Features Published 5 May 2020

Viral Content for Our Viral Moment?

Loren Noveck muses on capturing a little bit of live theater’s spark in Instagram monologues.

Loren Noveck

Bobby Moreno in Hilary Bettis's <i>Day One</i>. [screen shot]

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

I will be the first to admit I am not great at social media. I’ve made a grudging detente with Facebook, as conflicted as I am about it, because it keeps me in touch with so many friends/acquaintances/theater artists from around the world when I surely would not have the energy to be in contact individually. But the constant stream of information/yelling from Twitter exhausts me quickly, and despite the vast number of photos I take on every single vacation, I haven’t quite found my way into Instagram. I have a handle, but every time I try to curate a stream for myself that includes the artists who I know are posting amazing work, I seem to get instantly overwhelmed with ads and sales pitches.

So maybe there’s a wealth of content just like the 24-Hour Plays: Viral Monologues out there, and I’m just not savvy enough to find it. But in the meanwhile, the ongoing series, hosted and produced by the same organization that normally channels its star power into big-ticket fundraising events, is proving my best lifeline to theater in these times.

Of course, it’s not the same as being in the room where it happens, a loss we’re all grappling with. But we’re going to be living in this crazy new world for a while, it seems, and I find that these little solo plays do capture just a bit of the spark, the intimacy and direct address—with the camera in many cases standing in for an absent audience, since a monologue has to be directed to someone, right?—of live theater. 

Each piece, two to fifteen or so minutes long, is created and posted to Instagram in a 24-hour period: written by a playwright; rehearsed, performed and filmed by an actor (or filmed by someone else in their household, which you can sometimes deduce if the camera work gets creative); and posted to the organization’s Instagram channel. The first batch dropped as a surprise over fifteen-minute intervals on St. Patrick’s Day, and six more installments have appeared since, one of which is entirely mini-musicals. (Testament to the aforementioned idiocy at social media: I am, I think, following properly on Insta and yet each new installment has come as a delightful surprise to me.) 

The talent is top-notch and diverse, encompassing writers you’ve loved for years and writers you may not have heard of, as well as plenty of actors you’ve seen on TV or Broadway along with new faces: Hilary Bettis’s Day One, about the first day of quarantine, performed by her husband, the always delightful Bobby Moreno. Michael Shannon as a father trying to soothe his asthmatic son in Will Arbery’s Flimsy Machine and Minnie Driver becoming her mother (in a gorgeously appointed country home) in Courtney Baron’s My Mother’s Dog. David Lindsey Abaire writing a piece for almost every installment, culminating in a salacious puppet piece performed by Aymee Garcia in round seven, and Stephen Adly Guirgis moving from rage to grief in two pieces, one (L.A. Yoga Motherfuckers, perhaps the most quintessentially Guirgis title one can imagine) performed by Andre Royo in his car and the other by William Jackson Harper and his dog. (Pets make a number of appearances throughout; children surprisingly few.) Actors also recur: Daveed Diggs as a doctor receiving a touching but baffling gift in Kristoffer Diaz’s I Got the Hat and a dangerously lovelorn suitor in the musical Wild, by Josh Koenigsburg and Adam Gwon. Larry Owens turning in brilliant performances in two pieces of very dark humor, a play by Dave Harris and a musical by Mike Pettry and Elin Bolin. Marin Ireland breaking my heart in two totally different ways in Lily Padilla’s the woods are a good place to pick me up (see above), where she’s auditioning to be abducted by aliens, and Charly Evon Simpson’s Temperature, where she’s battling her own fear of the pandemic. 

And this is just scratching the surface. The plays just keep coming. Sure, each batch contains its share of the pedestrian and the obvious: there’s only so many ways to approach a monologue set at home in a pandemic, and no one has yet quite cracked the project of doing something totally nonrealistic in this format. So the online lessons and audition tapes and one-sided phone calls and social media rants mount up. (Having said that, when your social media rant is written by David Lindsay-Abaire and performed by Michael Urie, it’s still going to be pretty damn fun to watch.) But every batch has its weird and wonderful gems. Some find creative and thoughtful ways to engage head-on the insane moment in which we reside: Temperature, with compassion and pathos. Or Dave Harris’s Run Them Reparations, featuring Larry Owens, which runs an arc that encompasses the blackest comedy, the racial politics of NYC, the loneliness of isolation, and a tender love fantasy in something like 6 minutes. Kate Nash and Julia Jordan’s wry and sweet domestic musical, Lullabye. Pettry and Bolin’s The Thoughts You Have in Quarantine, channeling the spiral of an isolated mind (with its second amazing Larry Owens performance). Some sidle by the pandemic, using it as occasion but not entirely subject: Kevin R. Free’s That’s the Way Things Go, which incidentally has some of the best stage business of the lot, with Kat McNamara striving for Instagram perfection. Elizabeth Ho in Leah Nanako Winkler’s brashly hilarious Asian American Female Serial Killer, which finds comedy in sociopathy, racism, and the wreckage of the economy at the same time. Some are just very funny: Harris; Winkler; Monique Moses’s Simon, the Real Estate Guy, with Patrick Wilson as a Ratt-obsessed Realtor; David Auburn’s Speak Now, about a wedding gone horribly awry; Mara Nelson-Greenberg’s Ana Banana’s Dating Video, with Vella Lovell as the titular heiress. Some of the most fascinating do something completely, boldly different: Gracie Gardner’s utterly surreal Entertaining, performed by Noah Galvin in a wig and accent as weird as the text. Elizabeth Marvel in Jason Grote’s elegiac Elizabeth in the Barn, with its slowly dawning sense of horror.

And it’s been fascinating to watch the artists of an entire medium start learning on the fly and in public how to pitch their art for a new moment, to figure out ways to make art under the worst of circumstances: To write pieces that can survive without, for the most part, being directed (though I’d love to see what a director would make of many of them). To engage the limited array of locations possible and find something that works for both your actor and your story. To work in that liminal space between your actors’ characters and their lives, since you’re going to be presenting them in their actual homes. To work with what you’ve got: the brief moments where the outdoors makes an appearance (Hugh Dancy’s deck; Andre Royo’s car; Minnie Driver’s exquisite garden), for example, have a new sense of novelty and excitement (and, of course, for this apartment-dweller, a large dash of envy).

What Instagram theater can’t bring, of course, is the sense of community, of sitting in the theater or even really side-by-side with your quarantine cohort—Instagram being what it is, the plays are optimized for devices, for individual viewing. The sharing is in the group of artists braiding together to make it happen; we watch alone. (Judging from the comments, the participating artists are definitely watching and engaging with one another’s work, but most of the pieces have 1000+ views, so they’re not the only ones.)

Which is, I think, why the very few pieces that have the good fortune to be two-handers feel like small marvels, a cool beverage when you didn’t realize quite how parched you were. Sarah Gancher’s Toilet Paper Kayak, performed by Dylan and Becky Ann Baker is sweet but silly, a humorous couple fight, and Mfoniso Udofia’s New Math (performed by Crystal Dickinson and Brandon Dirden) and Erica Saleh’s Best Case Scenario (performed by Elizabeth Marvel and Bill Camp) are even more of a domestic slice of life in these times. Under ordinary circumstances, these would probably not be the pieces stuck in my memory. Under quarantine, from theater as well as so much else of life, remembering Becky Ann and Dylan Baker arguing over a kayak race is helping keep me sane.

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Loren Noveck

Loren Noveck is a writer, editor, dramaturg, and recovering Off-Off-Broadway producer, who was for many years the literary manager of Six Figures Theatre Company. She has written for The Brooklyn Rail, nytheatre.com, and NYTheater now, and currently writes for The Brooklyn Paper and WIT Online. In her non-theatrical life, she works in book publishing.