When the COVID pandemic hit, the members of North Texas Performing Arts knew that if they wanted to put on programs—like, say, In the Heights, by Lin-Manuel Miranda—they would have to change everything.
Like movie theaters, museums, art exhibitions, and basically everything else, local theater troupes are adapting as they return to the stage. The Plano Comedy Festival, for example, has adapted by moving online. Disney adapted by charging Disney+ subscribers $30 to view Mulan at home. NTPA formed a Reopening Task Force of more than 25 people, including doctors, legal council, and board members, to develop careful safety protocols for putting on shows.
This October, they’re returning to the stage with In the Heights, a Tony award-winning musical that explores three generations of rich Latin culture in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood. In the Heights performs two weekends October 2-10. This production is performed by an all youth cast in grades 6-12 in the Rodenbaugh Theatre at the Willow Bend Center of the Arts.
Director Daniel Miranda says the rehearsal process has been interesting but fun as they adjusted to performing without being about to do something as simple as touch. “We can all agree that touching is a human instinct, especially with a cast as close as In The Heights,” he explains and adds that touching is also a large part of Latin culture.
“You touch, you hug, you tease: that's how we show affection. They're not allowed to do that, but that is still their instinct, so once we see them getting too close to each other we yell ‘Wepa’, and they spread apart and yell ‘Wepa’ right back. It's a fun way to keep them accountable, and have fun at the same time.”
In The Heights has a stationary set with a couple of moving tables. Every table has hand sanitizer, which actors use before interacting with anything else on the set. There are additional hand sanitation stations in the wings so that when the set pieces are moved, they can sanitize.
Every stage direction has been thought through with safety in mind.
“There are two instances where two actors touch the same prop, to comply with our protocols, we have rehearsed the "passing" of these props,” Miranda says. “Each actor is only allowed to touch the prop on a specific side, i.e. one actor can only touch the top of the prop, while the person that is taking the prop can only touch the bottom, once the prop is taken off stage the entire thing is disinfected.”
Masks and social distancing have both been incorporated into the blocking of the show. There are also moments where characters should be able to hug or kiss, because it’s a show with family and culture at its heart. Instead, they’ve devised illusions; they’ll go to black out as two actors converge for a kiss; the characters performing the show also know that they are wearing masks. They call attention to it in subtle ways that make it a naturally incorporated part of the show.
Adaptation is often at the heart of creativity and Miranda points out that the cast and crew have all risen to the occasion, finding new ways to bring the show to life within the bounds of COVID-19 restrictions.
The resulting NTPA premiere production of composer and lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights will look very different than originally intended with new safety adaptations and different from every other performance of it.
The show is also part of NTPA’s Diversity Task Force initiative, which is dedicated to telling more stories that center around BIPOC characters. The show was originally timed to rehearse and perform during Hispanic Heritage Month.
While directing, Miranda gives actors direction in Spanish first and then English, a bilingual communication strategy that has helped the cast, many who are bilingual themselves, dig into the context of Latin culture, by allowing them to speak in the characters native tongues.
“It’s imperative that NTPA and all theatres are intentional about telling stories that focus on diverse characters,” says Plano Managing Director and Academy Head of School Mike Mazur. “National conversations about diversity and inclusion have brought to light many inequities in the performing arts field. One of the large issues in our industry is the limited number of shows that tell authentic stories of BIPOC characters, not just token or stereotypical characters.
“If we’re not intentional about producing musicals that are written by diverse artists and tell their stories, then any effort for equity and inclusion will get lost in the sea of predominantly white literature that currently exists in the performing arts.”
Miranda is excited to bring this story to NTPA stages with an entire BIPOC production team, including former Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader and Dallas Mavericks Dancer DeeDee Munson as choreographer, Sophia Garcia as music director, and show managers Joanne Rodriguez (Chair of NTPA’s Diversity Task Force) and Natosha Scott.
“I saw this as a unique chance to tell this story in true present day,” Miranda says.
For the safety of actors, NTPA currently asks that only family and friends of the actors purchase in-person tickets at this time, but is encouraging the public to take advantage of HD online viewing of the production for just $10/ticket. All tickets to NTPA shows are socially distanced with theatres seating at approximately 30 percent or less capacity.
Purchase virtual tickets at NTPA.org/tickets.