A CurtainUp Streaming Feature Online Theater Experiments With a Post-Pandemic Future

By: Elyse Sommer
August 21, 2020: If I were a horror story writer instead of a theater critic I couldn’t have dreamed up a situation like COVID. Even when it first struck and theaters, restaurants and places of business were shut and death tolls mounted, it was hard to believe that this life style — no close contact with even our closest relatives and friends — would last and last. But here we are, five months into lock-down and all the theaters whose shows I and my trusty backups have covered since 1996 are still closed, and the effect on those who work in the industry devastating. 

But theater folks are an adventurous and inventive lot and there have bee ongoing efforts to keep the creative juices flowing, survive financially, and reach out to the home bound, entertainment starved. Some, like Barrington Stage and the Berkshire Theatre Group in Massachusetts have actually created safe spaces to provide the area’s culture hungry audiences with live performances. Even if Barrington Stage had been allowed to have a live summer season in their meticulously prepped for safe viewing Pittsfield theater instead of in a parking lot near noisy street traffic, no one is going to want to stick to such can-do outings once it’s okay to venture forth without masks and fear of getting too close to others. 

However, some of the experiments with presenting shows for online viewing during COVID-19 are sure to have a lasting impact on how they are produced and marketed. Big Broadway productions have almost always been filmed for archival purposes, but the filmed version of Hamilton, the juggernaut musical of this century, broke brand new ground: First, by using new techniques to enrich the experience for the viewer (Details about these tecnniques here ); second. in the way it expanded the audience and the show’s already formidable profits. Recently released data showed that Hamilton seen for the price of signing on to the Disney channel for $6.99 was July’s most viewed show on any streaming servuce. If the theater community is serious about enabling people who can’t afford the price of a ticket to see it — and in the equivalent of a front row seat. 

While filming a production for archival purposes is not as common for small organizations like the Mint Theater Company. Still, their less big budget filming of three films from recent seasons, enabled them to present Summer Stock Streaming Festival for their many supporters. 

Another way to create theater during COVID-19 has been to actually present new plays and structure them to be performed online or Zoomed. Richard Nelson brought together the actors from his popular plays about the Apple Family as a fundraiser for the Actors’ Fund, and Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen created the incredibly moving The Line under the auspices of the Public Theater. 

One of the more intriguing experiments for having a season when your physical plant is closed came from one of New York’s theatrical treasures, the Irish Rep in Chelsea. Though the four plays chosen for this first ever strictly online summer season were previously staged at one of their two stages. But what those who signed on saw was not a performance captured on film during its run but a newly staged revival, with Irish Rep regulars performing live and the creative team making adjustments for the online format. Best of all, in the light o the many layoffs by much larger organizations , everyone was paid under a Theatre Authority agreement hat covers members of SAG-AFTRA.  
                   
Each of these plays saw new innovations for dealing with the challenges of working this way. For the final play of the season, Love Nöel : The Songs and Letters of Noel Coward, its stars, Steve Ross and KT Sullivan, reprised their original roles in a new setting— the elegant Players Club in Gramercy Park. Rehearsals and filming had cast & crew adhering to all safety protocols. Since it’s been only a year since Ross and Sullivan sang and chatted their way through the show devised by Barry Day about Coward’s life and work, they only needed to adapt their movements and interactions to the new venue. The lovely red gown she wore then still looks great. 

As for me, it took a minute to get past the disappointment of watching Charlotte Moore, the Rep’s artistic director who directed the online as well as original production, greet viewers on screen instead of at her usual place behind the theater’s box office window. Since the Players Club was always abuzz with people when I attended events there in the past, I had to get past a sense of it it seeming a bit ghostly with just Ross and Sullivan and the people in the paintings along its walls. But for the pair’s fans and Coward enthusiasts, this is still an entertaining trip down memory lane. For details see CurtainUp’s cabaret columnist and backup reviewer Elizabeth Ahlfor’s reviewref=”lovenoel19.html”>here. 

A word about the impact of how this online theatergoing has been funded. While the Berkshire theaters’ live outdoor performances require regular ticket purchases, the shows created for online viewing have been free but with requests for donations, usually a suggested $25. I don’t know how this worked for some of the shows mentioned, the Irish Rep’s reports on their experience has been very positive, with some donations exceeding the suggested amount and reservations for the Love Nöel indicating more people will see it online than the Small F. Scott Luacas studio was was able to accommodate last year. For sure, the Rep is likely to continue to make some of their content available online in order to acquaint more people with what             they do. What’s more, their experience will serve as a role model for other producers looking for ways to reach larger and geographically distant audiences. 

To get back to the huge new cash cow Hamilton‘s stunning film version distributed through Disney, a new wrinkle has just been added to the concept of making big show available through a streaming service. Of course streaming isn’t just the only way to see a show during the pandemic but a way t immediately expand the number and type of people who will see it. That new wrinkle is to film a big budget musical that’s not yet a proven hit and have it make its initial impression on Netrlix.

That test show is Diana; which will be filmed without an audience at the Longacre Theatre where it previewed briefly before the March 12th shutdown. The ever fascinating British royals will sing and dance on Netflix next year.

But , Broadway producers haven’t given up on opening the Longacre for a live audiences. They’ve even announced an opening date of May 25, 2021, for die-hard live theater enthusiasts to put on their calendars. Will they be wearing masks, and seated safely apart? Your guess is as good as mine.