The pandemic was pure hell for most theater companies. Audiences disappeared; venues closed; and revenue stopped flowing. As a result, the companies that made it have needed to make a lot of changes.
While there is still plenty of uncertainty as the pandemic continues, theater is coming back. Broadway shows recently reopened, as have productions at a couple of local theater companies.
Desert Ensemble Theatre has endured a lot of those aforementioned changes. Not only did the organization drop the word “Company” from its name; it has moved into a brand-new home at the Palm Springs Cultural Center—which it will christen Oct. 22-24 with a benefit concert titled Reunited and It Feels So Good, the first production for DET since the pandemic began.
“(The season-opening concert) is something I created as a fundraiser for our scholarship program, and I, along with Charles Herrera, Darci Daniels and Bonnie Gilgallon, will be performing,” said Jerome Elliott, DET’s artistic director, during a recent phone interview. (Gilgallon is an Independent contributor, by the way.) “This year, we’re calling it Reunited and It Feels So Good, which is just such an appropriate name after everything we’ve been through, to be able to come together and perform live. It’s great to be able to actually sing to people in the theater instead of staring into a screen on the camera or on a computer. That usually raises a lot of money for our scholarship program, so that’s an important thing that we do ask people to support.”
Elliott said the move to the Cultural Center came about rather unexpectedly.
“We’ve been at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club for seven years, and we loved being at the Woman’s Club,” he said. “It was a great space for us to be in, but when we learned that Coyote StageWorks was unfortunately shutting its doors—which we all are very sad about, because they gave so much to the desert community in terms of quality theater—we saw an opportunity to move into a venue that had many more advantages for our company. First, at the Cultural Center, we will have much more visibility than at the Woman’s Club, due to the fact that they have the Camelot Theatres films, plus film festivals and other special events that come through. We have the opportunity, just from a marketing perspective, to reach a much larger audience. It will also offer our own audience a more comfortable experience in terms of seating and amenities. And, finally, it will offer them much easier parking than they had downtown at the Woman’s Club.”
The Cultural Center stage will also allow DET to present theater in new ways.
“It’s a different kind of space,” Elliott said. “It’s more immediate in terms of audience-artist interaction. … Because of the way that theater is laid out, it’s not a proscenium stage; it’s a thrust stage. It allows us to do more kinds of experimental set design, and we’re not tied to having a set with walls and reference representational design. We’re also entering into a collaboration with Tom Valach, who is very well respected and one of the best scenic designers in the valley. We’ve never worked with him before, so we’re looking forward to what Tom can help us do in the space. Tom also built that stage for Coyote StageWorks, so he knows the space really well. There’s a screen in the back of the stage which rises, so we can keep part of that screen above the stage and do different kinds of projections that can enhance the ambience of any of our productions.”
After kicking off the season with Reunited and It Feels So Good, DET will produce four full productions.
“Our mission always is to try to connect what we put onstage with what people are encountering in day to day life, and have rarely strayed from that,” said Elliott. “The plays we’ve selected all represent our commitment to examining contemporary life from many different aspects.”
First up in December is The Beebo Brinker Chronicles. “It examines pre-Stonewall gay life, specifically the lesbian scene in Greenwich Village from 1950 to about 1960,” Elliott said. “It really takes a very insightful look at how people had to lead a pretty closeted life in those days in order to get by.”
Next up, in January, is Artificial Morality by Tony Padilla. “Tony founded our company,” Elliott said. “He’s a prolific playwright, and we have, in most seasons, done one of his original works. Tony is a thinking-person’s playwright, and he really loves to play with ideas and language. In this case, he’s taking on how people in this electronic age we live in can manipulate social media and manipulate the internet in order to reinvent themselves. It looks at a specific person’s moral compass, in terms of what he’s willing to do to advance himself in the workplace.”
In February, DET will present Salty by AJ Clauss. “What they did was take the story of the two male penguins at the Dutch zoo a couple of years ago, who adopted an egg and raised it together, and set that somewhere in the not-too-distant future at a time when climate change has really taken its toll on our planet,” Elliott said. “We have the last colony of penguins in captivity, at what is probably one of the few remaining zoos left on Earth. We have a double cast with each actor playing a penguin and a corresponding zookeeper. … It’s a love story, and it’s a cautionary tale of what can happen if we don’t pay attention to the planet.”
The season will conclude in late March/early April with All This Intimacy by Rajiv Joseph.
“It’s directed by Keith M. Cornell. He directed our show that never opened because of the pandemic. It was called How to Survive an Apocalypse—a very ironic title. We wanted to give Keith a chance to come back and direct for us, because he did such a good job,” Elliott said. “This is really a sex comedy gone wrong about a college professor, who, in the course of one week, impregnates three women—an 18-year-old student, his own girlfriend, and a 42-year-old neighbor who is married. From my point of view, it is a comedy, but it also takes a real hard look at male privilege, especially white male privilege.”
DET turned to a well-known name to direct The Beebo Brinker Chronicles. “We’re very excited to bring Judith Chapman on board as a director,” Elliott said. “Judith is a highly acclaimed television actress, and she’s currently appearing in a long-running role on The Young and the Restless. In valley theatre, she has given amazing performances for Desert Rose Playhouse and Palm Canyon Theatre, for which she’s won many Desert Theatre League awards, but she’s also a very innovative director. She’s an actor’s director, because she’s an actor herself, so she knows how to elicit the kinds of performances that will really resonate with audiences.”
DET is also giving a big job to a former intern and scholarship recipient, Cameron Keys, for Artificial Morality.
“We have a theater internship program, which we’ve had since our inception,” Elliott said. “We work with high school theater students, usually technical theater students who help us backstage with props, costume changes, lighting, costume and set design, or any way that they can learn a new skill. … We watch them grow through their internships, and at the end of the internships, we give them scholarships. Cameron wants to direct. He’s a sophomore at College of the Desert, and he directed a reading of Artificial Morality that we did two years ago at the Palm Springs Library. Tony asked him if he would be interested in directing the full production—which was supposed to happen last season, which didn’t happen at all—and he said yes. He’s wise beyond his years. … I know that he has what it takes to bring this production to life, so that’s just a thrill for us.”
Reunited and It Feels So Good, presented by Desert Ensemble Theatre, will take place at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday, Oct. 22 and 23; and 2 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 24, at the Palm Springs Cultural Center, 2300 E. Baristo Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $45 to $65. For tickets or more information, call 760-565-2476, or visit www.desertensembletheatre.org.