When theatres went dark across the country just over three weeks ago now, there was plenty of grief to go around. An entire artistic field mourned the loss of productions that could no longer be put onstage in front of a live audience due to the social distancing required to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. Theatres moved quickly to finalize agreements that allowed some of those productions to be seen online through streaming services. But artists and companies alike seemed to make the unspoken decision that, even amid the constrictions of a pandemic and stay-at-home orders, the creation of new art and the coming together of artistic communities would not—and should not—be stopped.
It probably goes without saying at this point in this crisis, as many across the country see stay-at-home orders extended past previously optimistic April end dates, but maintaining and growing an online community is becoming a necessity for everyone. So it should come as no surprise that social media has quickly become a way to fill in the gap left by the absence of live art.
The 24 Hour Plays, for one, swiftly adapted their usual system of producing plays and musicals written, rehearsed, and performed (live) within 24 hours into a series of “viral monologues” on their Instagram. They have had actors ranging from Rachel Dratch, Juliana Canfield, and Daveed Diggs to Dani Pudi, Michael Shannon, and William Jackson Harper performing monologues by the likes of David Lindsay-Abaire, Will Arbery, Hansol Jung, Stephen Adly Guirgis, and Jesse Eisenberg.
Also in search of filling the space left by shuttered theatres came the Instagram account Theatre Without Theater, founded by Lily Houghton, Ali Stoner, and Matthew Minnicino. The account posts artists’ reflections on the current state of the theatre community, musical collaborations, excerpts from plays, monologues, and other artistic experiments on a nightly basis. Their goal, set forth clearly in their Instagram header, is to fill the “current artistic void.”
Professional productions weren’t the only casualties of the shutdown. Students across the country lost out on opportunities to perform in high school plays and musicals. Early on, actors and artists such as Laura Benanti took to Twitter, asking high school students, and former high school students, to reply to her with videos of them performing songs they never got to do onstage. When March saw the cancelation of the National High School Musical Theatre Awards (the Jimmy Awards) and its regional counterpart, the Illinois High School Musical Theatre Awards (IHSMTA), Broadway in Chicago announced “Around Broadway in 80 Days,” which aims to give students a platform similar to Benanti’s. The program, which can be followed under #AroundBroadwayIn80Days, allows IHSMTA students and alumni to submit videos that may then be featured on Broadway in Chicago and IHSMTA’s social media profiles.
“The exciting thing about this moment is that, understandably, a lot of people are trying to think for the first time about how to translate programming that was in person to online,” said HowlRound director and co-founder Jamie Gahlon. HowlRound has been working in the digital sphere with their live-streaming network, HowlRound TV, since 2011. According to Gahlon, HowlRound helps with technical support as well as aiding in getting the word out about events that they work on with artists and organizations (which have included TCG). Right now HowlRound is hosting regular events like the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center’s daily Segal Talks, conversations with national and global theatre artists, and #ArtistResource talks from Nicole Brewer, Hannah Fenlon, Ann Marie Lonsdale, and Abigail Vega. For HowlRound, finding an artistic community online includes having a place where people can not only share art, but can come together to talk about everything that is going on in the world and the field.
“Even more exciting is that folks are self-organizing to have really important conversations about the moment that we’re in,” Gahlon said, noting that this is also a time where theatres and artists may also find themselves and their work in front of new eyes, thanks to online opportunities. “It’s about expanding the conversation and extending the possibilities for connection across the field. I think we’re really seeing ourselves as a catalyst for that continued conversation, that broadening of conversation, which just feels so critical right now.”
The Public Theater is using HowlRound to continue their popular ongoing series, Suzan-Lori Parks’s Watch Me Work. Part metatheatrical art, part actual work session, and part live Q&A, the series was typically hosted on the mezzanine of the Public Theater lobby, with people free to come in, work alongside Parks, and spend some time asking her questions. Post-shutdown, the experience is now completely digital, with HowlRound hosting a livestream while participants are able to participate from home via Zoom.
Over the past few weeks, Zoom has somehow become almost synonymous with connecting with people digitally. Even in a world with FaceTime, Google Hangouts, GoToMeeting, and Skype, many people are turning to Zoom to stay connected. Even Chicago’s famed Second City has turned to the free teleconferencing app to adapt their improvisation-based shows and classes into interactive virtual experiences. Meanwhile, Harrisburg, Pa.’s Open Stage is using Zoom to provide a stripped down performance of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. In a statement, artistic director Stuart Landon said that it will be “like a rehearsal.” Instead of any of the visual effects or designs, the Zoom performance will be “about text and characterization,” Landon’s statement continued. “It is, like most plays, about human connection, and we are dedicated to that connection even if our artists aren’t in the same room.”
Also tackling the challenges of remote readings through Zoom is Play-PerView, co-produced by Mirirai Sithole and Jeremy Wein. Play-PerView provides one-time-only play readings, monologue nights, panel discussions, and more as a way to raise funds for organizations like the Actors Fund and Broadway Cares as well as nonprofit theatres and theatrical unions, who are all working to help artists and those in need during this crisis.
This is all honestly just the tip of the iceberg of the continued momentum toward new and fascinating ways theatre artists are sharing their work. To name a few (really, seriously, only a few):
- Baltimore Center Stage, Long Wharf Theatre, the Public Theater, the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company partnered to provide Play At Home, a series of commissioned short plays from a slew of playwrights, including Aleshea Harris, Mike Lew, Lauren Yee, and Karen Zacarías, which will be available to the public to read, download, and enjoy.
- The Cherry Artists’ Collective is commissioning a new work of live-streaming theatre from seven writers from around the world to explore life under pandemic quarantine. The collective will combine the works and perform them as a single work of live-streamed performance, set to happen in early May.
- Theatre Lab, the resident professional company of Florida Atlantic University, created an online original monologue festival in which the company provided a week of free online workshops before inviting community members to submit monologues and stories around the theme of hope. They then chose around 40, which were then performed by artists in the South Florida theatre community. All of the monologues, over three hours worth, from the festival are available on Theatre Lab’s YouTube page.
- Theatreisdead, a Facebook and Instagram meme page turned theatre company, is partnering with media company Rock Rising to debut a new audioplay/podcast called By Morning on YouTube. Though By Morning, a play exploring themes of isolation and grief and looking at finding meaning in the future, was written prior to the coronavirus pandemic, Theatreisdead is livestreaming the audioplay on YouTube on April 9 in the hopes of bringing intimacy and catharsis during this crisis.
- Nancy Bell, playwright and director of the theatre program at Saint Louis University, recently wrote Mute, a “play for videoconference” that was performed last week as a Zoom webinar for an audience of 100, and will be back for an April 12 watch party. For info go here.
- Playwright Danielle Mohlman recently announced that she is taking to Zoom to offer a unique three-week run to her two-character play Nexus, which was developed at Arena Stage before premiering at Hubbard Hall in Cambridge, N.Y., in 2015. The play, about two people who can’t stop seeing each other, will be performed live by different pairs of actors straight from their living rooms. Ticket sales will go directly to the artists involved and the cast will rotate on a nightly basis between April 17 and May 2.
- Then, of course, there’s the Social Distancing Festival. Celebrating all kinds of art from around the world, this online site provides a daily schedule of live streaming events ranging from music to spoken word to art to dance to theatre. As with all of these artistic pursuits, the festival seeks to foster a sense of community and continue providing art to people around the world.
It has been difficult at times, looking at the closed doors of theatres and remembering there are no productions to leave the house to go see or participate in. But if the last couple of weeks of new art, streamed productions, and archival releases (and Andrew Lloyd Webber giving everyone a full weekend of Donny Osmond’s Joseph) have shown anything, it’s that there is still an absolutely overwhelming amount of art out there to consume. Theatre artists may be stuck inside, but it’s certainly hard to argue that they’re not as vibrantly creative as ever.
It was in this spirit that Red Bull Theater artistic director Jesse Berger set out to stage a one-night-only virtual reading of ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore in late March, reuniting the cast from Red Bull’s 2015 production. “We generated this idea in response to a sense of hunger in our community for some way to connect online,” said Berger. “We were hearing it from our board, our artists, and audience members who were eager to connect with Red Bull and its community and our mission online.”
With an entirely volunteer cast, offered only an honorarium as a thank you for their time, the virtual reading was formed as a community-building event, according to managing director Jim Bredeson. But a mere eight days after they pulled together their idea, Red Bull found themselves having to pull the plug. Actor’s Equity Association informed the company that they were still subject to their production’s original Off-Broadway agreement and would need to offer pay and benefits, despite the fact that this performance was to be a ticket-free, online-only event.
“From the project’s inception through to today, we are unsure that Actor’s Equity has dominion over these online virtual events,” said managing director Bredeson, who is looking to have conversations with peer organizations, unions, and the Off-Broadway League to figure out the best way forward. “I think that for the foreseeable future, this may be all that a company like us can do to fulfill our mission, which is to share these plays, to share this dramatic literature with a community that appreciates it and to introduce it to new people.”
Obviously this unique crisis has created a brave new world for theatre artists and institutions. Building on technology and trends already in place before the pandemic, artists across the field are continuing to innovate and adapt, pushing the envelope into new avenues for artistic expression. As Nancy Bell put it, “This is an incredibly creative and oxygenating time for art.” But with new opportunities come growing pains, new questions that were previously unasked that have become increasingly urgent. With all of these exciting new online opportunities on offer, the field is still sifting through uncharted areas in the pursuit of a common goal. As Berger put it, as he reflected on his mindset moving forward, “We are all doing the best we can in this moment to serve our communities, do our mission, and keep our theatres alive.”