What is Theatre? is a formative collection of writing by my favorite theatre critic, Eric Bentley. While the question of his title was largely a prompt, a frame for his interrogation of a wide of range of Western drama and practice, it doesn’t seem so rhetorical anymore. What is theatre indeed? In a time when we can barely gather in person but still feel compelled to forge some vestige of gathering and connection—of what Bentley called “the dramatic event”—around virtual platforms, is it worth rethinking what we mean by “live performance”? Are there any significant differences between a live performance mediated by camera and screen, and straight-up film and TV?
My tendency is to answer “yes, and” to all those questions, even as I recognize the sentiment, so beautifully expressed by Laura Collins-Hughes in a recent NY Times piece, that digital theatre is, among other things, a way to process the grief of losing, for now, the shared live experience—a “vigil, awaiting the reawakening,” as she puts it. Similarly I’ve used the analogy of trying to think of these screens, through which so much of our lives, including our theatrical ones, are mediated, as ghost lights, lit until the theatre fully reopens.
Helping to keep them lit are the following online offerings, organized roughly by date and availability.
Series Roll-Outs and Viewing Windows
In a major national partnership, New York’s 24 Hours Plays company has joined forces with Arizona Theatre Company to create a series of 14 “viral monologues,” created in a joint project with ATC and a cohort of Arizona theatres. Writers and actors are have been paired and charged with making a new monologue in a 24-hour period; results start rolling out on IGTV, Tues., July 14, at 7 p.m. EST, with a new piece every 15 minutes. The whole package of pieces is viewable for a 4-day window. Proceeds support ATC, the official state theatre of Arizona, now in its 53rd season.
Another 4-day viewing opportunity is coming up with this week’s installment of the Homebound Project, in which a group of writers are given a prompt to create a short online play; the new period runs Wed., July 15 at 7 p.m. to Sun., July 19 at 7 p.m. EST. This round’s prompt is “Promise,” and participating actors, playwrights, and directors include: Tommy Dorfman in a work by Diana Oh, directed by Lena Dunham; Lisa Edelstein in a work by Janine Nabers; Adam Faison in a work by Charly Evon Simpson; Santino Fontana in a work by Emily Zemba; Cherry Jones in a work by Erin Courtney, directed by Jenna Worsham; Sue Jean Kim in a work by Leslye Headland, directed by Annie Tippe; Judith Light in a work by Jon Robin Baitz, directed by Leigh Silverman; Jon-Michael Reese in a work by Harrison David Rivers, directed by Colette Robert; Amber Tamblyn in a work by Halley Feiffer; Marquise Vilson in a work by Migdalia Cruz, directed by Cándido Tirado; and Mary Wiseman in a work by Boo Killebrew, directed by Jenna Worsham. View-at-home tickets are currently on sale at homeboundtheater.org; though the suggested donation starts at $10, complimentary viewings for first responders and essential workers have been made possible by an anonymous donor. (All proceeds go to No Kid Hungry, a national campaign working to end childhood hunger; the project has raised over $88,000 for the cause to date.)
Harlem’s National Black Theatre (NBT) has been going strong since its 1968 founding by Barbara Ann Teer, and this July they’ve launched NBT@Home: A Letter to the Future, a series of online conversations on theatre, current events and Black history with guests including Toshi Reagon, Ebony Noelle Golden, adrienne maree brown, and members of the theater’s original company of “Liberators.” (You can view previous conversations here and here.) The last of these conversations, titled “The Download,” is slated for Thursday, July 16 at 5:30 p.m. EST, and will feature the creative leadership team of NBT—Sade Lythcott, CEO and daughter of Dr. Teer, Jonathan McCrory, artistic director, and Nia Farrell, interactive social media manager—talking about the future of NBT, its role in the Harlem arts community, and what sounds like legit big news: what a press release calls “its impending move.” Look for it on NBT’s Facebook page.
La Jolla Playhouse’s Without Walls festival has long been at the forefront of innovating work beyond the four walls of the theatre. But this year that has meant not staging shows on the beach or in parked cars, as they’ve done in the past, but going virtual with a series of online offerings, including The Totally Fake Latino News from Culture Clash and Blindspot Collective’s audio plays Walks of Life. Last week Brian Lobel and company created a unique one-on-one Zoom performance called Binge, which Jose Solís raved about here. As the father of kids aged 7 and 11, I’m especially intrigued to check out The Wizards of Oakwood Drive, a Zoom-driven puzzle play for kids aged 7-12 created by Accomplice mastermind Tom Salamon, and unspooling online July 16-26. Tickets are $25.
Meanwhile, this week Charleston, S.C.’s PURE Theatre kicks off a three-part virtual play reading series on Black themes under the name “Bearing Witness,” produced in partnership with the Charleston Arts Festival and Buxton Books. The series kicks off on Friday, July 17th at 7:30 pm EST with Denmark: Every Man Has a Story, a new play by Ade Ofunniyin, Ph.D., about Denmark Vesey’s thwarted plans for a potentially major slave rebellion in July 1822 in Charleston. On July 31, Randy Neale’s Last Rites looks at the 1967 Detroit riots, and on Aug. 14, Michael Smallwood’s Retcon, examines Black rage through the lens of superhero mythology. All readings are free but require an advance reservation.
Finally, the Bay Area Playwrights Festival goes online festival with a raft of new plays, July 17-26, using a new technology called VMix to livestream the readings rather than Zoom. This year’s offering include Tyler English-Beckwith’s Mingus, an exploration of mentorship and the struggle for one Black woman to find her voice, directed by Margo Hall; Final Boarding Call, written by Stefani Kuo (郭佳怡) and directed by Desdemona Chiang, in which Hong Kong protests are the context for interconnected personal stories; Jordan Ramirez Puckett’s To Saints and Stars, a play focusing on the intersection of science and faith, directed by Jessica Bird Beza; Deneen Reynolds-Knott’s Babes in Ho-lland, a discovery of Black identity and female connection, directed by Dawn Monique Williams; and Noelle Viñas’s Derecho, which explores magical realism and fragmented identity, directed by Nicholas C. Avila. Public readings will be live-streamed and hosted on Vimeo, in addition to panel discussions on Facebook Live, YouTube, and the Playwrights Foundation’s website. Tickets are available now on a sliding scale of $5-45 for wider accessibility.
Reviving a play it had success with more than 20 years ago, New York City’s MCC Theater will bring back Peter Hedges’s Good as New for an online reading on Thursday, July 16, at 7 p.m. EST, starring Julianne Moore and Kaitlyn Dever. This one-act dark comedy about a learning-to-drive daughter who comes face to face with the mother she thinks has let her down, which first bowed in 1993-94 as part of MCC’s one-act festival, was later extended into a full-length work and produced at MCC in 1997. The new reading, directed by the author, will stream on YouTube with live-captioning; tickets range from $5 to $25 and go to benefit MCC, with a portion donated to the Artists Co-op and the Okra Project, a food program fro Black trans people experiencing food insecurity.
Also on Thursday, July 16, at 8 p.m. EST, NY Classical Theatre reunites the cast of its acclaimed 2019 production of The Importance of Being Earnest for a free virtual reading, directed by Stephen Burdman. NY Classical’s production played at A.R.T./New York Theatres and toured large public places throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn. The cast features Ademide Akintilo, Kristen Calgaro, Connie Castanzo, Jed Peterson, Kate Goehring, John Michalski, Tina Stafford, and Clay Storseth. It’s free but reservations are recommended to join the live premiere or to receive a recording link to enjoy through July 20.
It’s not every day that the theatre’s board chair gets onstage. That’s what Mary Seeberg, chair of the board of Northern Sky Theater in Fish Creek, Wisc., will do on Friday, July 17, at 7 p.m., for a benefit cabaret called “Mary’s Playlist Concert,” featuring a sampler smorgasbord of favorite songs from Northern Sky shoes, performed by company artists live and from their homes around the country. In between selections, she’ll join the theatre’s artistic director, Jeff Herbst, in sharing memories of her 23 years on the board. Tickets are $50.
To cap Pride Week in San Diego, the Old Globe has partnered with the town’s LGBTQ company, Diversionary Theatre, and San Diego Pride to feature live-streamed performances of short plays by queer playwrights including Shairi Engle, Jaime Estepa, Katherine Harroff, and Miki Vale, with additional material created by Teen-Versionary and the Stonewall Salon, two of Diversionary’s arts education programs serving teenagers and the older generation. This coLAB PRIDE Celebration will be part of the San Diego Virtual Pride Festival, with a sneak peek on Saturday, July 18 and the complete performances on Sunday, July 19, 2-4:30 p.m. PDT on the Old Globe Arts Engagement Facebook and the Old Globe YouTube, as well as on the digital platforms for the San Diego Virtual Pride Festival.
Remember “immersive theatre”? That’s harder to pull off virtually, but that hasn’t stopped Fort Worth, Texas’s Amphibian Stage from trying. They’ve adapted their production of The True History of the Tragic Life & Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World, originally staged in complete darkness, as a “sensory-driven, at-home theatre experience,” offered via a digital platform that uses Dolby Atmos, a technology designed to provide listeners with a “surround sound” experience when using headphones. It will be available July 16-30, with $13 tickets giving viewers a 48-hour rental period. The play tells the story of Pastrana, a 19th century Mexican woman born with genetic conditions which caused her to grow excessive hair all over her body and enlarged her facial features. Exploited by freakshows, even after her death—her remains toured the world for a century—she was eventually laid to rest in Sinaloa in 2013.
Last but not least, Bob Hess stars in I Am My Own Wife, Doug Wright’s Pulitzer-winning solo play about a resilient transgender woman who managed to survive both the Nazis and the Stasi, recently filmed onstage at Dallas’s WaterTower theatre, and available on demand July 16-Aug. 2. Tickets are $41.