On a May evening amidst the coronavirus pandemic, Ensemble Theatre hosted a trip to the beach.
“Close your eyes,” said Celeste Cosentino, executive artistic director of the Cleveland Heights theater. “Picture yourself on a beach with a pina colada or margarita and enjoy ‘Savannah Dawn’ by Mark Horning.”
On the Facebook Live stream, Cosentino’s face fades into a video of musician and theater critic Horning playing a double organ, the soothing, dulcet notes calling to mind rising and receding tides. This journey only takes as long as you need to boot up your computer, thanks to Ensemble Theatre’s transportive new Virtual Open Mic series.
“It was just one of our ways of kind of responding to ‘How do we still give people an opportunity to participate, not just as an artist but also as an audience member?’ “ says Cosentino. “Connectivity and community is really the ultimate goal.”
Held every Friday at 7 p.m., the open mic features preapproved submissions from local poets, musicians, actors and more in hourlong Facebook Live streams.
The first show featured everything from Horning’s original song, to musical theater tracks and Beat Generation poetry readings.
Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, Ensemble Theatre had to cut its season short in March, ending play Kindertransport three weeks early and scrapping a run of Tony-winning musical Fun Home entirely.
“It’s the first time in 40 years I think that we’ve had to have our doors closed,” Cosentino says.
But the open mics have kept the theater active. So far, the first video alone has been viewed more than 500 times. Artists interested in performing can submit a video on the theater’s website for consideration.
The theater may not be able to produce in-person shows until 2021, so it’s transitioned much of its programming into virtual alternatives. Its Heights Performing Arts Camp, held July 13-31, is hosting its classes and student performances via Zoom.
Cosentino also hopes to monetize the Virtual Open Mic in order to pay performers struggling to find gigs during COVID-19.
“It’s like theater without boundaires,” she says, “because on the internet you can pretty much reach anyone. It’s helping us expand our community into areas we may not have reached before.”