The Front Porch Plays: Socially-Distanced, Covid-Safe, Micro-Theatre

by Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder
The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 35, Number 2 (Spring 2023)
ISNN 2376-4236
©2023 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

On a mild day in June 2020, four actors, each in their own car, paraded through the small, rural college town of Sewanee, Tennessee.  Similar to the pageant wagons of medieval times, the goal was to bring theatre to the people all while offering entertainment, enlightenment, and an opportunity for fellowship. The production: The Front Porch Plays, an evening of socially-distanced, Covid-safe, micro-theatre.

Actor Virginia Craighill performs for community members.
Actor Virginia Craighill performs for community members.

Made popular in Spain, micro-theatre aims to create intimate theatrical experiences by performing short-form theatre to small audiences.  Developed in response to the financial crisis in Spain, micro-theatre became a way to produce new theatre at a time when the arts were underfunded. Productions are produced quickly, with minimal financial investment, making them affordable for artists who want to create theatre that is accessible.

The Front Porch Plays was also created in response to a crisis: the Covid pandemic. Theatre has always been a communal event: it is both created and consumed together.  As it became clear that the country’s three-week social experiment in isolation in the spring of 2020 was going to extend through the summer I began to explore ways to tell stories which allowed for human interaction while also maintaining social distancing.  Inspired by the innovative work being done by arts organizations forced to pivot away from their traditional programming, The Front Porch Plays was born.

My interest in site-specific theatre makes me look at my surroundings through a different lens.  I see possibility in unlikely places. I’ve hosted new work in kitchens, art galleries, and even a freight elevator.  However, because of the pandemic indoor spaces were off-limits. Social distancing would require more space.  Luckily, our town, which sits on the Cumberland Plateau provided the perfect setting.

Like so many theatre artists, I found myself feeling an enormous sense of loss as our new reality became apparent.  A world-premiere production of a new play, two years in the making, was shut down eight days into rehearsal while other projects I had planned were put on hold.  In the early days of the pandemic, I wrote monologues for two theatre companies that were pivoting to online programming.  These events offered me the opportunity to write while contributing to the theatre community that had been decimated.  With those two pieces as my foundation, I began writing additional monologues.  My hope was to create a short collection of monologues that worked in conversation with one another.

Monologues can be deceptive in their simplicity; however, a well-written monologue not only tells a story, but it has a clear objective and is active.  Each character I created wanted something very specific:  a mother who wanted to pass down her cast iron skillet; a teenager who wanted the freedom to watch a comet she would only see once in her lifetime; a man who wanted to connect with his neighbor.  While none of the monologues explicitly mentioned the pandemic, the subtext of each piece informed the audience that these were people unable to move freely in the world, who were trying to make connections with others despite barriers.  Once I had several monologues to choose from, I settled on four that I knew I could cast from within my community.  The goal was to make the event long enough to feel fulfilling while keeping it short enough to perform multiple times a night for multiple groups of people.

We began by rehearsing over Zoom and then gathered outdoors to run the show. To help with transitions we added a guitar player.  The monologues, when presented together, ran approximately 12 minutes in total.  Because we are a small town, I was able to create a route each night that required only a three to five-minute drive between each stop. We limited ourselves to five performances each night which meant that with performance and travel time, I was only asking for 90 minutes of commitment from the actors.  The show was billed as “socially distanced micro-theatre from the safety of your front porch.”  Hosts were asked to limit guests to ten.  This made it easier to social distance, but in the spirit of micro-theatre, it also created a more intimate experience.

Word spread quickly as community members, eager for something to look forward to, signed up. Guests waited; some gathered on their front porches, others in lawn chairs in their yards, and they cheered when we arrived.  The project was so popular that we added a second weekend of performances.

Community members waiting for the arrival of the Front Porch Plays. The audience was asked to social-distance and limit their group to 10 people.
Community members waiting for the arrival of the Front Porch Plays. The audience was asked to social-distance and limit their group to 10 people.

The response from the community was overwhelming. One audience member wrote, “We would like to thank you so much for your efforts in providing a really special experience this past weekend! It was such fun, and really perfection! We continue to marvel at how the community comes together and shares their many gifts with others!” Another responded by saying, “This was such a gift. It was a reminder of the outside world, a way to enter another world, and a way to be (safely) in community.”

Once I knew the project was possible, I created a “how to” guide to walk people through the entire process and offered it to theatres royalty-free as long as their performances were free of charge.  The project was quickly picked up by the Nomad Theatre, based in Indiana. Rather than charging admission, they chose to accept donations.  On their first day of performances, they raised more than $1300 which was then split between organizations that support Black and LGBTQ+ communities.  According to producer Connie Blick, “Each and every one of us felt alive again, being able to be creative and share our talents in front of an audience.”

Theatre artists have always responded in times of crisis.  It is the way we make sense of the world around us. At a time when we were otherwise isolated from one another, theatre once again offered a way to examine the human condition while creating connection and community.

Actor Jim Crawford performs his monologue for community members in Sewanee, TN.
Actor Jim Crawford performs his monologue for community members in Sewanee, TN.

Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder is currently the Tennessee Williams Playwright-in-Residence at Sewanee: The University of the South.  Her work has been produced, developed, and commissioned by the Royal Court, Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Denver Center Theatre, New Conservatory Theatre, Arden Theatre, Cleveland Play House, Geva Theatre, Sloan Foundation, and Pioneer Theatre, among others.  Elyzabeth is a graduate of NYU and an alum of Youngblood.


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