Urbanite Goes Outdoors with Reading Series

Arts & Culture

BY ANDREW FABIAN SRQ DAILY FRIDAY WEEKEND EDITION FRIDAY JAN 8, 2021

With the widespread dissemination of the newly approved COVID-19 vaccines still months away from helping theatre companies get back to “normal,” Urbanite continues to find new ways to produce new work. Next week, the theatre introduces the first installment of its 2021 Outdoor Reading Series, which features dramatic readings at several open-air venues that celebrate three new works from up-and-coming playwrights.

“It’s clear now that the vaccine is rolling out,” says Urbanite’s co-artistic director Brendan Ragan, “but the name of the game for these coming months is ‘let’s innovate and do something alternative.’” Earlier in the pandemic, Urbanite released a one-man radio play that saw Ragan reprise a lead (and only) role in “Conceal and Carry.” For Ragan, the play, though a well-produced response to what became the more prevalent Zoom approach to producing new work, was never meant to serve as anything more than a stand-in for Urbanite’s real mission of live theatre experiences. But the outdoor reading series, despite its almost-normal in-person style of production, offers an intriguing step in the right direction. “These readings won’t let us sell as many tickets,” says Ragan, “but it gets people out of the house and allows us to get some money into the hands of artists.”

The first play, Ronán Noone’s “Thirst,” opens next Thursday at Selby Gardens’ downtown campus. In a rare departure from Urbanite’s typical selection of fresh, contemporary stories, the play explores how the other half lives in Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night.” Rather than focus on the moral and physical decay of the upper-middle class Tyrone family, Noone’s “Thirst” follows the experiences of two Irish immigrant servant girls that work in the Tyrone household. Like the Tyrone’s, the servants search for love, connection and belonging, but when set against the excesses of their self-absorbed employers, the play grapples with questions around class and the immigrant experience. “It’s a deeply human piece and a beautiful spin on a classic,” says Ragan, “and we don’t often produce this kind of work unless it takes the spirit and language of the classic and does something completely new.”

The production will be a staged reading, which in many ways takes the already-sparse ethos of the black box theatre to a fitting extreme. With no built sets and only the actors and the text to carry the story, audiences get a chance to see the work in an elemental form, safely seated outdoors on the Selby grounds.

“If guests find it as intriguing and rewarding as I do, we have to give real thought to continuing it in the future to augment our programming,” says Ragan, “but the most important thing for us was to provide some kind of opportunity to experience culture again after spending so much time pent up.”

“Thirst” runs Thursday, January 14th through Saturday, January 16th. Temperature checks will be conducted on all guests and masks must be worn before and during the reading.

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