6ftShakes: Atlanta theatre survives the pandemic

Atlanta actor Charlie T. Thomas did not let his quarantine go to waste. When theatres closed he brought the Atlanta theatre community online to perform Shakespeare. // Photo courtesy of Dynes Media

Before COVID-19 became a widespread phenomena, forcing theatres around the country to turn off their lights and close their doors, Atlanta actor Charlie T. Thomas had an itch.

“I was at a point where I was working consistently, but I felt like I was in this grind of ‘do well in this part, so I can keep being in the room for the next part,’” Thomas said. “Nothing felt community-driven. It felt so selfish and self-serving. I felt like I wasn’t really connecting with people like I wanted to do, which is why I went into art in the first place.”

Thomas decided to try an idea: he and a group of friends and colleagues put on a production of Twelfth Night to raise money for the Mental Health Association of Georgia.

“Through that process, I realized ‘I can just keep doing this,’” he said. “I created Remedy [Theatre Project] as a group that created art solely for the need to connect with people and to really try to do some good in the world.”

Months later, the pandemic struck, forcing Thomas and his fellow actors out of work and into isolation.

“I went from being in the third month of a nine month long contract to nothing, having no jobs and not knowing when my industry was coming back,” Atlanta actor and teaching artist O’Neil Delapenha said. “I was on Broadway when Broadway shut down, so I was right in the thick of it. …That was a very surreal awakening. It made me realize just how fragile art and the human experience really is and how it should be valued even more.”

Thomas, who at the time was performing in Synchronicity Theatre’s “Wayfinding,” was upset to have found himself so abruptly off of the stage. As the pandemic lengthened, Thomas was left feeling hopeless.

“I remember thinking it’s really sad that all my friends can’t do art, and then sitting there, I was like ‘But y’all, Shakespeare is free,’” Thomas said.

“No one has to pay anything to do Shakespeare. I guess we just get into our minds that Shakespeare has to look a certain way. I started encouraging people one-on-one just to do their own stuff and to just practice at home, but I was like ‘Maybe I can do that with people as well.’”

From there, Thomas created Remedy Theatre Project’s next order of business: 6ftShakes.

The basis of 6ftShakes is in the name; actors perform scenes from Shakespeare’s canon from six feet apart, creating art while still adhering to the CDC’s social distancing guidelines.

“One of my mentors once told me that as artists we always need to have permission to do stuff; everything requires asking and [people in charge] saying yes,” Thomas said. “But what I realized during the quarantine was that art doesn’t have to have permission — you can just do art wherever, however. I think, because we spent so much time doing art in a specific way, we forget that we can do this on our own. … Art, especially Shakespeare, can be done anywhere at any time, so why not just do it?”

Throughout the 6ftShakes process, actors pick a Shakespearean scene or soliloquy, rehearse it over Zoom, and then meet together with Thomas to film. The film is shot on Thomas’s iPhone and posted on Remedy Theatre Project’s Facebook page.

Once the first round of videos was posted, volunteers came pouring in to work with Thomas on the project.

Local actors were thrilled by the opportunity to not only flex their creative muscles once again, but to also be in the company of other creators.

“It kind of proved to be a bit of a balm, which is pretty much what I think Charlie’s personal and professional mission with Remedy Theatre is,” Andrew Houchins, Atlanta-based actor and teaching artist, said. “He believes in the healing power of live theatre, and getting to do my scene certainly healed me for a time.”

Houchins worked with Thomas and fellow actor Mary Saville on creating a scene from Much Ado About Nothing, featuring Houchins as Benedick and Saville as Beatrice.

“[Beatrice] was a dream role,” Saville said. “It was only ten minutes of a dream role, but I still got to do it. The timing of the project that I worked on came at such a perfect time when I really needed some connection and some joy, and that’s the thing that it brought to me.”

No one can say for sure when theaters will reopen their doors, but most are in consensus that the theatre process will look different from now on.

Saville expressed concern about the cleanliness of theatres following a pandemic as well as shifting the accessibility of the stage towards people of color. Delapenha agreed that he would like to see more BIPOC artists in shows, and Bray wants to see theatre jobs become more available to those with day jobs or children. There is so much more work to be done in making theatre more readily available to all, regardless of background.

In the meantime, Thomas encourages his artists to think outside of the box, creating what they want with the resources that they have.

“My biggest thing that I really want to get across with this project is to let people understand that they don’t have to wait to create,” he said. “I just want people to understand that they don’t even need me. I just want people to keep on creating. I want them to feel inspired to just be themselves and just do something. People are beautiful. They should feel the need to express that however they need to do it.”

Remedy Theatre Project’s 6ftShakes videos are available to view on their Facebook page. Those with more questions can reach out to Thomas at [email protected].