Broadway's Michael Arden Wants to Create "Socially Distant" Theatre

Juan A. Ramirez
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May 26, 2020 8:00 PM

Michael Arden, the two-time Tony Award nominated director and actor, is using his COVID-19 self-isolation as an opportunity to devise a “socially distant” piece of immersive theatre in Philmont, New York. With funds sourced through an ongoing Kickstarter campaign, the production, tentatively titled Alone/Together, aims to have audiences drive through several site-specific scenes staged throughout the Hudson Valley village.

The piece, and the money being raised alongside it, are intended to help both New York-area artists struggling to make ends meet during isolation, as well as the nearby Vanderbilt Lakeside Inn and Restaurant.

“This project was born out of me wanting to help my neighbors,” Arden said during a recent Zoom interview. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if I could figure out a way to get them some income, both as a restaurant and as a hotel? What if I could house a company there that they could feed?’ I thought it could be a quarantine center for a company of artists to create a piece of site-specific, socially-distanced theatre.”

Arden, best known for his inventive revivals of Once on This Island (staged in the round with a gender fluid cast) and Spring Awakening (performed simultaneously in English and American Sign Language), is still working out the production’s logistics. Performances will be limited to 12 vehicles, each of which will be individually directed through staged scenes before culminating in a final scene presented at once to all audience members.

“I want the performances to respond to the space,” he said. “Everyone will have a special app that guides them through this. We’ll be able to track where people are and communicate with them, so it’s quite a logistical exploration.”

Arden plans to have the company “self-quarantine” at the Inn for two weeks prior to the first performances, set for early June. Along with having room and board taken care of, the funds raised will go towards providing the artists with a small stipend as they rehearse.

“Right now, for the artists, that’s certainly a better deal than doing a reading for a not-for-profit in New York [City], or at a summer festival,” he said. “It’s a win-win for everybody, and if we can provide art in this time, how great.”

The cast and company have been devising the piece together, meeting three times a week via Zoom and using the theme of dreams and dormancy as a guiding point.

“I’ve been giving homework in terms of looking for times in their lives where there has been a dead end or crossroad and a way forward,” Arden said. “Everyone’s doing dream work and writing them down to share them, so scenarios and ideas have bubbled up. It’s almost been like an interesting group therapy.”

The 23-member cast, which Arden said took only a day of phone calls to assemble, includes several previous collaborators, members of his self-described “tribe,” and his husband Andy Mientus.

“It’s a really varied company of ballet dancers, singers, actors, stage managers, technicians, filmmakers, so everyone’s bringing something different,” Arden said. “We’ve been looking at this region––this is where Rip Van Winkle went to sleep for 100 years in the myth––so we’ve been talking about how that relates. We’re not making a piece about COVID-19, we’re making a piece out of this time.”

While there are no plans to stream the production, Arden, whose directorial debut was a site-specific Los Angeles production of Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde in 2012, will document performances for future reference.

“I think this is actually something that could work for a lot of people,” he said. “It’s a proof of concept to show how this might work and how this technology can usher people from place to place. If we can do it safely and if it’s any good, then it can happen again, even after COVID-19.”

Arden was recently announced to be making his film directing debut with The Book of Ruth,  about Ruth Coker Burks, who became known as the “Cemetery Angel” for caring for (and burying) AIDS patients during the 1980s epidemic. The film will star Matt Bomer and Ruth Wilson, with Ryan Murphy as producer.

“We’re still on track to make this film.” he said. “It’s actually more vital and immediate than ever because it is about people responding to the AIDS crisis and the fear and stigma and stories around that––it’s a more immediate metaphor than it was before, unfortunately. In terms of timeline, everything’s up in the air.”

The national tour of Once on This Island, which was set to run through July of this year, has been cancelled, though Arden is hopeful it might return with a shortened schedule. Maybe Happy Ending, a South Korean musical whose American premiere Arden directed in Atlanta earlier this year, faces a similarly uncertain future.

“I think we all feel like we jumped into the water because the ship was on fire and swam away from it,” he said. “And now we’ve swum so far that we don’t see the ship anymore, yet we don’t see land. I don’t know where we’re going and it’s a bit unsettling, but that’s the point at which we all become strong swimmers. So maybe that’s the hope.”

*This article originally appeared on Theatre Talk Boston.

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Juan A. Ramirez

Juan A. Ramirez writes arts and culture reviews, features, and interviews for publications in New York and Boston, and will continue to do so until every last person is annoyed. Thanks to his MA in Film and Media Studies from Columbia University, he has suddenly found himself the expert on Queer Melodrama in Venezuelan Cinema, and is figuring out ways to apply that.