Features Dialogues and debatesNYC Published 10 May 2020

Online Theater: The Familiar vs. The New

Our critics gather to talk about what theater they are watching online and why.

Exeunt Staff

NTLive at Home (Photo: NTLive)

Joey Sims: The comfort of the familiar? During quarantine we have seen a huge response for streams of well-known shows, such as Phantom of the Opera; recordings from big-name theaters, like NT Live; and concerts of beloved musical theater classics, such as Sondheim’s 90th.

This past week, producer Jeffrey Richards announced a revival reading series. So far (and it is early), new work has not found a place in this strange new ecosystem, though it is happening on the margins. Even the Apple Family play, though it was new, relied on viewers’ familiarity with these characters.

With live theater’s return looking more uncertain than ever, is there room to transition this online interest towards new work in new formats?

What We’re Watching—Old, New, on the Down Low

Nicole Serratore: I have been mostly sampling revivals and it was only this week that I finally bought a ticket to a “new” play which I missed when it was live, How to Load A Musket. I’m wondering how much of this is me associating my home viewing with comfort food–familiar noms of Law & Order reruns versus a space where I am looking to challenge myself and shake things up a bit–you know like when I used to go to the theater.

Unexpectedly, I have gotten into Korean romance/dramas (via Netflix). On some level it is giving me a chance to “travel” culturally and visually, but it also employs different shot structures and tropes. It is pushing me to think about historical and cultural events through a different lens. Maybe I am looking to be challenged and I am open to the new, but it has to be the right voice/story/approach to reach me right now.

Cameron Kelsall: I’m not finding unfettered joy, or even entertainment, in every online experience. The heavy-handedness — and glitchy transmission! — of Beirut blurred whatever pleasure I was taking from the finely crafted performances of Marisa Tomei and Oscar Isaac. And Motherhood Out Loud (via Stars in the House) was so schmaltzy and cliché-ridden I only lasted about twenty minutes before switching over to Frasier on Hulu. In quarantine as in life, you win some and you lose some.

On the other side of the coin, The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife featured acting of such high quality from Charles Busch, Andrea Martin, Richard Kind, and Faith Prince that it could be dropped into a professional production tomorrow and open to raves. And while I have mixed feelings about the Apple plays and the aura of barely acknowledged privilege they exude, it was a revelation to watch Maryann Plunkett, one of the most precise actors in the business, through the close prism of a camera lens.

(Photo: The Flea)

Dan O’Neil: I look forward to checking out The Flea’s online SERIALS which have the benefit of being short, silly, and competitive. The audience gets to vote, which at least means there’s participatory energy happening. I haven’t stayed up late enough yet to watch it, but it’s on my short list.

Loren Noveck: But I have become a little obsessed with the “snacks” of original content to be found on various platforms. I just wrote a long thing about the 24-Hour Viral Plays, which I highly recommend dipping into–there’s such a plethora of content, and while plenty of it is stuff I might find average-to-boring under normal circumstances, it’s seductively intimate and its brevity means nothing gets stale or boring.

Juan A. Ramirez: I’ve dived headfirst into my film watchlist, and have logged over 100 films already. As a way of making up for the lack of theater in my life, I’ve made my way through a lot of the movie musical classics from Oklahoma! to Rita Hayworth studio efforts. Definite highlights would be Show Boat (1936), Strictly Ballroom (I’m counting it!) and 21st century classic Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. 

(Photo: Broadway.com)

Nicole: I have been torn between catching up on old favorites (Ironbound with the NY cast, Buyer & Cellar with Michael Urie) and exploring revivals I never saw before (Lips Together, Teeth Apart, Beirut). I have discovered new things in those familiar plays in their online rendering. I have appreciated how the streaming format allowed for an intimacy that maybe would have been less so in-person. I got to appreciate great actors work up close too.  But I also found myself frustrated with the older revivals which did not seem to work well in the online format. Something about their dated nature grated on me in this particular moment. I did not need Beirut‘s misogyny or Lips Together‘s self-loathing.

Loren: I also have joined (? subscribed to? donated to?) Trickle Up, which is fundraising via subscribers to give $10,000 commissions to artists whose projects have been canceled by COVID. I think the commissioned works will eventually be available to the subscribers, but in the meanwhile, the platform hosts donated work of all kinds: artists reading their own plays, excerpts from works in progress, and videos of archival work (all of Split Britches’ Lesbians Who Kill). I’ve dipped in and out, but the thing that’s stayed with me is Lynn Nottage telling a story called Pilgrims, about her home and her neighborhood and 9/11 and butterflies and hope–I keep going back and watching it again, because it’s a small bright light to hold on to. I guess the moral of my internet theater story, for now, is small bites and being able to pick things up whenever I have the brainpower.

Juan: On the hushed side, I’ve been indulging in the bootlegs I’ve acquired over the years and realizing how important I think these are to my experience as a fan of musicals. I’m always caught between self-righteously clapping at “Turn off your phone” announcements and bursting with serotonin when I eventually find the recordings online. There’s a valid argument to be made about theater’s essence as a live experience, but I don’t really think having a recording of these shows takes away from that essence. As someone in the film academic/history world, where I’m constantly butting heads with previous generations’ mistreatment of old reels and other gate-keeping issues, I can’t tell you how many nights I lay awake hoping dawn will break on a mysterious shipment at my door — finally! Someone was kind enough to ship me the 1965 recording of Funny Girl I know exists! Without mentioning the entertainment value of watching old recordings, there’s so much to be learned from these productions as historical artifacts.

Appointment Theater

Nicole: While I am open to new work and would welcome more of it, I’m less interested in appointment theater where I have one window to watch something. This limited access approach to theater has been hard for me to work around (as I’m still juggling a job that has gotten intense). I am feeling I must match my mood to my art, because things are emotionally and mentally fragile for me right now.  The one-night-only theater–which I have booked, paid for, donated to–has sometimes been stressing me out. I understand why it’s happening, but I have felt strong-armed into theater this way.

Cameron: I have yet to sit down on my sofa in a pair of sweatpants, with a can of La Croix on my left side and a bowl of white-cheddar popcorn on my right, and lose myself in the fantasy that I’m actually at Lincoln Center. That said, as someone who regularly attended multiple live performances a week in The Before, I have found comfort in “appointment theater,” which is one of the few things these days that requires me to press pause on everything else and engage with art at a specific moment in time.

With quarantine extending ever onward, a complete erasure of work-life balance as my apartment becomes a makeshift office for my husband and me, and the lingering sense of uncertainty about what daily life will look like when we resume something close to normalcy, I’ll take what I can get. I miss live theater, and I miss all the activities of daily living that I took for granted just a few weeks ago. But the surprising solace I’ve been able to take in appointment theater is a big part of what’s getting me through.

Joey: For myself, I haven’t found appointment theater more or less challenging than a packed calendar of shows spread across the city. Theater is filling my evenings and lending me some structure, as it did before. It’s not the same, of course. And I say this as a deeply furloughed individual, who is grasping to every bit of daily structure he can find. For those still in a 9-5 existence, it has to be different. But honestly, thank god for that 7pm reading that I have to shape my dinner plans around. On the nights without them, the time passes slower.

Loren: I am definitely not finding my way into what you’re calling appointment theater, Nicole. It should be easier to “show up” from my couch, where I already am, than to get myself to a theater for a curtain time in another borough under normal circumstances, right? And yet somehow when time has no meaning, finding the time to do something at a time has become completely impossible. (It also does not help that I am self-isolating with someone who cares much less about theater than I do and would much prefer to dig deep into the random B movies to be found on Vudu.)

Company of Bandstand (Photo: Jeremy Daniel)

Juan: While I’ve watched Bandstand, Phantom of the Opera and other major streaming presentations—shoutout BroadwayHD and Digital Theatre, which has Sheridan Smith’s Funny Girl—I can’t say I’ve engaged much with the theatrical experiments that have been happening as of late. Aside from the Sondheim birthday disasterpiece, most of these projects depress me; the absence of a theater setting—driven further from the realm of the theatrical by Zoom, which I associate with my online graduate courses—is almost too large an elephant in the room.

Where Does Online Theater Go From Here

Zoom theater Zooming (Photo: Public Theater)

Nicole: None of this is perfect or the best rendering of all works on offer. The Brady Bunch box format of Zoom theater is inherently odd when so much about theater is about that frisson of live connection.

Isolated boxes of humans talking to other isolated boxes of humans strains our already suspended disbelief…and yet it’s also what we are living (or at least I am as a person who lives alone in a box talking to the cat, the pigeons, and sometimes giving gratitude to inanimate objects around me now). Maybe this is theater reflecting life, as it always has.

Dan: A lot of the new “content” feels like going back to theater school. Monologues, little scenes, small samplings. Which makes sense, I suppose — theater folk are only just starting to experiment with a form which prior to being a necessity felt insubstantial. Who wants to watch an actor delivering a pre-recorded monologue on Instagram? But now, it’s what we’ve got. While I can’t fully wrap my brain around the idea of watching an entire evening-length theater production through my computer, I have been enjoying the efforts of my fellow creatives to forge a way forward without physical audiences in the new medium of what I’ll call “online participatory work.” It’s not theater. Let’s just not even call it that. It’s something that’s happening and being disseminated via the internet that asks more of its audience than passive consumption. The same way you lean forward a little if you’re engaged with live theater, this needs to be able to replicate that somehow — if only that.

Ran Xia: So I’ve been working on quite a few projects with different groups people since the quarantine, as we try to adapt to new platforms and figure out how those limitations inspire rather than…you know…crush our souls. The one solid thing we’ve discovered is that limiting sensory input is helpful with the experience. For instance, recently I organized a live audio theatre event, during which we encouraged audiences to continue about their business and turn off their videos. It was quite well received as NOT having to stare at the screen in fact helped them focus. Another is that leaning into Zoom as an actual context of the play itself.  I’d love to share those things with you all as they come to fruition / ready for a public event if anyone’s interested.

Dan: I’ve been working a bit with director Joshua William Gelb, who has created Theater in Quarantine, which thus far has been solo performance work in a tiny closet that he’s painted white. He’s started broadcasting live, and plans to do so on subsequent Thursdays. Check it out, or just watch some of the videos to get a sense of the experiment, but there’s something there. I’m not quite sure what yet, but the utilization of available technologies coupled with a fixed frame and liveness creates some of the tension that is missing from a lot of the other “theater-like” content I’ve been sampling.

Bobby Moreno in Hilary Bettis's Day One. [screen shot]

Bobby Moreno in Hillary Bettis’s Day One. (Photo: Screenshot of 24 Hour Viral Plays)

Joey: As to Dan’s point re: Serials and Joshua William Gelb’s work, it connects with my own feelings on new work – it helps when it reaches out and connect very directly. Familiar pieces are already built to do that. With new work, the ask is a lot bigger. From what we’re hearing in these responses, short forms are where it’s at right now – Serials, 24 Hour Plays, Trickle Up. I want more, but I don’t want anyone to rush. In a recent Zoom chat with a playwriting group, someone asked the writers if/how they were reshaping their pieces for new limitations they may face. The answers were hesitant and uncertain, which is only natural. They’re still figuring it out.

Nicole: I keep reminding myself I need to be forgiving of the off-the-cuff quickly executed writing I am seeing sometimes online now. We are swimming in a sea of uncertainty and the intentions behind online theater are not always clear. And to be fair to everyone creating for an online space right now, I don’t even know what my intentions are for tuning in. I feel like we are at the forefront of creating a new art-audience contract and it’s messy. Why am I here? Why are you here? What are we doing together, while we are not quite together? How do we form the complete circuit of art-audience in this disconnected physical space?

I’m starting to see online theater as an opportunity and not just a placeholder until we are back to the old ways. Theater could use a structural reconsideration (although I do not wish this came with a pandemic, mass furloughs, disappearing institutions, and financial ruin etc).

Access is changing and this is a very good thing. I hope we do not forget this and simply just pretend these dark days never happened. I’d like to see theater keep this in mind in the future.

Loren: The other thing we should probably discuss is the economic model here—most of the content I’ve been watching thus far is free. Great for access, but not great for the continued survival of the theaters and artists involved. A lot of it comes from archival libraries, true, but a) those will start to run out and b) if in a sense you’re extending the “run” of an existing show, are the artists getting paid?

Anecdotally, I know of at least one show that was shut down mid run where a streaming deal to complete the run was discussed but the playwright/director turned it down because the actors would not have gotten paid appropriately. What are we as audiences willing to pay for work delivered to our living room? And is it enough to sustain making that work? Are artists going to get paid not just for their time but fit essentially donating their homes and their personal computers as “sets”? If a streaming show has the possibility of an infinite run, do performers and writers and stage managers get paid residuals as on TV?

Lots to think about.

Exeunt Staff is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine


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