Just 24 hours before the Local Theater Company’s annual three-day festival, Local Lab, was to kick off in Boulder this year, it was canceled due to COVID-19. More than 20 artists, including playwrights, dramaturges, stage managers, and directors were sent home. Local Theater Company’s organizers, headed by artistic director Pesha Rudnick, were forced to adapt in the following months as it became clear that life may not return to normal anytime soon and their traditional in-person model for play production development simply wouldn’t work.

“Three months after we canceled the 2020 festival, we decided rather than to anticipate we could gather in March 2021, we would expand our Lab to develop more plays via online platforms or safely outside,” Rudnick says. “That’s how we came up with our ‘Go Big and Stay Home’ philosophy for this 10th season.”

Unlike the circumstances that created the conditions for this decision, the results of the expansion and online platform have been fortunate. First, anyone in the world can now become an audience member, whereas it used to be a hyper-local affair with a limited capacity. Since Local Theater Company isn’t gathering in person and paying for hotels, their budget is actually larger for artists, allowing them to offer 10 theater-makers (and their creative teams) a spot in Local Lab for this season rather than the typical three. Finally, with the constraints of COVID-19, Local Lab isn’t just offering audiences a three-day weekend to get involved—a weekend that has sold out for the last several years—it’s offering virtual experiences all year long.

Development resources are offered to a range of performances, and in 2021 there will be four scripted plays, one small-cast musical, three artist-devised works, and two original commissions that receive help from the program. The original commissions are another new addition, where the Local Theater Company will fund playwrights to produce scripts from beginning to end. Most of the development is happening during video calls with Local Theater Company’s reading committee and other theater professionals, although a few will require in-person rehearsals at some point in 2021.

Photo courtesy of the Local Theater Company

“What from this bizarre and painful year have we learned and what will we bring with us in the future of our planning? We’re asking that of all of our company protocols and processes,” Rudnick says. “There’s been a renaissance of efficiency in some ways and we’re also able to identify precisely what needs to happen in person that can’t be replaced [by online platforms].”

The main mission behind Local Theater Company and the Local Lab festival is to develop plays that work with “the most challenging questions facing Americans today” by contemporary writers. The 10 featured playwrights for this upcoming season were selected during the summer, only a few months into COVID-19. But while some topics will touch on the pandemic and its effects, others have been in development or conceptualization for years. Two plays are specifically about health and equity during the pandemic, but in contrast, another focuses on a Korean American teenager straddling the line between video games and Ivy League University dreams. The 10 theater-maker teams in no particular order are: Mare Trevathan and Anne Penner, Susan H. Pak, Eryc Eyl and Jeff Campbell, C.A. Johnson, Steven San Luis, Pang Yuan Yuan, Jennifer Barclay, and Harrison David Rivers.

Another silver lining of the virtual format is that Local Theater Company was able to support artists of varying backgrounds and races. Rudnick admits that, in the past, it’s been difficult to pay for actors or playwrights to come to Boulder, but with Zoom and other online platforms, those geographical and financial barriers have been extinguished. The result is a group of theater-makers who are diverse and therefore represent a broader scope of the American narrative.

Local Theater Company is hosting additional virtual offerings, as well. Living Room Local will feature live-streamed discussions by 10 notable people in the theater industry, like John Lithgow and Alexandra Grant, centering around art in their living rooms. Members can ask questions and be involved in other interactive surprises. Playwriting workshops for teenagers and free writing lectures for adults are also available throughout 2021.

Rudnick said viewers logged in from Salt Lake City, Ohio, Germany, England, and more for the first Living Room Locals event this fall. “The happy surprise in all of this is that it becomes more inclusive to audiences,” she says. “Our transition in April was really challenging—to take our old skills and instantly convert them to a new platform. It amplified the places where we are skilled in the 21st century and where we are behind.” But it has also allowed Local Theater Company to reinvent the process of playwriting development and figure out ways to increase their influence—a change Rudnick hopes will continue for many years to come.

If you go: Local Lab will announce virtual and in-person (outdoors) performances for members only as the dates approach. Sign up to become a member here. Living Room Local virtual sessions have individual tickets available here. The next session is a Solstice Listening Party on December 21 at 7 p.m.