I’ve tried to engage in Zoom plays, streams of recorded shows from the Before times, audio plays, and one-on-one plays over Skype that bring performer and audience together at least virtually. But I had neglected one potential avenue for theater during theater’s shutdown—the theater of my mind. No one was stopping me from reading plays and imagining a live performance in my head.
While I could pull any old playscript off my shelf to read, I didn’t know there was a whole genre of theater that was made for these times. I was introduced to the concept of a “closet drama” by the editor of the new theater publication, The Flashpaper, Mark Blankenship.
Closet dramas are pieces written to be read and not necessarily staged, historically this was sometimes due to censorship or social restrictions. Playwright Caridad Svich explains her introduction to the genre: “I first came across the term ‘closet drama’ in graduate school in both my English literature classes and in Theatre History classes. There is a tradition of closet dramas historically, most famously, Ibsen’s Brand and Peer Gynt, both of which have gone on to have lives on stage. So, it is not uncommon for dramatists and poets to write exclusively for the page as a stage, rather than for the stage in hope of a stage.”
Playwright Matt Barbot thinks that there are a lot more closet dramas floating around, we just don’t use that label for them. “I remember the New York Neofuturists, ages ago, back when Twitter was good, used to give out prompts once a week for one-tweet plays and they’d retweet all the ones they liked and I used to participate in that all the time,” he recalls.
Even some internet jokes are the stage on the page. “Every time someone tweets this joke format:
Me: (Insert quirky thought here)
that’s a closet drama, right? I do that shit all the time,” says Barbot.
To Barbot’s point, one need not be strict in the labeling. There are several different projects which take the concept of the closet drama and creatively run with it, including The Flashpaper, Contagious Closet Dramas, Play At Home, and a new work Baby Jessica’s Well-Made Play.
All these projects are grappling with this strange and disorientating moment, but each finds a way to use the current restrictions on live performance to keep theater happening–whether in backyards, in your closet, or in your head.
The Flashpaper’s first issue published in June contains three closet dramas along with a foreword from playwright David Henry Hwang, an afterword from playwright Sarah Treem, as well as essays, comics, a manifesto, and documentation of a production that never got to happen.
The journal’s subtitle is “Theatre’s Thoughts on Right Now” and it is meant to be responsive to the moment it is being created in. For issue one, the creative prompt given to contributors was “What will it be like when social distancing ends?”
Using on-demand publishing to eliminate overhead costs and sharing revenues with the artists in a transparent way, what began for Blankenship as “a cool opportunity to give artists a chance to publish and get paid also became an opportunity to give artists who couldn’t work a chance to make something and send it out into the world.”
It’s a publication with no digital version. Blankenship says, “We’re creating a record of how people think right now. And that we’re able to put that record into tangible, physical print, that’s going to give it a sense of permanence.”
Blankenship reached out to playwrights, artistic directors, dancers, and directors and was hoping to receive work in many different forms. “I want the content of the issue to in some way evoke the multiplicity of voices and styles that theater people can work in. People who all work in the same art are never creating the same thing.”
His hope was for it to “feel somewhere between a journal and a zine” and the result is such an amalgamation with a sense of play and purpose, capturing the complex feelings, sensations, and issues of this moment.
Playwright, director, and artistic director of telatúlsa Tara Moses wrote an impassioned essay, I Imagine a Just Theatre, about her experiences of racial microaggressions and aggression-aggressions in the American theater as a member of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma. She speaks of both safety and accessibility in the theater. Kelley Nicole Girod wrote About Alice, Or When Social Distancing Ends and describes her relationship with an elderly Trump-supporting neighbor.
The three closet dramas published in The Flashpaper all set wildly different tones (although there was a sense of pandemic horniness in more than one). Sarah Einspanier’s #18 is set in a Trader Joe’s check-out and, as Blankenship notes, uses “text to create dramatic effects.” Clare Barron’s What This Will Be Like When It’s Over is made up of sexts. Raquel Almazan’s The Theatre Of is structured like poetry and evokes a stream of conscious snapshot of voices from this current moment.
Contagious Closet Dramas
Another newly created venue for closet dramas is the Instagram account run by Two Headed Rep, @Contagious_Closet_Dramas launched in March which has a call out for closet dramas which consist of a title page and 5 slides. These works are witty, efficient, and swipeable.
The rules of “CCD” are that a playwright has 24-hours to write their closet drama and then nominate two more playwrights to write one (hence the contagion). It becomes a chain letter of sorts of impossible theater with a visual bend.
Some are mixed media, with paintings alongside the writing, like Nora Kaye’s The Critic. Greetings from North Hollywood: A Postcard in Five Selfies by Rae Mariah MacCarthy is just that, with photos of the artist and their text fraying out in different directions like a high school yearbook page. ZOOM OUT: a tiny triptych by Jacob Sexton with graphic design by Jorge Schultz presents more as a graphically forward comic strip of speaking balloons.
Playmaker-director-performer Philip Santos Schaffer contributed to CCD early during quarantine. “I like how quick their format is. I think people have used it as an opportunity to really experiment with form.”
Matt Barbot got tagged into CCD. “It was way at the beginning of all this, but I was already thinking about the fear of being inside and whether it would ever really feel safe to go outside again,” says Barbot. “I started writing something about the Biblical plagues, but ended up creating a piece called The Fittest, as in ‘survival of,’ about two tiny mammals hiding in a tree in the midst of the extinction of the dinosaurs, trying to decide whether it’s safe to leave their shelter.”
The format allowed for Barbot to play with words in a new way. “Given that it’s on Instagram, [CCD] allows for some really phenomenal visual components. It was fun to think about it more like I was creating a comic book all by myself, with a concern not just for the text, but the whole visual experience.”
Play At Home
When thinking broadly about the definition of closet drama, Caridad Svich feels she’s written a couple that would qualify. She has one work that is still evolving called Day for Night that she explains “was conceived as a poem for performance. Very much for the page initially, but also wanting the writing to live in a reader’s tongue/mouth.”
Her inspiration for that came in part from Andy Smith’s play collection The Preston Bill. She explains, “In this collection, there are two of his earlier works commonwealth and all that is solid melts into air. Smith has performed these pieces live but at the end of the volume he asks his readers to take the plays into their own hands and to read them/share them in their homes, backyards and other domestic spaces. He gives the plays to the audiences to enact. I find this gesture to be so exciting.”
With Smith’s work in mind “and the fact that the Fornes Institute asked me to write a piece,” this led to the creation of another closet drama, Svich’s poem-play called Better Maybe.
She was commissioned during the pandemic by the Fornes Institute for the Play At Home initiative which is described as “family-friendly world premieres that can exist in their fullness from your living room.”
Organized by a number of theater across the country at the start of the pandemic, Play At Home pays playwrights and commissions short plays that are “meant to exist in your imagination, beyond the usual limits of what might be ‘possible’ onstage at your local theater.”
These closet dramas are available for download and anyone can read/perform/enjoy them at home (the public performance rights remain with the playwrights) with works by the likes of Mike Lew, Sam Chanse, Hilary Bettis, Heather Raffo, Donnetta Lavinia Grays, Ty Defoe, Diana Oh, and Ethan Lipton among many others. There are musicals and plays, kids-oriented work, and PG-13 adult pieces.
These shows hand the creative tools to a home audience who become the interpreters, collaborators, or participants. For instance, Paige Hernandez’s 7th Street Echo is about Go-go music and bucket drumming. She encourages the reader/interpreter to “use what you can find in the house…pots, pans, amazon boxes, empty dog food cans, spoons (metal or wood for sticks), metal straws, chopsticks…you name it! Bigger objects will help with bass drum/booming sounds, smaller objects are best for snare drums, toms, cymbals etc. Be innovative. Be creative.”
Baby Jessica’s Well-Made Play
Pandemic or not, Santos Schaffer is another artist leaning on the audience to contribute to a work. He is particularly “interested in making theater where audience members and actors are brought into a make-believe context that they are asked to help create for one another. I like asking the audience to do some of the work of actively imagining themselves into a situation.”
Santos Schaffer’s upcoming piece, Baby Jessica’s Well-Made Play, is a “cheeky” closet drama which, in part, takes place literally in an audience member’s closet and is very loosely about “the actual Baby Jessica who famously fell in a well in 1987, and was stuck for about three days before they could pull her out.”
The audience member gets to see parts of the script up front and act by act their level of interaction increases. As Santos Schaffer says, “You can check out at any time, so you have to constantly commit. (Or not.)”
Originally, the show was meant to have audience member and actor together talking through a baby monitor, but he’s re-written it to adapt to life today.
The five act work starts off with an audio file that the audience member listens to for Act I in preparation for Act II. “In Act II, the audience member and actor both dial into a call and talk with one another. The course of this act is driven by imagining the experience of being stuck in a well for 58 hours, and the relationship between fear and hope – particularly in moments when the future is overwhelmingly unknown,” says Santos Schaffer.
Acts III and IV involve non-actor former audience members engaging with each other. “People are paired up after having participated in Acts I and II. I’ve written the questions as the ‘script’ for this Act, but the two audience members ultimately run the scene. The questions are meant to take a more critical look at the media, and the issue of empathy as it relates to singular stories such as Baby Jessica’s. Why is it so much easier for a single tragedy to capture national attention, and not ongoing, sustained, tragedies that affect many people?”
It culminates in a secret Act V that as Santos Schaffer explains “won’t happen until 58 people have seen the show.”
The show is scheduled to launch in September in a closet very much in your own apartment, if you sign-up for it.
A Theater Addict’s Lament
None of us theater addicts know quite what to do, because the thing we love, and many of the aspects of its existence, are currently impossible right now. We are all adapting.
As Barbot says about writing for the page and not the stage, “It’s fun but it doesn’t feel like the same thing, really. I often say my favorite part of writing plays is the first rehearsal when you hear the cast all together for the first time and see the design presentations and you get to experience what all these other brilliant artists with their own particular very different skills create and contribute. I miss that a lot.”
But restrictions can breed creativity. Svich has launched a podcast called Day for Night “as a virtual space to explore the intersection between theater and poetry and to re-think the idea of the theater of the mind/ear and its relationship to an audience – and it feels as if I am contesting the very notion of what makes a play a play on the page to begin with!”
If you, like me, are wandering in these unfamiliar woods looking for theatrical sustenance (and maybe are not ready to star in your own closet drama), I asked the folks I interviewed for their tips on plays to read while stuck at home.
Blankenship has been rereading a play “from the ’80s by a woman named Joan Schenkar called Signs of Life.” “It is such an imaginative, vibrant play that takes place in multiple eras of time, assumes that the audience is ready to comprehend what is happening when 40 characters emerged from nowhere and then disappear again. And the opportunity to play that out in the stage of my mind has been very gratifying.”
He has also returned to the classic The Skin of Our Teeth by Thornton Wilder which “is very satisfying right now because I can imagine what those dinosaurs and mammoths onstage in act one look like. I can imagine exactly how it sounds when the war comes home in act three.”
Svich suggests for home reading Chris Goode’s Mirabel, Jasmine Lee-Jones Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner, ear for eye by debbie tucker green, Summit by Andy Smith, and Tim Crouch’s Total Immediate Collective Imminent Terrestrial Salvation, and Ella Hickson’s The Writer.
Reading theater will not cure my ache for live performance entirely, but these closet drama projects remind me that there is great flexibility in theater and the drama need not stop even if live performance remains suspended.