SpeakEasy Stage Goes Virtual for a 30th Anniversary Spectacular

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday November 18, 2020

Paul Daigneault
Paul Daigneault  (Source:Courtesy SpeakEasy Stage Company)

As theaters in Boston, around the country, and around the world adapt and innovate to get through the COVID-19 pandemic, SpeakEasy Stage Company has taken to the digital realm to continue engaging its audience and addressing the topics of our time through theater (and conversations about theater). This being the company's 30th anniversary year, SpeakEasy Stage has all the more reason to forge forward, refusing to allow the challenges faced by the theater community to dampen their spirits.

Case in point: The company's upcoming virtual show "Celebrating 30 Seasons of Groundbreaking Theatre," a virtual benefit concert that brings together veterans of past productions to share their good wishes for the company and present all-new performances of some of the most memorable selections from the more than 150 musical theater productions SpeakEasy has mounted over the past three decades.

The concert will stream "live" on Nov. 19 at 7:30 p.m., with the artists joining in to make their comments in real time before the company presses "play" on pre-recorded performances that have been engineered and edited for a polished presentation. The show will then be available on-demand for the next several days, through Monday, Nov. 24. (Tickets and more information are available at this link.)

Joining the fun are an array of Boston theater stars: Kathy St. George, Sam Simahk, Kerry Dowling, Jennifer Ellis, Will McGarrahan, Leigh Barrett, Karen MacDonald, Erica Spyres, and a plethora of others — not to mention the return of Broadway stars Miguel Cervantes and De'Lon Grant, the latter of whom will also host the proceedings.

EDGE caught up with SpeakEasy Stage Company's Producing Artistic Director, Paul Daigneault, to find out more specifics about the show and hear what went on behind the scenes to put it all together.

EDGE: This concert brings back a number of SpeakEasy Stage veterans who'll be appearing in real-time — at least, for the premiere presentation — and then singing numbers from past productions. But these performances are not also taking place in real-time, are they?

Paul Daigneault: The performances are not remotely live — they're all pre-taped. We sent the piano and the orchestrations for everyone, and they set up their own performance area, whether it's in their own home or a studio, so all of the performances will be great audio quality and have visual elements and be professionally done. We won't be at the mercy of our Internet connections.

EDGE: Are all of these stars reprising numbers from shows they starred in, or have you had to make the occasional substitution?

Paul Daigneault: It's a combination. The majority are songs that people sang in a SpeakEasy show — like, Jen Ellis' "Unusual Way" from the musical "Nine," and Crystin Gilmore is singing "The Color Purple" from "The Color Purple." There are a few instances where we chose to have another actor sing a song from a show that we did but they weren't necessarily in. [These choices were made] mostly around the availability of the original actors, or trying to see a different take on a song featuring some of our younger actors in Boston who weren't around for some of the earlier shows, those kinds of things. But mostly it's [actors revisiting plays they were in]. Miguel's going to sing something from "Bat Boy," and that will be a nice [re-visitation].

What I like about the concert is if you have been with SpeakEasy for a long time, coming to see our shows, it's going to be a great trip down memory lane; but it's also not just for SpeakEasy insiders. If you're a musical theater fan, these are some great songs from great musical theater shows, so you'll have a good time.

EDGE: How will the show be put together? Will it be chronological in some sense, or arranged thematically?

Paul Daigneault: We haven't structured it in a chronological way, like, "On this date we did this." That can get sort of tedious. We have arranged it thematically; we've grouped the numbers that sort of speak to each other in conversation, and I think that's a much more dynamic structure than going chronologically.

Will McGarrahan (left) and David Foley (right) in SpeakEasy's production of 'A New Brain'  (Source: LBK Photography)

EDGE: Were there some alums from SpeakEasy productions you wanted to lure back, but just couldn't work it out?

Paul Daigneault: Not so much work it out, but we lost contact over time, or they're no longer doing theater — things like that. Everybody we've approached has been so generous! I think we had almost 100% participation from the people that we reached out to. Also, there are a couple of group numbers that we're doing that I wanted to just offer people who were not doing solos [so they could also have] an opportunity to be part of the show. For instance, the opening number is "Heart and Music" from "A New Brain," which is a great William Finn musical that we did years ago. Two of the eight people in that number were in the original cast, but the others are SpeakEasy veterans that I just really wanted to have participate, so I offered them the opportunity to come in on this one.

EDGE: Thirty seasons and more than 150 productions means SpeakEasy has a lot to celebrate! What went into selecting the songs from SpeakEasy's considerable production history?

Paul Daigneault: I just really went through every musical that we did and then pulled out two or three songs from each musical — like, "These are the greatest hits" — and then went from there and said, "Oh, this person's around," and "Wouldn't this song [be great to include?]" Also, I had to think about what songs are going to do well in this virtual world, right? What songs are going to translate well to a video instead of the live experience. There were just a lot of those decisions.

The other thing to say is that we don't want it to be a three-hour concert. We think it's going to be, at most, an hour to 75 minutes.

EDGE: Winnowing down to a 75-minute show from all the choices you had must have been a huge undertaking in itself.

Paul Daigneault: Yeah! Actually, right after this call, I'm going to work with the video editor all day to make those decisions. They've got a rough cut already, but we're going to hone it and make it look really great. I haven't done the hard work yet. That's happening today.


Paul Daigneault: During this time when we're all staring at screens for so long, an hour or 75 minutes is perfect. Any more than that, the pause button might get hit, or even the stop button. I want to capture people's attention and keep them captivated for that amount of time.

EDGE: You're directing this concert — how on Earth did you manage the task with so many stars, so many numbers, so many remote locations and technical questions to have to sort through and organize — to say nothing of the editing task you're still faced with?

Paul Daigneault: A lot of the directing was in what we just talked about — the selection and the ordering of the piece, and I've done that with my staff at SpeakEasy, and that's been very fun. And then, having individual conversations with each actor about whether we're going to do it in the context of the show, and then go back down memory lane; or, approach this song outside the context of the show, and have a personal interpretation. We've taken different points of view, just depending on the song and the actor.

For instance, Karen McDonald is singing "As We Stumble Along" from "The Drowsy Chaperone," which is a great anthem, in the context of the show, to alcoholism — it's very funny in that context — but now, it becomes an anthem to perseverance and resilience during this terrible time. So, it takes on a whole new meaning. So really, all I've done is have those individual conversations and worked with the music director to get the piano track, and then the actors have worked with my production team to put their piece together on their own because I'm not going to people's houses and directing them. It's all been over Zoom.

Clockwise from left: Kerry A. Dowling, Michael Mendiola, Sara Chase, and Miguel Cervantes as Bat Boy  (Source: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo)

EDGE: It's a whole new way of making art.

Paul Daigneault: Sure is!


EDGE: But that's what theater companies like SpeakEasy do best — they get creative, especially in challenging times.

Paul Daigneault: Right. It's not the same way we've made art before, but it's new, and there's something fun about the newness of it, right? I always thought that in another life I might be a movie editor. When I watch movies I think, "Oh, that's an interesting idea in how they edited this." Editing gives you a lot of control in how you tell the story. I often say that good theater directors know how to edit when they're in the room with actors and designers. So, to get a chance to flex those muscles is a new opportunity.

I will say, of course, I'd rather be in the room with artists, creating live theater, but in the meantime, this is an opportunity to learn something new.

EDGE: Tell me about the technical details in terms of how people can watch the show.

Paul Daigneault: We're showing it live at 7:30 on the 19th, but people can view it for five days afterward. People can have that communal event, where they're watching it "live" — at the same time — as everybody, and there'll be a live chat function during the broadcast, but there will be a link for everybody who purchases tickets to view the show for five days after [the initial broadcast].

EDGE: Do you mean this will be an "on-demand" experience and people who buy tickets can watch the show whenever it works for them? Or will the show be presented at specific times during the weekend, just as if it were happening live on stage?

Paul Daigneault: No, it'll be on-demand. The only performance that will be a specific time will be the first presentation on Thursday at 7:30 pm., and then there will be a link that you can use to view the concert on demand for five days after.

EDGE: Will that link be a one-time view only, or can people come back and enjoy the show more than once with that one ticket?

Paul Daigneault: I don't know the answer to that! I'm planning on viewing it multiple times! I don't think it's just one viewing, but check with [Director of Marketing and Communications] Jim [Torres] on that.

[Editor's note: Jim Torres tells EDGE: "Each person will get two links - one to watch the concert on Thursday night at 7:30, which will have a live chat feature, and one to watch the concert on their own time schedule anytime through Monday, November 23."]

Lovely Holffman (left) and Crystin Gilmore (right) in 'The Color Purple'  (Source: Glenn Perry Photography)

EDGE: SpeakEasy has kept busy and kept the audience engaged not only with projects like this concert, but with a Play Discussion Club, the adaptation of an original play by M.J. Halberstadt into a podcast series, and now there's a series you're doing called "Where Are They Wednesdays," where you check in with some of your alumni. These series seem to fit in with the overall notion of using new technology and new ideas around engagement between artists and audiences. You've talked with Greg Maraio and Sam Simahk for the "Where Are They Wednesday" series — are there others who will also be part of this?

Paul Daigneault: Yes, I think we're doing it the entire year for our 30th. Jim is very good at choosing alums who will fit what's going on with the calendar. For instance, we chose Greg around Halloween because his freelance gig is making costumes. So, we try and align it with what's going on in the world. We talked with Sabrina Victor a couple of weeks ago. She is Miss Massachusetts, and she is just about to go to the Miss USA pageant, so we featured her because it was very timely.

Jim and I have developed a list of possible people, but we don't have the entire calendar fleshed out. But it's tons of fun, and people have been really into answering the interview questions and participating. It's a nice way to stay connected to SpeakEasy's artists, and see what they're up to.

EDGE: When we spoke before, which seems like forever ago, you had hopes that you would be able to get back to work and be doing live stuff in the first quarter of next year. Have those plans changed?

Paul Daigneault: Our hopes are to produce something live and out of doors in the late spring. That would be our earliest hope. And then to return to something that resembles a season at a theater in the fall. And that might be very scaled back; I don't know what that looks like yet. That's currently our time frame.

In our last announcement, we'd said maybe March, but whether or not we're allowed to do that, I'm not confident that audiences will be ready. We'll go on the side of caution.

EDGE: What else might you have coming up as we wait for the eventual day we can get back to live theater?

Paul Daigneault: This concert, and then I am developing a winter-spring season that we'll announce in, probably, December. I can't go into the details yet, because there's still some budgeting and development that we'll have to figure out before we can cross our Ts and dot our Is. But the hope is that it will be similar to some of the programming that we're doing this fall, such as our Play Discussion Club and panels. And one thing that I'm really interested in is using theater to have conversations about difficult issues in America, using theater to hear both sides of an argument and returning to empathy. That is the idea behind the programming that I'm trying to plan for.

EDGE You'll certainly have no lack of material for that theme!

Paul Daigneault: That's our mission, of course — to create conversations through theater. These are the conversations that we need to be having right now, in my opinion, and so that's what we're going to try to do. And we're still sort of figuring out what's the best way, the most engaging way we can have those conversations through art with the current way we're living. Are we going to do them on Zoom? Are we going to try to film and live stream something? In the spring are we going to try to go outdoors and do short plays? That's all to be determined.

"Celebrating 30 Seasons of Groundbreaking Theatre" premieres Thursday, Nov. 19, at 7:30 pm and will be available through Monday, Nov. 23. Tickets are available at this link.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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