The Show(s) Must Go On

The Show(s) Must Go On

University Theatre finds ways to make lemonade


This fall, University of Arkansas Department of Theatre students will be facing something they have in common with actors, designers and directors all over the world. They’ll be putting on a theater season without a live audience due to covid-19 restrictions. The department announced its slate of fall shows, and they’re all scheduled to be virtual productions that audiences will sign into through a Zoom room.

“The most important element of live performance, aside from the people doing the work, is the audience,” notes Michael Riha, department chairman. “Unfortunately, we have no real way to engage. We can’t hear them applaud, laugh, sigh, breathe — the performers can’t feel what live performers feel when the audience is in the room, whether that’s a room the size of [Kimpel Hall Black Box Theater Space] 404 or a room the size of Madison Square Garden. Performers need to feel the presence of an audience — that’s part of their training, and for the time being, we’re not going to be able to rely on that.”

The key, says Riha, is finding the sunny side of a global pandemic — as much as that can be done.

“We’re finding ways to make lemonade out of lemons,” he says. “We’re finding other aspects of this art form that we can focus on for our actors, directors and designers, and we’re hoping and planning that this is temporary and that we can get back to training theater artists the way that we know we’re most prepared and able to do.”

The department kicked off the season with MFA playwright Brendan Beseth’s “Thrift Store Junkie,” shown via Zoom performances Sept. 10-12. “The Laramie Project” by Moises Kaufman and the Members of Tectonic Theater Company is up next, opening on Oct. 1.

“We’re doing a unique presentation with that,” Riha explains. “Because it’s such a long play, we’re having conversations with the director and designers prior to curtain on the first three nights, where they’ll discuss the play and what the designs might have been had it been presented in a real theater, and they’ll take questions from online audience members. Act I will be presented on Oct. 1, Act II on Oct. 2 and Act III on Oct. 3. The second weekend, we’ll run it straight through.”

“The Laramie Project,” written in 2000, is about the fallout after the murder of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyo. Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project conducted hundreds of interviews with the townspeople of Laramie, and the play uses those interviews, along with company members’ personal accounts of the project and newspaper stories of the day to weave a compelling narrative about the brutal hate crime.

The next fall show is Jack Heifner’s 1976 dramedy classic “Vanities.” Opening on Nov. 6, the plot follows the friendship of three Texas women through high school, college and their post-college years.

University of Arkansas Department of Theatre Chairman Michael Riha — seen here in the renovated Global Campus black box theater on the Fayetteville square — says he and his department are making lemonade from lemons when it comes to making the best of the covid-19 restrictions prohibiting them from public performances.
(File Photo/Andy Shupe)

UA MFA playwright alum Rachel Lynett’s “I’m F*cking Tired of Writing Plays About This” is next up, opening on Nov. 13.

“Rachel is currently in Madison, Wis., working at the University of Wisconsin and heading up her own theater company,” says Riha. “We’re doing a staged reading of her show and then a moderated talk-back with the playwright.”

Lynett’s timely play takes place after another black man is killed by the police, as a group of old friends “discuss race, gender and the lines that divide us, even amongst our closest friends.”

“So it looks much different than what we anticipated, but it’s engaging students in a way that allows them to explore,” says Riha, back to making lemonade. “It’s giving us time to work with our brand new cohort of 10 MFA designers before shoving them into production, which I think will pay dividends in year two. They’ll be far more comfortable, because they know their fellow designers, actors and directors far better through dialoguing and discussing plays and productions without the pressure of production.”

Riha says he is determined that the restrictions during the 2020-21 season will not be a detriment to the learning experiences of the students under his care. He has big plans to bring in guest directors and lecturers to expose students to as wide a swath of theater professions as possible.

“Kevin Adams, the Tony Award-winning lighting designer for ‘American Idiot’; Christine Jones, set designer for the ‘Harry Potter’ show that’s on Broadway right now — and many others that we’re bringing in,” notes Riha. “We hope to bring in 15 guest artists from around the country — including stage managers, road supervisors, the folks who manage tech on the road — so that they can see that there are plenty of professional opportunities out there.”

And although this fall’s theater offerings will be free to audiences, Riha asks that patrons consider that the revenue loss from this season will affect the department.

“That revenue is really important in supporting student work and bringing in guest artists,” he notes. “Patrons can go to our website and make a donation.”

An announcement about the spring shows will be made later in the fall semester, says Riha.



UA Theatre

Fall Season

‘The Laramie Project’

Oct. 1-11

Conversation with the director and designers at 7 p.m. before the Oct. 1 (Act I), Oct. 2 (Act II), and Oct.3 (Act III) performances. The cast will join the director in a moderated 30-minute conversation to chat about the play and their creative processes, with an opportunity for the audience to submit questions.

Oct. 9

Online performance at 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 10-11

Online performance at 2 p.m.

“The Laramie Project analyzes the death of Matthew Shepard, an openly gay college student who was brutally murdered in Laramie, Wyo., in 1998 because of his sexual identity. Shepard’s murder is one of the most well-known hate crimes in recent American history; in 2009, the U.S. Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, a piece of legislation that strengthens existing hate crime laws.”


Nov. 6-8

Online performances at 7:30 p.m.

A bittersweet comedy that is an astute, snapshot sharp chronicle of the lives of three Texas girls. In 1963, Joanne, Kathy, and Mary are aggressively vivacious cheerleaders. Five years later, in their college sorority house, they are confronting their futures with nervous jauntiness. In 1974, they reunite briefly in New York. Their lives have diverged, and their friendship, which once thrived on assumption as well coordinated as sweater sets, is strained and ambiguous. Old time banter rings false. Their attempts at honest conversation only show they can no longer afford to have very much in common.

‘I’m F*cking Tired of Writing Plays About This’

Nov. 13

Staged reading at 7:30 p.m. * Moderated discussion to follow.

After yet another black man is unnecessarily killed by the police, a group of friends get together at a dinner party to discuss race, gender and the lines that divide us even amongst our closest friends. Each of the characters is challenged about their beliefs as they struggle to come to terms with their own unconscious bias.

WHERE — For information about how to get Zoom tickets and log on to see the show, see

COST — All shows are free; consider donating to the department to compensate for the loss of ticket revenue due to the covid-19 performance restrictions.

INFO — 575-4301

Categories: Theater