Return of In-Person Theater Brings Fresh Ideas to Central Ohio's Leading Theater Companies

Theater groups are returning to stages with relief and new ideas.

Peter Tonguette
Carmine Grisolia, Je’Shaun Jackson and Cory Velazco sing “Brother Trucker” in CATCO’s  online  production of “Working: A Musical.”

Central Ohio’s leading theater companies have a message: Live performances are back.

CATCO, Shadowbox Live and Short North Stage each presented online offerings during the pandemic. The surge of virtual activity was welcome to stuck-at-home fans, and to actors (and behind-the-scenes artists) needing employment.

“It started off very strong with ‘John and Jen’ and ‘When Pigs Fly,’” says Short North Stage artistic director Edward Carignan, referring to two early virtual productions from the company. The troupe’s online success peaked with “Quarantine with the Clauses,” which featured 60 local performers.

Yet over time, virtual attendance began to wane.

Carignan looks forward to an all-in-person 2021–22 season, which kicked off at the Garden Theater Sept. 2 and goes until Sept. 19 with the farce “Noises Off.” “We’re going to stay focused on doing the live theater that we’ve always done, because that is what people want,” Carignan says.

Similar sentiments are echoed by leaders at other organizations. “For those of us, like me, who are trained in in-person theater, it has just been so wonderful to be sharing a space with actors again,” says CATCO artistic director Leda Hoffmann, whose group recently returned to performing live with an outdoor production of “An Iliad” on the campus of Ohio State University.

Ticket sales for CATCO’s virtual programming were “nothing close to the ticket sales that we had in-person,” Hoffmann says, but since the goal was to keep artists employed and content in front of fans, “In that way, it was a huge success.”

But audiences will see some changes in local theater. Responding to the racial reckoning of the past year, Short North Stage has redoubled its efforts to cast actors from diverse backgrounds in the 2021—2022 season, including for “Little Shop of Horrors” (March 17–April 16) and “Sister Act” (Dec. 2–Jan. 2); the latter supplanted a planned production of “Newsies” so the company could feature more performers of color.

CATCO’s slate of shows at the Riffe Center this season includes Black playwright Jocelyn Bioh’s “School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play” (Jan. 27–Feb. 13).

The time away from the stage and the COVID-related adaptations offered lessons for leaders. After doing some socially-distanced shows, Shadowbox, which resumed live shows in May and plans to “stair-step” to full capacity by the end of the year, decided to continue taking full advantage of its space.

“We didn’t want performers to be close to one another, so we really spread things out all over the stage,” says Shadowbox CEO Stacie Boord. “Well, that really gave us a new appreciation: ‘We should do this more.’”

The time away from performing allowed the company to stockpile content—its comedy team has written a year’s worth of sketch material—and add new ideas. “Now, what if we added a scrim over here? And what if we did video projection clear across the stage?” Boord says. “We’re looking at all of that now.”

But the bottom line is clear: A computer screen just can’t compete with a crowd. “We learned a ton, but probably what it did, more than anything, was renew our commitment to the live experience,” Boord says. “There’s a reason we’re called Shadowbox Live.”