As a new year begins and coronavirus restrictions continue to place creative limitations on theaters and performing artists, Richmonders aren’t slowing down but rather experimenting with a new visual medium. The collective move to livestreaming productions and digital content has some local theater artists re-imagining former stage performances as film projects to be produced and released in 2021.
Cadence’s Sitelines BLM Project and Chandler Hubbard’s play “Shanidar” are fueled by the artistic need to respond to the current moment. They are making the move to the screen.
“At its heart it’s the same, as far as working with the actors” says director Chelsea Burke, who is working with playwright Chandler Hubbard and filmmaker Austin Lewis to bring Hubbard’s play “Shanidar” to the screen. “There are so many other moving pieces to this and I am having such a fun and intense time learning about this process.”
The move to direct and produce “Shanidar” as a film came about after a staged reading of the script through Fifth Wall Theatre in November 2019. At that time, the script had so many scenes that Burke turned to Hubbard and said, “I think you wrote a movie.”
Burke describes the film as “a quiet apocalypse, a different kind of horror movie.”
The script follows six women and nonbinary survivors who find themselves holed up in a crumbling Virginia country home after a cataclysmic event has wiped out society. When the pandemic took hold in March, Burke, Hubbard and Lewis all realized how relevant the scary material was.
“We sort of woke up one day and found ourselves in the middle of a national nightmare that didn’t look like anything that we’d seen on screen before,” Hubbard explains. “The apocalyptic movies you see on the screen have the White House exploding, you know, ships falling into New York harbor, tectonic plates shifting and this was about the courage of just waking up and getting through the day.”
“Shanidar” deals with a different kind of terror: the psychological toll of always countering an unseen threat.
“There is an otherworldly antagonist in the script, this thing in the room with you at this very moment while you’re sitting here thinking,” Hubbard says. “I think that has an emotional and psychological resonance with the COVID world that we’re living in.”
The production features a crew and a cast composed of Virginia-based talent, including actresses Boomie Pederson, Michelle Greensmith, Lucretia Anderson, Marjie Southerland and Lucy Caudle. Burke says she couldn’t have asked for a better cast and crew and she’s proud to have local talent at all levels. “I am very much community-centric,” she says. “And this film is about survival and sanity, the need for community and why isolation is dangerous.”
“Art is a unifying force,” Hubbard says, adding that he thinks the move from stage to screen is “a necessary evolution for this moment.”
Similarly, Omiyemi “Artisia” Green, associate professor of theater and Africana studies at the College of William & Mary and chair of the Sitelines BLM Adjudicating Committee, says that the pandemic “requires us to rethink many of our existing production processes to account for social distancing,” but that the need for innovative and healing theater and performance art has never been more urgent. The Black Lives Matter Movement continues to call for artists to put the spotlight on stories that centralize communities that have been historically marginalized.
Cadence Theatre Company’s Sitelines project has, in past years, brought theater into the Richmond community with free productions staged in public spaces, such as the Byrd Theatre and the Maggie Walker Governor’s School. But instead of inviting audiences to enjoy the work in a public space, Sitelines BLM has commissioned scripts from five local minority playwrights to be filmed in 2021. Each play, set in or around a Richmond historic site, grapples with the city’s complex history. In its new iteration, Sitelines takes a deeper look at the shifting meanings of place and space throughout history.
“The harsh reality is that Richmond’s history is deeply rooted in racial trauma,” says Sitelines BLM playwright and Richmond native Brittany Fisher. Her play, “Bleach,” will include the Lee monument and the African Burial Ground as filming locations. Fisher says the concept for her piece came out of the controversy surrounding the Confederate monuments.
“It focuses on this concept of erasure – of culture, history, identity, etc. – all as it relates to the ways many people choose to stay oblivious to the racial injustice taking place all around us,” Fisher says. At first, she worried that the Lee monument would be “too obvious” for this project, but in the end, she realized the controversy over the city’s monuments belonged in her script. “They’ve become such a symbol of division in the city now more than ever, and that’s exactly what I’m writing about.”
Sitelines BLM playwright and senior Virginia Commonwealth University theater student Obadiah Parker says he appreciates the fact that the Sitelines BLM project is creating space not just for Black writers, but up-and-coming Black voices in particular.
“Within my work and who I am, I try to be an advocate and a voice for those who are voiceless,” Parker says. His contribution will focus on a Black man and a woman with selective mutism who form a spiritual bond at a predominantly white church. He says he was inspired by the red door of Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, where Parker has volunteered. “It’s a spiritual journey, interwoven with elements of the Black aesthetic and created with the goal to heal and cleanse and bind the Black community,” Parker says.
Richmond actress and Sitelines BLM playwright Margarette Joyner says she has always been captivated by the Virginia War Memorial and Leo F. Friedlander’s “Memory,” a 22-foot-tall statue of a woman in mourning. When she was commissioned by Sitelines BLM to write a play about this space, she finally went to visit.
“I walked the long corridor, spoke some of the names out loud,” Joyner recalls. “Before leaving I looked up at her and knew that there were more names I wanted her to hold in her heart. … They were somebody’s child, father, mother, brother or sister and they too deserve to be remembered. And because she is larger than life, I’m sure she has room for them, too.”