When the pandemic struck, Scott Kenison -- recently retired executive director of Livermore Valley Performing Arts Center -- wanted to do something to support artists.
Realizing that online venues are the stages of today, he looked for a play to produce virtually, using Tri-Valley contacts from his years on the arts scene.
"My friend, William Lokke, had been writing this piece about Eleanor Roosevelt that was relatively short, about 45 minutes," Kenison recalled. "It is about Eleanor coming from a life of privilege and becoming a public servant, and about the person she ultimately became."
On Nov. 19, Kenison's New Deal Theater is presenting Lokke's "Becoming Eleanor Roosevelt," directed by Misty Megia with assistant director Christina Lazo.
"I found inspiration in Eleanor's work with her husband Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Depression of the 1930s. The way the piece is written, it relates to today. The director has taken that approach," Kenison said.
"Here was an opportunity to get artists working again during these unusual times, which echo the challenges of that era," he added.
Lokke, who moved to the Tri-Valley from Minnesota in 1957 to join what became the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, explained that Eleanor Roosevelt's life story is a wonderful legacy for the nation, and she is a role model for women today.
"This, the real Eleanor Roosevelt, is the archetypal 21st century fully self-actualized woman, equal to man in her ambition and challenges, industry, commitments and accomplishments," he said.
Kenison held a reading online in September to check the script's viability.
"I invited a few people to watch and give feedback on the writing itself," he remembered, "and a number of people wanted to know more about Eleanor Roosevelt."
The length also proved to be good, in keeping with analytics done since the pandemic began that show people are apt to leave their screens at about the 40-minute mark.
Megia, who has directed two plays for Livermore Valley Performing Arts Center, noted that Eleanor Roosevelt went from being orphaned at age 10 to becoming a globally recognized figure. And she said she is proud to have a diverse cast of actors to give voice to Roosevelt's story.
"The rehearsal process has been collaborative as we learn about each other's lives and the parallels to the script," Megia said. "Even though our backgrounds vary, what remains consistent is our passion for everyone to have a seat at the table."
Three actors will portray Roosevelt at different stages of her life: Loreigna Sinclair, Robyn Grahn and Anita Viramontes.
Grahn was most recently seen in Livermore Shakespeare Festival's production of "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)," and Viramontes was featured in Tri-Valley Repertory Theatre's production of "In the Heights" at the Bankhead Theater. Sinclair, who plays the young Eleanor, is a graduate of AMDA College of the Performing Arts and has performed in "Dreamgirls" on an international tour.
Rehearsals for "Becoming Eleanor Roosevelt" were progressing well, Kenison said last week.
"Everybody is at home doing this remotely," he explained. "I would love for it to be live -- there is something about a live performance that we all miss."
Production manager Mike Johnson, who worked at the Bankhead with Kenison, is in charge of the virtual production's technology.
Kenison noted that he himself is adept at the ticket-selling software but not the computer program used for the actual show.
"I am worried about people suddenly disappearing," he said with a laugh.
The premiere will take place live, with a live Q&A afterward with the actors and directors. After that, a recording will be aired.
"I am funding the project but hopefully this will be successful and we'll be able to commission other works that are designed for this format," Kenison said. "It was a chance to do something significant and impactful."
Kenison said he is looking for future projects, perhaps stories from during the pandemic when everyone began to converse on Zoom.
"The pandemic has changed the way we live -- I think live theater will come back but there need to be alternatives, focused on supporting the artists to do this important work," he said.
"We are no longer restricted by geography," added Kenison, who sold his Livermore house in March and moved with his husband to Palm Springs just as everyone was going into quarantine.
"I feel it is important to give back, and I am hoping to give back," he said.
Anyone with a possible project for Kenison can email him at [email protected]
"I'd be interested in hearing from them," he said.
Tickets are $15 for the premiere of "Becoming Eleanor Roosevelt" at 8 p.m. next Thursday (Nov. 19); and $10 for viewings afterward, through Dec. 19. Proceeds will support the artists involved in the production and local venues that have been shuttered due to the pandemic, including the Bankhead Theater.