Since graduating from Pleasant Grove High School and UAB, actress Rachel Burttram Powers has performed in theaters all over the country.
In Birmingham, it was the Alabama Theatre, Town and Gown Theatre, 13th Street Ensemble and City Equity Theatre, but there also have been plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, Geva Theatre Center in Rochester, New York, and New York’s International Fringe Festival, among many others. Most recently, she and her husband, Brendan, have been part of the ensemble at the acclaimed Florida Repertory Theatre for several years.
But on March 21, amid the COVID-19 outbreak, they stepped into a closet in their Fort Myers, Florida, duplex and opened a different kind of theater – Tiny Theatre, featuring the duo reading plays, scenes and monologues via Facebook Live to an audience that numbers in the thousands.
“When this all started, we thought, we have an amazing group of theater friends, which includes a number of playwrights,” said Rachel, whose parents, Linda and Milton Burttram, and grandmother, Ana Lou Burttram, live in the Birmingham area along with a number of cousins, aunts and uncles. “Why don’t we see if anyone wants us to read their plays.”
They kicked it off with “Maytag Virgin,” a play by Birmingham-born playwright Audrey Cefaly (Rachel recently starred in the world premiere of Cefaly’s “Alabaster” at Florida Rep). And since then, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 8 p.m. Central time, the couple has tackled material sent to them by playwrights, who include Tony and Pulitzer nominees.
“These people have had their stuff produced all over the world,” Rachel said. “Now, we’re doing it three days a week out of our closet.”
In a non-COVID-19 world, Brendan and Rachel, who met while performing in a Florida Rep production of “Doubt” and have been married seven years, would have been in the middle of a run of “A Doll’s House, Part 2.” But that Florida Rep show was canceled after a final dress rehearsal that was filmed and is now available via streaming through April 22.
“We were all geared up to do eight performances a week,” Rachel said. “Then, suddenly, we’re here, and we can only watch so much Netflix and read so many books.”
So Rachel cleaned out their 4-by-4-by-8-foot closet, added an old IKEA curtain and Christmas lights and, well, put on a show. A friend made the duo a sign, and a props person dropped off some lights. “So now it’s the real thing,” she said.
The first submissions were from Cefaly, Mark St. Germain and Tony nominee Eric Coble (“The Velocity of Autumn”), all of whom the Powers knew before the pandemic.
“But what’s really fascinating is now we have new friends who are submitting,” Rachel said. “People are saying to their friends, ‘This wacky couple is in their closet three times a week – do you have any work they should read?’”
They’ve received close to 100 plays already, Rachel said.
“Everyone’s creating their own work-at-home schedule, and my new schedule is that I wake up in the morning, make a pot of coffee, and I start reading plays,” she said. “And I can’t keep up. We didn’t expect we’d be doing this every week. It’s kind of crazy, actually. As long as we can’t really be on the boards somewhere, this is the next best thing we can do.”
The couple reads from each script, doing little prep work for each performance, which is part of the fun.
“We look at it once or twice and then we go in front of the camera and do it,” said Brendan, who is from Boston but was the face of Alabama Tourism’s road trip campaign that ended in 2018. “There’s a spontaneity to it. You’re watching two actors take something and run with it.”
Playwright Kenneth Jones (“Alabama Story”) sent scenes from his new play, “Hollywood, Nebraska,” for the couple to perform.
“I’m so thrilled that I got to hear my work done in this unique format by two great American actors,” Jones said. “It was a great listening opportunity, a networking opportunity to match my play with artists I respect and a chance to share my script with a wider audience.”
Though all of the Tiny Theatre performances are archived and can be viewed anytime (one has about 4,000 views), part of the draw is the live component.
“It’s interesting to see how many people show up live,” Rachel said. “People are yearning for that communal experience, the fellowship of the theater. It’s a cross-section of playwrights, theater nerds and people who are just lovers of the theater and patrons of the arts.”
Rachel and Brendan plan to keep Tiny Theatre alive in some way after the pandemic ends.
“When we get back, God willing, to some sort of normal theater schedule, we won’t have the luxury of time, and we’ll have to come up with a creative solution,” said Rachel, who has a role as Betty Grissom, astronaut Gus’ wife, in National Geographic’s upcoming miniseries of “The Right Stuff.” “Maybe it will become a Monday thing, because Monday is traditionally a dark night in the theater.”
But right now, Rachel is helping with the pandemic in the only way she knows.
“I’m not a nurse, I’m not a doctor, so I can’t be of service in those ways,” she said. “But this is the gift that I have. If I can be of service in that way at this time, it makes me feel like I’m fulfilling my purpose.”