Commissioning new works with distant collaborators
At the outset of the pandemic, True Colors Theatre Company was preparing to host the national finals of its high school monologue competition, traditionally an in-person event that brought regional finalists from around the country to New York City. At the time, the theater saw the energy of an in-person gathering as a critical component of the event. Pandemic closures forced the move to a virtual platform, where students participated in workshops, received coaching, and shared their monologues. Despite the change of format, the event was meaningful and engaging for the participants.
This early success helped True Colors see the possibilities of digital programming. The theater’s vision is to thrive at the intersection of artistic excellence and civic engagement. With COVID shutting down live performances, the theater turned its focus to civic programming. A long-standing program called Community Conversations, originally created to discuss the themes of True Colors productions, shifted to Zoom and expanded in scope. During the pandemic, the conversations have increased in number and have covered topics like access to theater for Black youth, chosen family, and teaching Black theater. The conversations are often presented with a community partner and sometimes streamed by a collaborator, such as WABE radio.
True Colors has also learned to be more intentional in its community relationship building. For example, it has involved Atlanta’s vibrant LGBTQIA+ community in its civic programming and worked to provide access to the deaf and hard of hearing community. The theater sees reaching out to these communities through its Community Conversations as a mark of success. Rather than a preoccupation with attendance numbers at individual events, which can be up and down, the focus is on reaching new audiences for the first time, generating excitement on social media, and seeing others share information about the events.
The pandemic also provided the opportunity for True Colors to fast-track its efforts to become a commissioning theater as part of its Next NarrativeTM work. For example, New Page commissions three local artists to write one-hour plays intended for the digital space. Dihvinely Konnecked commissions early-career artists, with micro-commissions premiering on True Colors’ social media. The Drinking Gourd, with Seattle-based Hansberry Project, co-commissions the work of Black playwrights to premiere digitally. In-person, the travel between Atlanta and Seattle would have made this project too expensive to consider. COVID demonstrated that a virtual collaboration was possible.
Throughout the pandemic, the theater struggled with obtaining the necessary intellectual property rights and with generating revenue, as charging for digital tickets has been difficult. It also had to build interest in its work, since it did not have an established digital audience. Its local audience tends to be older and to prefer in-person contact. Learning to make meaningful connections required surveys to gather information and a process of trial-and-error. Throughout, the theater has been helped by the consistency of its programming despite the variable attendance numbers and by the knowledge that it may plant a seed and have an attendee return many years later, even if not right away.