As performing arts organizations adapt, reinvent themselves or pivot in order to fulfill their missions, engage their audiences or simply survive during the pandemic, Summer Stock Stage has found a novel solution. Co-founded in 2004 by artistic director Emily Ristine Holloway, SSS is a nonprofit summer theatre program for performers age 13 to 19. A professionally managed organization, SSS provides positive theatre experiences for students in Central Indiana. Focusing on vocal, dramatic and dance performances, SSS seeks to inspire, build confidence, promote teamwork, reinforce listening and focus skills and enhance self-esteem. In 2017, the group introduced a young-professional component called Eclipse, which produces contemporary musicals featuring SSS alumni and provides paid opportunities for the emerging artists they have developed over the year.
Each year, SSS presents two mainstage productions, but due to COVID-19, the 2020 season was canceled and replaced with virtual programming. This summer, however, circumstances have changed. With the arrival of vaccines, the number of infections going down and improved treatments for the coronavirus, SSS, like other arts organizations, has come up with a way to present shows through a unique partnership with Phoenix Theatre. Recently, SSS announced it was presenting a five-show season this summer at an outdoor space located in the parking lot of the downtown Phoenix Theatre Cultural Centre. Called “The Park,” the stage will be fashioned from a 40-foot shipping container, as well as another one for use as a bar for patrons. Seating will be arranged for social distancing. All COVID-19 protocols will be maintained.
During a recent Zoom call, Holloway gave me the details of SSS’s upcoming season. “We are doing something, we hope, so people can have things to look forward to. We have never offered a season ticket before or a flex-pass, but I think this summer with so many shows, hopefully that will be an option,” she said.
Filling out the summer months with a new show presented every other weekend, the season includes the following:
- “We Will Rock You,” June 10-12
- “13, the Musical” June 24-26
- “Once on This Island” July 8-10
- “Chicago” July 22-24
- “Godspell,” presented by Eclipse August 5-7
Holloway is not directing this summer, but instead has lined up some of the area’s most talented directors, music directors and choreographers, all between the ages of 22 and 32. Directors include Zack Neiditch (“We Will Rock You”), Devan Mathias (“13, the Musical”), Joey Mervis and Isaiah Moore (“Once on This Island”), Carlos Medina-Maldonado (“Chicago”), and Katy Merriman (“Godspell”). “It’s a great opportunity for me to work alongside this artistic team and rewarding for me personally,” said Holloway.
Excited about feeding a hunger for live theatre for both performers and fans, Holloway said, “What we do as artists is why it is so compelling. It connects us to our humanity and our shared experiences. I think that is what we have missed out on so much…that connection.” During these times of deprivation, I asked Holloway if she has ever taken live performance for granted. She said, “I think about it so much. My parents were very involved in the arts. My dad is a musician, so I grew up with a lot of access to theatre and music and it was the most exciting thing in my life always. So, it was my favorite thing. So, I have never had just a lukewarm appreciation for it.”
Regarding the gift of time that we’ve all given during the pandemic, Holloway said, “It has been an important time. We stepped off the treadmill of production and we have had time to think about our responsibilities as storytellers and especially the time we have had to be more thoughtful about inclusion and diversity, how we can be part of the solution in our communities and how we can do better in our practice in our productions. So, I have really appreciated the gifts this has brought, even though it has been kind of painful, I do feel we are going to emerge stronger.”
Auditions for the 2021 SSS season will take place in-person at Phoenix Theatre, 705 N. Illinois, on April 10 and 11, with limited slots on April 12 Masks are required for all participants and COVID-19 social distancing protocol will be followed. Students may only remove their masks while performing their auditions. To register for an audition time, go to summerstockstage.com.