Health experts report that outdoor activities are safer for avoiding potential coronavirus transmission, and performing arts organizations shuttered by the pandemic have taken heed.
First forced to shut down completely, then restricted by prohibitions against large crowds, San Antonio theaters and concert halls went dormant. Groups ranging from the Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony to Urban-15 moved performances and events online using emergent livestreaming technologies.
As organizations adapt to the changing conditions of the pandemic, several have chosen to stage outdoor performances at local venues designed to accommodate them.
On Saturday morning, the Magik Theatre will take the stage of the Kelso Pavilion at the San Antonio Botanical Garden to perform Señora Tortuga, a bilingual play for young audiences that celebrates the joining of English-speaking and Spanish-speaking cultures.
Artistic director Anthon Runfola saw the recently built pavilion as ideal for presenting the Magik’s production. “I couldn’t ask for a better spot to perform during coronavirus times,” Runfola said.
Following Saturday’s 10:30 a.m. performance, Señora Tortuga will again be performed Sunday at 2 p.m., Nov. 1 at 2 p.m., and, finally, Nov. 7 at 10:30 a.m. Following the last performance, a version of the play recorded inside the Magik Theatre will be viewable on its Vimeo channel.
Though the Magik Theatre is a touring company used to performing in odd locations such as school gyms and cafeterias, competing with kitchen workers and announcements over the PA system, the outdoor location presents particular challenges.
“You’re sharing a space with the rest of the world,” he said. His visit to the space last week included airplanes flying over and buglers audibly playing “Reveille” from nearby Ft. Sam Houston.
Vociferous songbirds and croaking frogs accompanied productions of Macbeth when the Classic Theater San Antonio performed in the pavilion Oct. 2-11, said Kelly Roush, general and artistic director.
The SOLI Chamber Ensemble will also perform at the Botanical Garden on Sunday evening at 7:30 p.m., presenting its first concert of the season, titled Through the Eyes and Lens of the Beholder. Lawn seating tickets are available, and advance purchase is encouraged.
Artistic Director and clarinetist Stephanie Key said the Botanical Garden opened May 25 and had since demonstrated appropriate handling of safety protocols. As a COVID-19 survivor, Key said, “the only way we would be performing was in a situation where we knew safety protocols and health protocols were being held to an extremely high standard” to protect all involved.
“We were glad to see they respect this as much as we do,” Key said of the garden staff. “I want people to have the confidence that we’re doing everything we can safely.”
Key and husband David Mollenauer, SOLI cellist, saw Macbeth during its run in the Kelso Pavilion. “When you’re outside you open yourself to a lot more ambient sounds than you would in the protection of a concert hall or an indoor setting, but John Cage would have loved it,” she gamely said of the 20th century American composer who invited chance sounds into his compositions.
At least one piece is particularly well-suited to the outdoor setting, Key said. A “spooky” world-premiere arrangement by composer Michael Matthews, titled till our bodies into the night slip, practically invites bird calls and the strong winds of a South Texas fall night, she said.
While the pastoral setting of the Botanical Garden also suited the Old English scenario of Macbeth, including magical moments when the moon shone hauntingly over the production, Roush said the Espee location has presented new challenges.
Situated next to busy train tracks, random rumbles and horn blasts of passing trains are common, and the cast once contended with the loud voices of a gaggle of bicyclists riding past.
The ensemble cast quickly learned to adapt, Roush said. “The actors are all amazing. And we all said, ‘OK, so this is our challenge. How do we just own it?’”
That adaptability has marked each organizations’ approach to reaching audiences despite the ongoing pandemic.
Roush said that while the Classic Theatre’s “Theater in the Rough” season has necessarily departed from norms, productions are still based on their core values: safety, excellent theater, live performance, and long-term viability for the company.
Trying to achieve all those goals “made it so clear that outdoors seemed to be presenting the safest option of what we might be able to do,” Roush said. “This has been such an interesting, innovative time.”
This article has been corrected to reflect that the SOLI Chamber Ensemble performs Sunday evening.