Under the dimming sunlight on the grassy front lawn of Fort Worth Community Arts Center, Shawn Gann and Meagan Harris have their May weekends groaning and smiling out into the wide-open space. 

A small audience sat in lawn chairs and picnic mats to receive the emotions the two actors put on display.

The interactions might seem small, but they marked a big moment: In-person live theater is back in Fort Worth after the pandemic forced a year-long intermission.

The Art Center’s production of “The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria” is its first in-person live performance of this year.

Although the outdoor setting invites distractions like birds landing on stage, road traffic and occasional airplane noises, the actors in the two-person play described the play as a welcome return to normality.

“It’s been such a great thing to get to finally come back to live performance,” said Harris, a Dallas-based actor who has previously worked on shows at the center. “During the pandemic, I think, all of us struggled because this is what we’re used to doing we were no longer able to. This is the craft that we have been working on for many years.”

Spanish-born playwright Fernando Arrabal, who lives in exile in France,  originally wrote “The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria” in 1967. In signature Arrabal style, the play wields surrealist and absurdist themes to delve deeper into schemes of justice, colonialism and civilization building. 

The play revolves around exchanges of ideas between the two lead characters when the emperor gets stranded on an island because of an unexplainable calamity and then proceeds to apply his belief system onto the architect, the island’s sole inhabitant. Harris plays the role of the architect and Gann is the emperor.

“I love being in people’s presence,” Gann said. “I love hearing stories. I love sharing my feelings with other people. And the audience has been wonderful.”

COVID-19-related restrictions have been loosening in recent months. With caution, theaters and venues shuttered for over a year across the city are planning to gradually open for live performances again. 

If you go:

What: The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria
Where: Fort Worth Community Art Center’s veranda 
When: 7:30 p.m. on Friday, May 28 and Saturday, May 29
More info: For tickets, visit FWCAC.com or click here

Without further ado

Like many in the North Texas acting industry, Harris and Gann had to pivot to online shows when in-person theater productions halted due to the pandemic. Works included virtual feature-length films, Zoom-based stage readings, voice acting, etc.

When the play’s director Bert Pigg approached them, they quickly jumped without much hesitation, the actors said. However, there was a sense of nervousness.

“I remember thinking to myself, ‘Oh God, like, I’m going to have to get used to moving my body again and being physical and rehearsing,'” Harris said. “Like, what was that going to be like, because I hadn’t done that in so long.”

Starting on May 7, the live production took place every Friday and Saturday evenings. The last show of the production is scheduled for May 29. 

Wearing masks is made optional for audience members during the outdoor performance. With social distancing protocols in place, seating arrangements accommodate about 50 people.

Pigg, the director, said the support and belief from within the local arts community have been a “lifeline” driving the cast and crew to deliver a great show every weekend.

“We have a responsibility to the industry to get back to business. Not everybody wants to hear that. But we’ve got to find a way,” he said. “There are a lot of people struggling financially. A lot of people that are suffering artistically. We’re going to do all we can to get back at it as safely and as quickly as we can.”

While the pandemic has severely impacted the arts industry, in general, the biggest casualty has been the performing arts sector, according to an analysis by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Performing arts companies in the U.S. lost almost $1 billion in revenues in the summer of 2020, year-over-year, the analysis found. 

Before the pandemic, the performing arts sector added approximately $14 billion in value to the nation’s GDP. The unemployment rate among actors remained over 50% in 2020, according to the report, as venues like even the hallmark Broadway in New York City had to close.

“It’s a good play to do right now simply because we could do it with social distancing with only two actors. We can perform it outside,” Pigg said about the Arts Center’s latest production. “There was a deliberate choice to do this play because of the current constraints. And just because it’s written by a giant in literature that doesn’t get done very often.”

Curtain call

The performing arts piece is part of The Arts Center Presents series that began in 2019. 

“Terra Nova” was on stage in November of 2019 and was the last show the Arts Center produced before its closure in March of 2020. Harris, Gann and Pigg had all worked on that play as well, which got several top recognitions at The Column Awards.

In July of 2020, The Arts Center Presents produced “The Zoo Story” by Edward Albee, which also was a socially distant outdoor show. It pulled the curtain on the possibilities of outdoor live events at the Arts Center. 

“It allowed us to have an opportunity to learn what this new normal can look like,” said Jason Leyva, production manager at Fort Worth Community Arts Center.

But health scares from the pandemic stalled even outdoor in-person productions since then.

Leyva said new production tools and more vaccination efforts that combat COVID-19 gave the center the opportunity to start in-person production again.

Actors Meagan Harris and Shawn Gann said they intend to work indoor shows when it’s safer to do so. (Contributed by Jason Leyva)

The Arts Center has not announced any indoor shows for this year, yet. However, Leyva anticipates it would happen soon.

He said the Fort Worth art scene is “terribly underappreciated” and it’s waiting to burst into the scene, ushering in a renaissance period that makes the city a major performance arts destination.

“It’s a perception and what we’re going to do with this coming out of the pandemic,” Leyva said. “We will have the opportunity to make the last year a blessing or a curse.”

For the cast and crews, they said they are excited to perform in-person again and are hopeful they’ll get back to an even more intimate indoor setting where the stage is the only focus.

But, for now, their focus is on presenting the sentiments of guilt, sadism and the relationship between the architect and the emperor in one of the best-known plays of writer Arrabal.

“I encourage everyone to come out and challenge themselves a little bit and watch an exceptional show and join us under the stars,” Gann said. “It’s a beautiful show and it needs to be shared with a lot of people.”

Neetish Basnet is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at neetish.basnet@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter.

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Neetish Basnet is an enterprise reporter for the Fort Worth Report. He has previously worked as a business reporter at Fort Worth Business Press and Dallas Business Journal. He graduated from University...

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