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Safe Exposure 

Rose Wagner Center's artistic companies unite for a virtual evening about our pandemic moment.

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PLANB THEATRE COMPANY
  • PlanB Theatre Company

For nearly six months, the resident artistic companies at Salt Lake County's Rose Wagner Center have awaited the opportunity to be back on its stages again. Now, even as they finally get that chance, it's with a recognition of how much the world has changed for performing artists in those six months.

It has become a September tradition for the Rose Wagner Center's artistic residents—Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition, Repertory Dance Theatre, Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, SB Dance, Plan-B Theatre Company and Pygmalion Theatre Company—to collaborate on The Rose Exposed, an evening of performances at the venue to kick off the fall performing arts season. But with uncertainty still circling around the safety of live theatrical performances, the organizations collectively pivoted to a virtual presentation. The result is I Wanna Hold Your Hand, a socially-distanced experience in which the various companies' contributions are thematically linked to the idea of social distancing—something that has been cheekily promoted as "The Rose (Less) Exposed."

While artists have been physically separated from one another and from their audience, the Rose's companies have in another way grown closer during the pandemic. According to Ririe-Woodbury's artistic director, Daniel Charon, the once-occasional meetings between the groups' leaders have become more regular and more important over the past several months. "We're sharing an artistic endeavor, as well as all of us going through this human thing at the same time," Charon says. "Between empathy and the common goal, it just connected us."

The current common goal is the I Wanna Hold Your Hand program, in which Gina Bachauer pianist Koji Attwood provides both solo pieces and accompaniment for the contributions of the other companies. Each organization developed its own short piece, which they then had the opportunity to rehearse and have recorded on video on the Rose Wagner's main Jeanné Wagner Theater stage.

In some cases, those contributions focused on very personal pandemic experience. Pygmalion Theatre Company, for example is represented by a monologue from actor Tamara Johnson Howell, who also works as a middle-school theater and music teacher, and discusses what it's like to teach during this time. Plan-B Theatre Company turned to actor/singer Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin, who wrote and performs an original song with her daughter, Darby Mest, about being quarantined together.

For some of these organizations, it's the first time back at work doing what they love to do, yet they've had to adjust to a different way of working. Fran Pruyn, artistic director for Pygmalion Theatre Company, notes that for someone used to directing for live theater, the rhythms are different when creating a work intended for recording. "I had a conversation this morning with the videographer: 'You really need to let your actors have enough space between the lines, so that the editor can work with it,'" Pruyn says. "You give up a huge amount of artistic control. We [companies] all provided the content, but now [the videographer has] put it in the can, and has to make something else out of it. It was exciting in a way, weird in a way."

Charon notes that he also tried to look for the positive in this unique format. "I was excited to really make a dance for the camera," he says. "One thing I was thinking about a lot through this theme was trying to figure out how to connect with each other without touching physically, and the camera angles really helped that. It looks like they're connecting, even though they're not."

As a performer, Darby-Duffin acknowledges the importance for her of connecting with an audience, and that this different format has been a challenge. Yet the process of working on this Rose Exposed piece still proved emotional in the opportunity to get back on the Rose Wagner stage. "There weren't people, but I could feel the presence of people who had been there and who would be there again," she says. "It just felt like home. It's going to be like this again. It was almost like movie magic: You could see the faces of people smiling down at you."

That's the reality all of these companies are looking forward to returning to, even though there is no certainty yet about what kinds of performances will be safe, and when that will be. Pygmalion's Pruyn ponders how many audience members would be needed to even make an indoor performance practical, while Ririe-Woodbury's Charon looks toward next year as the likely scenario for in-person performances once again.

Meanwhile, I Wanna Hold Your Hand—even in this different, physically-distanced form—still serves the purpose of letting the community know about the work these artists do, and how much we still need to connect. "I know that even with all of the crap that is happening in the world, it's going to be the arts that will bring people back together," Darby-Duffin says. "I hope this is a reset for people to recognize the importance of the arts." CW

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