Setting the Stage in Central Park

Upper West Side director finds a creative way to entertain while theaters remain shuttered

12 Sep 2020 | 10:13

“Who wants to do some socially distant theater in the park?” Anna Strasser posted on Facebook in the early summer. The lifelong Upper West Sider realized that theater as we knew it pre-COVID would take some time to return, so began brainstorming a safe alternative. From that initial call to artistic action, she broadened her outreach, and Living Mural, named for a “public art installation commemorating a specific moment in time,” was soon born.

With Strasser at the helm as director, the thespian troupe includes 10 playwrights, 11 actors, and a producer, who all share their talents along Central Park’s Mall and Literary Walk on Saturdays between 1 and 4 p.m. Wearing masks and keeping six-feet apart, they perform one-minute plays for passing parkgoers. Material ranges from classics like Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” to original works, such as “Quarantine Romance.”

When asked what feedback has been, the Brooklyn College MFA graduate, who originally feared a negative response to their performing during a pandemic, is delighted to see the incredibly enthusiastic support they’ve garnered. The 32-year-old now refers to this project as a “public service,” as she continues to witness firsthand how it’s filling a void with social interaction and artistic stimulation. “A lot of people who watch will want to chat with the artist afterward,” she said. “We had a woman come up to us and go, “This is the most interaction I’ve had in five months. Do you want to get coffee with me?””

Tell us the idea behind the creation of Living Mural.

In March, it was clear that the way that we traditionally produce theater wasn’t going to work anymore. And I think theaters are officially out of commission until early 2021, but I think we need a vaccine until people are really safe and comfortable going back into indoor theater spaces. So I wanted to see if there was a way to safely create theater in New York. Because I do think theater provides a need during this time. As New Yorkers, we’re used to having a lot of interactions with strangers. We’ve all elected to live somewhat communally. And somehow that became fraught with this pandemic. We started stressing about is that person wearing a mask properly? Are we six feet apart? Have I been inside for more than 15 minutes? And all this sort of easiness of interaction became totally difficult, and I wanted to provide a safe place for an interaction with a stranger.

How did you find the troupe members?

A vast majority I’ve worked with before. Interestingly enough, when this was just a baby idea, I put a thing on Facebook ... A couple of my friends responded to that. I reached out first to playwrights, because I knew I wanted original pieces, most of whom I’d either worked with before or had work that I admired. I got my MFA in directing from Brooklyn College, and there’s a really wonderful playwrighting program there as well, and so I reached out to a lot of the playwrights from that program too to see if they would be interested in writing really short pieces for it.

You also have a pair of Shakespearean actors. What pieces do they perform?

We have two actors who are in a pod together, is what we’re calling it. They share a stage space together. And they literally bring out the complete works of Shakespeare and have it planted in front of them. So if there’s something from Shakespeare you want to see, they will whip it out and perform it for you. They have their own individual pieces too. She does Viola’s monologue from “Twelfth Night.” They have prepared a scene from “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “The Taming of the Shrew.” And he’s got a bunch of sonnets also memorized. But really, they’re incredibly skilled Shakespearean actors and game to try anything that any passersby want to see.

Where in the park can people find your performances?

We’re in the Mall and Literary Walk, depending on the busking scene that day. Last week, there was a saxophone player who was in our spot. And a week before, a drum circle showed up, so we had to move. It’s all kind of the spirit of the park, and we’re thrilled it’s so lively and so many artists are out. We’re usually closer to the northern side of that, but we move around somewhat. If you go to the Mall, you’ll see us there.

What has the reaction been?

We’ve really had overwhelmingly positive reactions to it. I think when we first went out there, I had a group of five actors, and we were like, “Is this a thing that people want?” We didn’t know if we were just going to be standing there and everyone would be like, “You know there’s a pandemic going on? Go home.” And it hasn’t been that way at all. The people who are stopping are hungry for theater or a safe interaction or interested in some lightness or some art or the wonder that it is to live in New York City.

What safety precautions have you put into place?

All of our actors are in masks. We ask that all our audience people are in masks. We’ve chalked out six-feet lines. And pieces are really short, so there’s really no big risk of congregating because everybody can have their turn. Nothing takes too long.

Tell us about your directing background.

I got my undergraduate degree in directing. And then I sort of bounced around nonprofit theater admin, doing directing in my spare time, until I hit a point where I realized I wanted to be a director and commit myself to directing. So I went to grad school and graduated in 2018 and was trying to get the freelance life started for myself, and then the pandemic hit. And I was trying to figure out what the future looked like for me as an artist, and felt like now is the time to think about the present. I have no doubt that theater and theater spaces will come back, but in this moment, while the numbers are good in New York, and people are hungry for a little art, now’s a good time as any to try something new and less traditional to put out there.

For more information, visit Living Mural’s GoFundMe: https://www.gofundme.com/f/living-mural and Instagram: instagram.com/livingmural