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By The Editors
The COVID-19 Pandemic has been a struggle for artists of all types, from nationally recognized productions to local theatre groups. One such group, The Merry Beggars, is a Catholic non-profit theatre organization that focuses on “stories that heal our culture by revealing the dignity of the human person.” They host acting training, run a blog where professionals can give advice and share stories, and run different workshops.
They were founded by Peter Atkinson, a graduate of Columbia University’s M.F.A program. An actor, writer, and magician, Atkinson has played a variety of roles over the course of his years in school and the professional world, from classical Shakespearean parts to much more modern roles.
Quail Bell Magazine recently spoke to Peter Atkinson about The Merry Beggars and how the COVID-19 Pandemic has affected the arts.
Quail Bell: What is The Merry Beggars? Who runs it?
Peter Atkinson: The Merry Beggars is the Catholic theater organization working with artists to reveal the dignity of man. We believe that, when theatre tells the truth about the human person, lives begin to heal. It is a non-profit run by myself, Peter Atkinson, as the CEO, along with Nick Ciavarra, Naomi Campagne, and our wonderful board of directors.
QB: What inspired the idea for The Merry Beggars?
Atkinson: I went to Columbia University for my MFA in acting and discovered a lack of practicing Catholics in the entertainment industry. Most Catholics either leave their faith or the industry. But I believe that our faith has something to offer our culture, something our culture desperately needs. Specifically: hope and redemption.
Our pop culture often thinks of people as either ‘bad’ or ‘good’ and doesn’t allow too much cross over between those two categories. You’re either a forward-thinking, good person or you’re a bad, backward person. But I think all of us are a mix of good and evil. We long to be good, moral people but how often are we selfish and fearful? I know I am constantly throughout my day, though I try not to be.
So The Merry Beggars exists to create storytelling that points towards the spiritual dimension of human beings. I believe all great stories are spiritual. They’re about our longing for the infinite - that longing to be united with goodness and beauty, to be connected to others in love.
QB: How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted The Merry Beggars?
Atkinson: Ha! We canceled everything! We had a lot of in-person events and workshops planned, but we had to cancel them all. We had a large teaching workshop planned for New York City but Coronavirus had other ideas about that. So instead, we hit pause on everything and thought about what we could do instead. We pivoted to radio drama - a form of theatre that can be created even while we’re all distant.
We launched The Quarantine Plays contest for 10-minute radio plays responding to the theme of ‘quarantine.’ We received over 120 submissions from around the world and, after sorting through them with over 30 judges, we distilled them down to 12 submissions that we will produce over the next year.
You can listen to the first two episodes here. (Editor's note: Our founder, Christine Sloan Stoddard, wrote the second episode. "Friend Request.")
Additionally, we transitioned our in-person workshops to be online workshops. We held our first one with Jean McClelland from Columbia University and it was a roaring success. So we’re excited to see what writing, acting, voice, and creative workshops we can offer to students from around the United States.
QB: How do you think the COVID-19 pandemic has changed theatre?
Atkinson: From what I’ve seen, I’ve seen actors and producers really seize on creating their own work. I heard from NYU’s Scott Galloway that the pandemic accelerated trends about 10 years into the future and I think that applies here. My friends from Columbia have moved into producing their own work, creating radio shows, and into being their own producer. As far as film is concerned, the major motion pictures have all stopped production but the independent artists have leapt into creating their own work. It’s not polished, but it’s pretty amazing to see. I hope it emboldens independent artists to play with the tools they have: cameras, sound editing, lights, etc. We have so much at our fingertips as artists and I hope COVID-19 has accelerated artists exploring it for themselves rather than looking for another gate keeper.
Also, in-person auditions might be dead for a while. Everyone is comfortable with self-tapes. Maybe not in theatre, but definitely in film and TV.
As far as theatre? I have no idea. I feel as if a lot of theatre artists are just waiting for the pandemic to be over to create their own work. The shows that are moving ahead with production are admitting frankly that it doesn’t make any economic sense to be producing their work. Eventually it will be back. Some people will write plays explicitly about the pandemic. Of course, Shakespeare had his own plague to deal with, so maybe a playwright will have a Shakespeare moment and someone will write their King Lear during the pandemic.
QB: What are your plans for The Merry Beggars for the foreseeable future?
Atkinson: We’re focused on producing the 12 Quarantine radio plays, hosting workshops for artists, and developing future audio adaptations to produce. There’s a lot of opportunity that’s come out of this—actors all have voice studios in their homes now, playwrights are open to working in new mediums, audiences are eager to see what artists are creating. But in order to be successful, I’ve found, you have to focus on only one thing at a time. So, for us, that’s the radio productions!
I grew up loving old radio shows and listened to thousands of them, so—for me—it’s sort of like an artist return home.
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