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Coronavirus forces theatres to try novel approaches

“I know someone like you understands the importance—the all-consuming social importance of live theater.” — Mark Lew, from Teenage Dick

As the coronavirus crisis worsens and states, including Illinois, are instituting “shelter-at-home” proclamations, Americans are having to learn how to deal with a social and cultural situation they have never faced before. Quarantines are adversely affecting people in all walks of life, leaving them at least temporarily out of work and dealing with a world that is vastly different from only a week ago. Among the hardest-hit people are those in the hospitality and arts sectors as they struggle to cope with a reality in which even the smallest gatherings are forbidden. There may be little bar-owners can do about this, but inventive arts people across the country are rapidly finding new ways to bring culture to those who are shut in and keep themselves afloat. Museums are working on virtual exhibits. Shedd Aquarium keeps itself on Chicago’s radar by showing us penguins wandering through its halls. Musicians livestream on FaceBook and other platforms. And, across the country, many theatres are working to create ways in which at-home patrons can still see plays and musicals via streaming video.

This is something new. Theatres generally archive the plays they put on, but these videos are usually one-camera shoots meant for their eyes only rather than the multi-camera, individually directed recordings you can watch on BroadwayHD.com. There you can watch plays and musicals that look as if they are films—far more than mere archival videos. But that sort of thing is simply out of reach for most theatres, especially those that perform in the kind of small venues that dot the Chicago landscape. And even if they had the technical and financial wherewithal to create this kind of film, they’d run into issues obtaining rights to do so, as almost all performances are licensed by playwrights and theatre unions with strong and clear prohibitions against this kind of distribution.

Still, from New York to Los Angeles, artistic directors are negotiating to allow their plays to be put online both as a measure to continue a revenue stream that has been totally disrupted and a means to allow the hard work of their creative associates to be seen. In Chicago, this innovative revolution is being led by Theater Wit and its artistic director Jeremy Wechsler, who late last week, seeing the way the wind was blowing, secured the rights to stream a two-camera shoot of Mike Lew’s Teenage Dick, a modern take on Richard III set in a high school. As Governor Pritzker declared tighter and tighter restrictions on gatherings, Wechsler and director Brian Balcom hastily put together a plan to film in front of a small audience days before they had originally been scheduled to open. (My review of the resulting performance can be found here.)

Balcom says that the most important thing to him was to “maintain the aesthetic of the theatre,” and Wechsler’s intention was not to create something that could potentially replace live theatre but then, as he says, “I really hope it doesn’t have to.” Still, working within Equity’s restrictions—for example, it had to be one single filmed performance rather than multiple performances spliced together—he has found a way to give what seemed certain to be another coronavirus casualty some new life. 

“It does require a little bit more active suspension of disbelief from the viewing audience,” he says of watching a play online. “You have to make these allowances in your head about what you’re seeing and how you’re seeing it and not watch it like television; I think most people will be able to do it.” 

Many people did so during Wednesday night’s opening viewing, as the show’s allotted 98 tickets completely sold out. (Patrons purchase a virtual ticket that allows them access to a video stream taking place at the time when the play would have been performed live. Tickets are only good for watching it on that specific night.) Wechsler, who was as unused to this sort of viewing as everyone else, was pleased by the result. “From a technical perspective it went great. It was so much smoother than I could have hoped for considering it was our first time trying that at all. Everything is high resolution and detailed enough that you can see the performers work, and the play I thought was crystal clear.”

That last point is something that will be on playwrights’ minds as this shutdown forces more and more theatres to think out of the box. Ultimately, the author needs to determine whether their creation is suited for this kind of viewing. Wechsler himself is “not sure that the correct answer is just to make all of these things available digitally because then you have to ask the hard questions like is the experience of seeing a play or the content of the play—the playwright’s work—perhaps better suited by just making a film?” Though he doesn’t see online streaming replacing a medium “made to be performed by a group of people in a single room,” it works as a stopgap measure in difficult situations like these. “We couldn’t do the show again if we had wanted to because the number of people who could gather in the room was dropping really fast, and you don’t want to put community health at risk just for a play; let’s keep it in perspective.”

Actor Macgregor Arney, who plays the title character of Richard in Teenage Dick, has a somewhat different take, wondering why theatres can’t offer this for most shows. “It’s something I’ve been thinking about for awhile, a way to increase accessibility for those who can’t get to the theatre like agoraphobic people or people who live far away.” In this regard, he thinks, Teenage Dick is a serendipitous show to use as a model for streaming, dealing as it does with people with disabilities, some of the very people who might wish to take advantage of this kind of access. Further, these people will be able to see themselves reflected onstage in ways they haven’t seen before. His Richard “has a minor disability but doesn’t know his place within society. He is not disabled enough for the disabled community and is not able-bodied enough for the able-bodied community, which puts him in this weird crossroad which I think everybody can relate to: there’s always something holding them back from one thing or another.” In a crisis like this, Arney believes, “everybody feels as if they are kind of taken out of their regular viewpoints a little bit,” and the existence of the streaming version of the show underscores that. He points out that not only audiences, but theatre professionals like critics and casting directors would benefit from streaming, not to mention the creatives, whose work could gain more exposure if everyone could come together and make this happen. Balcom agrees with him, seeing a bright future for this kind of thing. “It is a different experience. Nothing will replace the shared experience of seeing a play live with that electricity in the room. But the technology is exciting” and offers a lot of future potential. “There was a demo at a theatre conference last year of a virtual reality theatrical performance,” he told me, and the notion of replicating the theatre experience in VR is exciting.

16th Street Theatre’s artistic director Ann Filmer, who has just begun streaming her company’s canceled Methtacular, a one-man show created by and featuring company member Steven Strafford, in a video that Strafford made during a performance a year ago at Steppenwolf, agrees with Wechsler that this concept is not really for the long term. “It’s what we have for now,” she says, pointing out that Goodman Theatre is now streaming 2666, its six-hour adaptation of Roberto Banaño’s internationally acclaimed novel after it had to cancel all of its current productions. However, noting that there is a person in Taiwan—a friend of Strafford—who wishes to watch Methtacular, she agrees that “one good thing is that the story can travel. Maybe there is a place for reaching people who can’t get to the theatre but it would have to be worked out with the union.” Filmer acknowledges her theatre’s “dumb luck” in being about to stage a show fully owned by Strafford, who had already recorded a professional-looking video. And she didn’t have any issues with the actors union either, as they “had already been figuring it out. It was very easy since they were already getting requests from all around the country for this type of thing.” (My review of Methtacular is here.)

No matter what one thinks about the application of streaming in the future, there is little doubt that anything that can keep theatre going during the current crisis is a good thing. Still, the long term impact of the economic shutdown will take a long time to play out. Weschler points out that “theatres in particular live sufficiently on the edge of profitability that some huge reorganization is likely; whether theatres can recreate themselves after the fact remains to be seen. This is a big problem for us because we are a venue: same as museums or anyone else: if no one can come, the daily expenses of occupying that space are immense.” The reorganization about which he speaks will undoubtedly come with a non-monetary cost as well. “Some companies may not survive; some venues may not survive. Everyone just tries hard to ensure that they are not that venue.” 

Peter Marks, theatre critic for the Washington Post, underscores Wechsler’s fears, writing that “the average museum and performing arts group operates with less than two months of working capital on hand and the average orchestra has a cushion of just 15 days.” Wechsler reminds us that even before this pandemic struck, “everyone was already running on fumes. Fourteen companies closed in 2019. Lookingglass lost a good chunk of foundation support so they went from four shows to three.” Marks quotes Colleen Dilenschneider, owner of the blog Know Your Own Bone (and a long-ago student of mine), who reminds us that, fortunately, “research shows that current and potential visitors to cultural organizations are generally super-connected to the web.” Though they are stuck at home, they still spend considerable time online, and theatres and venues can take advantage of this to maintain a place in the lives of their patrons. Wechsler says, “I don’t know where we sit on people’s cultural lives: are we a core piece of entertainment, a fun thing to do once in a while, a thing they love because they can go see friends and have dinner and make this an event? What are the dynamics that make people see a play? Where does theatre stand as a part of people’s connection to the larger culture?” Through data sharing about this streaming experiment, he hopes to begin to find answers to these questions.

Though he understands streaming’s potential to open theatre to new audiences who might otherwise never get the opportunity to see a show, Wechsler feels that the resources spent on technological solutions to theatre’s issues might be better spent “reviving the original regional theatre model—where there was a large theatre for a group of communities, but that wasn’t the case even before the pandemic. Arizona, for example, only has a single major theatre.” Through a more robust regional theatre scene, he says, more people might be able to get to see shows live no matter where they live. In the end, though, he says it’s much the same as going to a concert. “No one is suggesting that Billie Eilish should show up in every little town in existence. She’s going to show up in urban centers where there is enough population to pay for the show. That’s just what it is.”

As far as this crisis goes, though, he knows that whatever will happen depends on how things play out in the end. “There is no data. (No matter how long theatres are dark) they just can’t pump another show out. It takes 4-6 weeks of planning. I’m not expecting productions in Chicago until July at the earliest.” Even though it’s impossible to anticipate accurately because no one has ever been through anything like this, Wechsler isn’t too worried. “The theatre and the artists and the stories can persevere during even the most calamitous moments,” he says. After being trapped in their homes for months, he believes people will have ‘ a huge appetite for public life. People will be frantic to go out. It could even be the best summer for theatre and live events that Chicago has seen in 25 years.” And Filmer agrees with his optimistic projection because of what live theatre means. “We’re going to want to be close together with other people after this extreme circumstance, and there’s something nice about simply engaging in the story.”

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