Plan-B has ‘The Audacity’ to produce a play despite the coronavirus crisis. It’s online.

(Photo courtesy of Plan B Theatre) April Fossen plays six different roles in Jenifer Nii's new play "The Audacity."

Editor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune is providing readers free access to critical local stories about the coronavirus during this time of heightened concern. See more coverage here. To support journalism like this, please consider donating or become a subscriber.

Plan-B Theatre’ Company’s new production about three strong, Utah pioneer women will go on … not exactly as scheduled, because of the coronavirus. But it will go on, online.

[Update: Free streaming of “The Audacity” has been extended through Saturday, April 11.]

And only because “The Audacity” is a one-actor show. “If there were even two cast members, I would be leery of it,” said Plan-B artistic director Jerry Rapier. “You can’t really observe the 6-foot social distancing if there’s more than one person on stage.”

Hundreds of productions have shut down across the country; almost everything in Utah has shuttered or postponed, he said. “And we just found ourselves in a very unique position to be able to do this.”

With a skeleton staff — just five people — the play was filmed Tuesday at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center. After a four-day window for ticket holders (Saturday-Tuesday), anyone and everyone will be able to stream “The Audacity” free for five days: Wednesday, April 1, through Sunday, April 5; that was later extended to April 11.

“If there was a silver lining, that would be it — to have it be a one-performer piece and to have that one performer be April Fossen,” said playwright Jenifer Nii. “If this is the way that had to be, then I’m the luckiest girl on the planet.”

Josie Bassett was the initial inspiration for the play — she ran a huge cattle ranch, married five husbands, divorced four and was accused of killing the fifth. She was romantically involved with Butch Cassidy and other members of his gang. She was accused of cattle rustling. She was a bootlegger. She — gasp! — wore pants.

The script grew to include five other characters, all played by Fossen. She said she’s disappointed she won’t be performing in front of audiences as scheduled.

“But if we’re going to do anything with it, we’d need to do it now before anything else happens,” Fossen said. “It will be a way to get the material out there — for Jenifer’s work to be seen. So I’m glad there’s that possibility, at least.”

‘Kind of upside down’

On March 12, Plan-B was pretty much set to go with “The Audacity,” Nii’s dramatization of the lives of Josie, Ann and Elizabeth Bassett. (It’s Nii’s eighth collaboration with Plan-B, Fossen’s 13th, and their third together.)

The set, costumes, sound, lighting and props were all ready before things started shifting on March 13, with the first announcement of coronavirus restrictions.

It quickly became clear that they couldn’t present the play as scheduled, but Rapier and Plan-B managing director Cheryl Cluff started tossing around the idea of taking the production online. They considered livestreaming, but decided against it because of “concerns about connectivity issues.”

Instead, they decided to film it and then stream it. Rehearsals resumed “with very strict restrictions,” Rapier said, “following all the COVID-19 protocols that were in place from the governor.”

And then came the morning of March 18. “No one anticipated the earthquake,” Rapier said.

The Rose Wagner Theater was already closed to the public because of the coronavirus, and it was closed to Plan-B for several days while the building was checked for damage. The troupe was allowed back in on March 21, but it was no longer much of a troupe.

“We’ve really, truly followed all the protocol,” Rapier said. The biggest group they’ve had in the theater since March 13 was seven — Fossen, Rapier, the stage manager and four designers, “all of us sitting 6 feet apart. It was very strange.”

During filming on Tuesday, that number was just five — Fossen, Rapier, the stage manager, a camera operator and his assistant. “If it wasn’t essential for someone to be there, I asked them not to come,” Rapier said.

“The whole process is kind of upside down. But it’s also invigorating because we have to think about it differently,” he said. “We have to approach it a little bit differently. We have to be present in different ways.

“I don’t want to say it’s exciting, because that just isn’t the case. But it’s helped us with focus and we are so grateful that we’re able to still do the work.”

‘Extraordinary then ... extraordinary today’

Their perseverance echoed that of the women “The Audacity” is about.

“They were working through a different set of obstacles, for sure,” Fossen said. “Their obstacles are more related to sexism and to the male-controlled world that they were part of.”

The original idea was a one-woman play about Josie Bassett (1874-1964) — envisioned after Cluff visited Bassett’s cabin at Dinosaur National Monument and suggested doing a show about the woman who flouted the conventions of her time.

But as Nii struggled to get a handle on the play, she expanded from one character to six. Fossen plays Josie; her equally infamous sister, Ann, who was also involved with Butch Cassidy and was known as the queen of the cattle rustlers; and their strong-willed mother, Elizabeth.

She also plays Josie’s friend, Dottie; Rosalie, a contemporary who is the wife of the local stake president in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; and Christine, a present-day woman.

The Bassetts “were extraordinary then, and they would still be extraordinary today,” Nii said. “Because the challenges are not dissimilar. And I don’t know how far we’ve come.”

“In fact,” Fossen said, “I think some of the historical characters actually have a little bit more freedom and autonomy than the contemporary character does. They’re in a position to say, ‘Well, screw it. I’m going to do whatever I want to do.’”

Nii said she had “a lot of false starts” before settling on “a one-performer, multicharacter play. And then figuring out how to put the puzzle together.”

The six characters have interlocking but separate stories, and the narrative covers a lot of ground in a play that runs just over an hour. It’s an ambitious undertaking.

“I wouldn’t say ambitious,” Nii demurred, “but I will say that it was terrifying. There was so much material and lives so fully lived, that I didn’t know how to do these characters justice. It was very, very daunting.”

Between the time the coronavirus restrictions were put in place March 13 and the March 24 filming, Fossen could only rehearse six times. That’s once for each role she plays.

“This could not be a more different scenario than I expected for this piece when we started talking about it almost a year and a half ago,” she said. “But I do think it’s important material to have out there in the world.

“It seems sort of quaint to think about feminism right now,” Fossen added. “But we will come to a point where this immediate crisis goes away and we’ll be left with the world that we had before it started, which was still a sexist world.”

Ticket holders have been contacted by Plan-B and given instructions and passwords so they can stream the performance March 28-31. Instructions are available at planbtheatre.org for April 1-5, when “The Audacity” will stream to everyone for free.

“There’s very little local art available to people right now,” Rapier said. “We decided that rather than trying to recoup our loss by charging for people to view the stream, we feel it is far more important for us to make it available at no charge.”