As Fall Quarter approaches, the Wirtz Center looks to new opportunities for student theatre and collaboration


Daily file photo by Ben Bomier

The Wirtz Center’s 2020 production of “Legally Blonde.” The Wirtz Center is currently working to determine how they will operate this fall amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wilson Chapman, Reporter

Of the many pillars of Northwestern student life to be affected by the move to online classes in the spring, few were hit harder than the theatre community. All live performances at Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts were put on hold, with a couple mainstage productions pushed back to the fall. With the COVID-19 pandemic showing no signs of ending, the status of the Wirtz Center’s shows remains unclear. However, the center remains committed to ensuring programming will continue, according to Managing Director Al Heartley.

“It’s definitely an opportunity for us to find something new and creative,” Heartley said. “That’s really going to be a big hallmark for the Wirtz Center, is how do we collaborate with our colleagues on the faculty, with the students, on what the future of performance and theatre looks like this year.”

The Wirtz Center plans to continue putting up as many productions as they do during a regular quarter; however, the methods in which they will present these works are still being discussed, and will likely be contingent on how the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state health guidelines evolve over the next few months. Formats in which shows may be presented include livestreams, outside productions, drive-in productions and heavily social-distanced indoor shows. Heartley said the Wirtz Center will prioritize the safety of student actors, and will partner with risk management employees in the School of Communication if in-person live shows become a reality.

The shows “Peerless” and “Peter and the Starcatcher” were pushed back from the spring. While a formal decision has not been made with “Peerless,” a small-scale show with only five cast members, there will be no in-person production of “Peter and the Starcatcher” at any point this calendar year. Heartley said the Wirtz Center is considering a digital presentation of the play.

Heartley said in addition to its mainstage show, the Wirtz Center anticipates that it will continue operating its various other programming series, such as Imagine U, its MFA Lab Series, and the American Musical Theatre Project. However, as of now, Heartley says most of these programs are still working out how they will operate in the coming quarter.

Imagine U, a Wirtz Center programming series aimed at children and families, has a definite plan to continue in the fall. According to Artistic Mentor Lynn Kelso, Imagine U will not produce a full-scale show this upcoming quarter but will continue to produce its series of online Storytime videos, which they have been releasing consistently during the spring and summer quarters. These short-form videos, which usually range from 10 to 15 minutes, aim to tell children’s stories through a wide variety of mediums, including readings of written works, short plays, dance pieces and music performances. The first Storytime video of the fall will be uploaded during the first week of classes, and a new one will be uploaded to the Wirtz Center’s Facebook and YouTube pages every Sunday.

To increase audience engagement while social distancing protocols are still in place, Kelso said the program will emphasize interactive elements in the Storytime videos. These elements give instructions for viewers to perform tasks like creating an art piece at home. In addition, Imagine U will also recruit students from outside of the theatre department, such as School of Education and Social Policy students, as well as creative writing or radio/television/film majors, to expand the mediums the series incorporates.

“There is so much creativity on campus, and this is an opportunity to use the theatrical aspects of story to share universal values with our community of families,” Kelso said.

In May, the University furloughed several Northwestern employees, including about 10 Wirtz Center employees. However, Heartley said he anticipates all of the employees will be able to return in the fall, as in-person operations their roles will resume. Heartley does anticipate that the Wirtz Center will likely face financial challenges and revenue shortages for as long as social distancing measures remain. To combat this, Heartley said the center will work to shift funds from several areas and increase fundraising to ensure the center can continue to thrive.

“As you can imagine, in a performing arts center, a lot of revenue depends on people coming together in large numbers in a group,” Heartley said. “We will be feeling repercussions from the pandemic for quite some time.”

Theatre prof. and Department Chair Rives Collins said a staff member in the theatre department was also furloughed. Collins said it is likely the staff member will be brought back in the fall, as operations scale up with students returning to campus.

Like many other departments, the theatre department will operate most classes online, although a few smaller ones will be conducted in-person or with a hybrid of in-person and online classes. Collins said only one class –– a production class where students act as a run crew member for a Wirtz Center show –– has been outright canceled, and the requirement to take a production-based class has been waived for students this year.

Collins said that, in working with the Wirtz Center to plan the upcoming season, there have been many discussions about scheduling and producing works that respond in a meaningful way to both the pandemic and the recent Black Lives Matter protests. In particular, the protests have prompted discussion about the works the Wirtz Center produces and the curriculum the theatre department teaches. Collins said although plans aren’t definite, they are trying to make a more active effort to increase diversity and inclusion in both areas.

“We’ve done digging for data of the shows that have happened on the Wirtz (Center) stage,” Collins said, “and we looked at it and said, ‘that’s not good.’ We need to do better.”

Although much is left to be determined around what the Wirtz Center will look like during the fall, Heartley said he is excited to use this fall as an opportunity to reimagine what the Wirtz Center looks like and the programming it is capable of creating. Heartley said he wants to emphasize collaborating with students during the time period, in order to improve the organization.

“The pandemic has forced all of us to confront questions and confront assumptions of how to make theater,” Heartley said. “The more buy-in that we’re able to get, and the more voices we’ll be able to listen to, the better the organization is going to be.”

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @wilsonchapman6