“There were dark times where I thought we’d be trapped at home forever,” theater director Louis Farber admitted last week. “In the thick of the pandemic, I wasn’t sure theater would ever come back. And if it did, would there be a painful rebirth that would completely redefine theater?”
What’s been redefined, Farber said, is his attitude about the performing arts. “I’m more grateful than ever to be doing this work again. And that’s making me approach it in a different way. I feel like I’m aware of every little detail in a way I wasn’t before.”
Farber is directing Bright Colors and Bold Patterns, the first live production from Stray Cat Theatre in more than a year and a half. He’s worked as the associate artistic director for the company for nearly a decade. Raised in Reading, Pennsylvania, Farber did theater in high school and junior college, then headed to Los Angeles, where he mostly scored bit parts and did crowd work in films and television.
“When I didn’t make the cover of Entertainment Weekly after seven years, I decided to go back to school,” he said with a laugh. In 2004, Farber moved to Arizona to study adult education at ASU. His degree comes in handy at his day job: Farber works as an adult educator at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, where he trains people to play-act at being sick.
“We call them standardized patients,” he explained. “We do simulated patient encounters with medical students to assess how well they communicate with patients.” Afterward, Farber consults with students who need to work on their bedside manner.
“It’s a perfect use of my theater background,” he said, “because I basically put on a show every week. A lot of actors do this to earn a little extra money.”
He’s been thinking about money lately. As the world slowly resumes its pre-pandemic habits, Farber said, it’s imperative that theater professionals make theatergoing more accessible.
“That’s why I’m so proud of our $20 ticket initiative,” he said of Stray Cat founder Ron May’s latest plan. “It’s Stray Cat’s 20th season, and we’re selling tickets for $20 per seat. That’s for every show.”
Farber hopes that, as theaters resume in-person performing, their directors will be thinking long and hard about what’s getting staged. “We have a bigger awareness of social injustice than we did before we were all trapped at home for the past year,” he said, referring to Black Lives Matter and other social justice movements of the past several years. “We need to take that awareness and use it to do stories about under-represented people.”
He also said theaters should remember what they learned about making theater accessible to everyone via live streaming performances, and not just performing for people who can leave the house to see a play or a musical.
Toward that end, Bright Colors and Bold Patterns, a one-man play written by Drew Droege, will also offer streaming performances during its final week. The comedy, which opens next week, is set at a wedding between two men and pokes fun at gay assimilation. All the fun-poking is done, Farber said, with some real respect for the character’s struggle.
“You can see how the playwright is saying it’s great that gay people can get married, that they fought for it and marched for it and that’s amazing. But he’s also saying people shouldn’t have to fall in line because we have the opportunity to. Gay men can marry each other. Great. But what if they don’t want to?”
Bright Colors is built on imaginary scene partners; people come and go and converse with actor Michael Thompson but are never seen by the audience. This was challenging, Farber admitted.
“Oh brother, let me tell you. I’ve never done what I call ghost blocking before. It reminded me of playing whiffle ball when I was kid, back home in Reading. There’d be three of us and you’d have to pretend there was someone on third base and go back up to bat.”
Learning to see people who aren't onstage is easier than not having a stage at all.
“I thought it was possible theater might never come back,” he said again. “I’d been working on stage for a lot of years, with a lot of the same people. And all of a sudden I wasn’t seeing those people or having conversations with them. Doing that again, being back on a stage, is as close to normal as I feel like I’ve been in a long time.”