A friend who shall go unnamed recently wrote to me, in one of many despondent threads I have going right now: “Tell you one thing I am absolutely not engaging with – theaters spouting out digital content. SPARE ME.”
If that sounds overly bitter, it’s worth noting that The New York Times has published three separate columns on filmed theater offerings – dispatches from New York, Paris and Munich respectively – which all reached a similar conclusion: worthy attempt, but it’s just not the same. Peter Marks of The Washington Post made a similar argument. My friend’s reaction is a bit extreme, maybe, but he’s not alone. Yet, as is so often true in theater, the work that is meeting this moment is out there – it just takes some digging to find it.
Now, since suddenly it feels like every institution and theater company is churning out something online, it’s fair to feel a little overwhelmed. And of course, not all digital offerings are made equal. Some companies seem to be joining the fray mostly out of obligation, or chiefly with an eye towards keeping a brand alive. A live Q&A with a marketing executive? Musical companies attempting to harmonize on a glitchy Zoom call? They are valiant efforts, but mostly just that – if still appreciated.
Meanwhile The Metropolitan Opera, National Theatre Live and many more are drawing on their archives to deliver us pro-shots of past shows. All are wonderful but, like the piles of Netflix and Hulu episodes already before us, they are distractions. Distractions are good. We need them. Again, no complaints. But we can’t pretend that posting recorded performances will really keep any sort of dialogue going, beyond, “I sure wish I was there right now.”
Still, at this moment, could theater artists be well-positioned to generate work that not only distracts, but also connects? Ideally that’s what happened when we used to gather in a room. Hoping artists can find it for us online is, admittedly, a big ask. It’s a horrid time; resources are limited; many artists who had 9-5s are still working them. Free time also does not equal emotional space for art or creativity.
Not everyone likes the idea of placing this burden on artists at all. A widely shared Medium post by ‘Nicholas Berger’ (most likely a pseudonym, which weakens its import) made the argument that “theater makers should stop making” until we can gather again. While some recordings and Zoom readings etc. do “come up short” in generating real connection, this absolutist argument of an all-stop feels off.
Within the mountains of content, I have discovered some work making me feel truly connected to others. That connection has been invaluable. Unsurprisingly it is smaller, scrappier companies that have found themselves better positioned to fill this need. Those companies are utilizing the new formats – text, Instagram, Twitch – in ways that generate intimacy and serve the personality of their artists.
New Georges is e-mailing out ‘tiny plays for a time of no plays.’ I wrote about the first two here. The third was Molly Beach Murphy’s Let It Be Perpetual, is a short dialogue between two voices, ‘Me’ and ‘You’ – maybe two people, or maybe two combating voices in one head. ‘Me’ is planning an escape to Idaho. ‘You’ wonders why, pointedly declaring: “I thought you were strong.” In just a few lines, Murphy gets at the burden of meeting this moment as individuals, and the futility of any attempt to escape this disaster. Subscribe here, and read them all here (two more await you!).
On Instagram, theater maker James Harrison Monaco, one half of James and Jerome, has been telling stories. James and Jerome’s style of direct address narration over literal staging was maddening to some in their recent Bushwick Starr production The Conversationalists (our editor Nicole had some issues), but it’s well suited to our current moment. Like the tiny plays, James’ stories are not trying to overtly reference the situation now, but instead they are getting at the feelings it is engendering. His seven videos so far touch on themes of death, apocalypse, crushing poverty, and confronting an unknowable future. As in The Conversationalists, which I deeply loved [editor: Noted, Joey], James’ presentational style keeps the stories light and absorbing. Watch here.
More than any other venue, programming at The Tank has eased into this moment without too much struggle. Ivan Anderson’s Email Pro, already a monthly live fixture at The Tank, features an interactive seminar on writing bizarre e-mails to strangers. Anderson would use e-mail addresses provided by audience members, adding them or their unwitting friends to a running performance piece. In between e-mails he talks, delivering something between storytelling and stand-up. Every element of this transferred easily to Twitch.
“For those of you who don’t know me personally, I’m like actually not a psycho,” Anderson wryly noted at one point in the first livestream, seeming a little worried that his humor wasn’t translating as it might in person. But if anything there was more fun to be had, like Anderson’s insistence that his camera’s constant freezing up was a deliberate aesthetic choice. Technical problems that might be so awkward and destructive for say, a streamed musical number, could here be played to the artist’s advantage.
The House Theater of Chicago hosted a watch party of their acclaimed 2002 production The Terrible Tragedy of Peter Pan, which put the theater on the map. As a wonderful twist on the format though, the cast and creative team offered comments and recollections throughout, and often mocked their own show or heartily laughed at moments of overacting. No live equivalent of this experience could ever happen – a team scattered across the country, inviting anyone into their recollection of a collaboration long past, ready to laugh at theater as much as honor it.
Appropriately, the first part of The Tank’s other offering CyberTank, which is presenting short video pieces from its resident artists, was titled: How do we choose community over despair? There are some early, hopeful signs that theater artists are better prepared than anyone to meet that need.
Smart online theater which utilizes our moment is not just a driver for exciting work, but could help us feel together like nothing else. No, it’s not the same at all – it is something new.