Theatre Ariel will return for its 31st season on Oct. 30, but the upcoming season will be different from recent, pre-pandemic iterations.
Instead of continuing the salon tradition of holding shows in people’s living rooms, Theatre Ariel will host a pandemic-era hybrid schedule. For all four of its 2021-’22 plays, two performances are going to be staged in a public location, and two others will be staged over Zoom.
Even though it’s not salon theater, the 2021-’22 schedule is still a step forward from its predecessor. When last season started, there was no approved vaccine for COVID-19. So, every performance took place on Zoom.
Deborah Baer Mozes, the founding director of Theatre Ariel and a Philadelphia resident, said she was encouraged by the 2020-’21 schedule. People still paid for the Zoom performances.
But she’s also excited to have those crowds back.
Theatre Ariel describes itself as “Pennsylvania’s only professional theatre dedicated to illuminating the social, cultural and spiritual heritage of the Jewish people,” according to a press release.
“I really missed our audience,” Baer Mozes said.
The audience will be back, but it won’t quite be the same.
The pre-pandemic salon shows featured audiences of 55-60 people at most, and 25 at least, usually packed into a Main Line living room. But during the new season, the intimate living rooms will be replaced by various area locations, starting with the spacious sanctuary of Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley.
Baer Mozes said Theatre Ariel members didn’t want to host people in their homes during COVID.
To maintain social distancing, crowd sizes at Har Zion will be limited to 40 people. Audience members must show proof of vaccination and wear masks. Actors and staff members also will be vaccinated, though actors won’t wear masks on stage.
“We want to make the experience as comfortable and safe as possible,” Baer Mozes said.
According to the director, Theatre Ariel is following the same Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines as other theaters.
“It’s what most cultural organizations are following,” she added. “Broadway, theaters in Chicago, theaters in Philadelphia.”
Baer Mozes expects the audience to come back because of the theater’s loyal following.
Its regular crowd grew throughout the 2010s. So, when the pandemic hit, Baer Mozes and her board didn’t hesitate to pivot to Zoom.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf started implementing lockdown measures on March 12, 2020. By March 25, Theatre Ariel was hosting its first virtual performance.
The salon theater closed its 2019-’20 season in the digital space and held its entire 2020-’21 schedule there, too.
Despite the change, pre-pandemic supporters continued to pay for tickets. But the Zoom plays had an unexpected benefit: opening Theatre Ariel to audiences outside the area.
Word-of-mouth brought in people from New York City, Los Angeles, Oklahoma City, Canada and Israel, according to Baer Mozes. The director herself told a friend in St. Louis, who then told her own friends.
Going into the new season, Baer Mozes and her board members understand how to stage plays on Zoom. The director considers both options, socially distanced in-person shows and virtual shows, to be viable moving forward.
“I guess I would say we’re a hybrid theater,” she said.
Some members said they loved being in people’s homes, but they are excited about the new season and the hybrid possibility.
Rory Michelle Sullivan, a city resident and Theatre Ariel supporter for three years, believes it’s smart to do both. Some people really want to come together in person again — while Zoom can be more intimate than it seems.
“You can see everybody on the Zoom boxes and talk to everyone at once,” she said.
Marci Wilf, a Wynnewood resident and the theater’s co-president, explained that, while she enjoyed the salon atmosphere, she always enjoyed the experience because of the plays themselves, too.
“The plays are always evocative and interesting,” she said.
This year’s opening play is called “Cherry Docs,” and it’s about a Jewish lawyer who “agrees to defend a skinhead accused of a vicious murder,” according to a Theatre Ariel press release.
Upcoming performances will feature “The Sabbath Girl,” a romantic comedy about a hip art curator who meets an Orthodox Jewish man, and “The Wanderers,” a comedy about two couples, one Chasidic and the other secular, who share more than they realize.
To learn more about attending shows, visit thetheatreariel.org.
“We came through the pandemic through the support of our members,” Baer Mozes said. “This year is going to be telling in terms of how successful we are with the hybrid.”