play will be staged in J-Studio, URI’s black box theater, which will be limited to 140 seats, about 110 under capacity.
“If the University tells us we can only have 50 percent capacity, we can change to 50 percent. If they say you can only have 20 people in the room, we will put 20 people in the room,” Howard said. “I promised the cast we will have an audience. If it’s eight people, we will run it for eight people.”
In December, “Clue: On Stage,” by Sandy Rustin based on the screenplay by Jonathan Lynn, will provide silly fun as audiences try to deduce who killed Boddy Manor. Was it Scarlet, Plum, White, Green, Peacock, or Mustard? “Clue” opens Dec. 2 in the Will Theatre, a 500-seat theater that will allow for greater ability to space patrons out if necessary.
To start the second half of the season, “Twelfth Night” will open in J-Studio on March 3. The play tells the tale of twins Viola and Sebastian, who are separated by a shipwreck on Illyria. Viola disguises herself as the Duke’s manservant. She falls in love with him, while he falls for Countess Olivia, who in turn falls in love with Viola thinking she’s a man. “This wonderful, touching, raucous, sad, emotional play has so much heart,” Howard said. “When it’s funny, it’s the funniest thing that was ever written. But then it also touches you in ways that even ‘Hamlet’ can’t.”
Following tradition, the season will wrap up with a musical, annually one of the department’s most popular shows, especially with families. “The Wizard of Oz,” which opens April 21, will feature all of the classic music – by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg – from the 1939 movie. While URI Theatre has performed the “Oz” remake, “The Wiz,” it’s the first time the department will stage the original.
“I look at all these plays as being about paths to discovery,” Howard said. “But also, they transport us in a way you can’t find on Netflix with your dog barking at you or your kids yelling at you. We’re hoping that all of these plays are so exciting and inspirational that it allows theater to do what it does best – bring people somewhere they’ve never been before, meet people they’ve never met, and feel like they’re sharing the same air, the same space.”
To see a full list of show dates and times, go to the 2021-2022 season webpage. Tickets go on sale Oct. 4 at the Box Office in the Fine Arts Center, 105 Upper College Road, or by calling (401) 874-5843.
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