ITHACA, NY -- When COVID-19 struck last March, theaters across the world were forced to close their doors and find new ways to connect with audiences in the midst of a pandemic. For the Cherry Arts, this meant reconfiguring their 2020-21 season into a series of virtual productions as innovative and intriguing as they were in person. According to Artistic Director Sam Buggeln, the Cherry’s already daring and experimental style put them in a uniquely fortunate position.
“Since we work so closely with international playwrights, we were able to call upon them last spring, which culminated in a new play we debuted virtually called “Felt Sad, Posted a Frog.” The Cherry worked with six playwrights from foreign countries and here in Ithaca to create a collection of short plays about the unprecedented quarantine everyone was experiencing.
“I love that we were able to meet the pandemic head on and find ways to incorporate the strangeness of isolation into the production” said Sarah Chaneles, the Cherry’s Marketing Manager.
“Felt Sad” gathered viewers across the country and abroad. Buggeln was pleased with the response, and the company has since dug deeper into the vast possibilities of a digital format. The Cherry next put on “A Day,” an ambitious production that used nine cameras on four live actors, constantly switching formats.
“Virtual theater can be so much more than just watching Zoom boxes, which is what we wanted to avoid. We’ve focused on making each virtual experience completely different,” Buggeln said. “A Day” also expanded The Cherry’s audience and became the company’s first production to be reviewed by the New York Times and numerous other theater review websites from around the country.
The Cherry just finished its run of “Hotel Good Luck,” their third live-streamed production. And while this play felt very different from the first two, what they all have in common is that they are performed live to web stream, keeping the spirit of anticipation and uncertainty that’s always made theater so electric as an art form.
“When figuring out how to structure our season, it was important to us to find a way to preserve the live element of theater” Artistic Associate Noah Elman says. “Live theater feels much more personal, so we wanted to preserve that essence of a live show where the audience has the chance to connect with an actor digging into the character in real time.”
The fact that The Cherry’s audience has been able to grow in such a strange and unsettling year proves that, especially in times when we feel so far apart, people are hungry to connect through art. The landscape of modern theater is changing quickly and permanently, and The Cherry’s goal is to always stay a step ahead.