How can the intimacy of the live theatre experience sustain during the pandemic? The connection forged between audience and production is unique to each performance.
It happens in this theatre with this specific group of people in this moment and can’t be duplicated exactly.
The National Theatre in London created a subscription service to view past productions. The Stratford Festival has their own “at home” subscription, along with sonnets, ghost tours, “Days of Confinement” podcasts and more. In spring of 2020, Sir Patrick Stewart kept up morale by reading a Shakespeare sonnet a day.
Watching a video of a stage performance is different than watching a script written for screen. But the connection between artists and audience had to be maintained during COVID.
There are unknowns once theatres reopen. How will the audience be reconfigured? How will onstage/backstage life change? How will this change how playwrights create their scripts? How does it change collaboration?
Theatres are finding unique ways to develop plays within these strictures and unknowns.
Original Idiots, a Brooklyn-based company, created The Generator. “The Generator is our first go at a script development project,” said Matt Jacobs, the Artistic Director, “and it’s inspired by The Playwright’s Unit run by Infinithḗâtre in Montreal. Original Idiots at its core is a group of writers, and we figured while we can’t put work on the stage, we can help other writers get their work ready for the stage. So it’s about getting a group of writers in the room talking with each other, helping each other, and diving into the scripts. This can be done over Zoom, so we went with it.”
“We thought, how else can we generate work and meet new playwrights as a young company? It’s been really great getting to know a young group of playwrights and have a medium to discuss and work together, even if it’s virtual,” said Danielle Carroll, the company’s Lead Dramaturg.
“We are in a unique position to reopen earlier because the buildings at our West End Arts Center have outdoor fire escapes that offer the opportunity for innovative thinking and the possibility of presenting plays outdoors sooner with both audiences and actors engaged in social distancing,” said Gabor Barabas, the Executive Producer of New Jersey Repertory Company. “We have been soliciting plays written specifically to be performed on our multi-level fire escapes, and audiences will sit in their cars as in a drive-in movie or in designated spaces with portable seats. Although the idea was the result of the current pandemic, we have also been inspired by Tennessee Williams’ opening stage directions for The Glass Menagerie: ‘the apartment faces an alley and is entered by a fire-escape, a structure whose name is a touch of accidental poetic truth. . .always burning with the slow and implacable fires of human desperation.’”
“Human desperation” resonates.
The Fire Escape Play series challenges the writer to use location as inspiration, conceived from the space in which it is performed. It forces the playwright to think in terms of the space from concept, and how to use it to drive the plot and characters, rather than adjusting a script to theatre measurements after it’s written.
Usually, I start with the character, play with ideas for conflict and situation, ask “what if?” and then let them talk. The call for the Fire Escape Play, inspired me in terms of “why would characters hang out on this fire escapes on this particular day? How is this different from what we’ve seen done in similar locations before?” Three characters formed in my head, their relationships and conflicts beyond geography, and I wrote. Instead of restrictive, the parameters were liberating.
Play at Home: Short Plays to Be Enjoyed At Home includes The Public Theatre, The Long Wharf, The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, The Old Globe, Yangtze Repertory Theatre, and Indiana Repertory Theatre (among others). Their approach focused on the play’s life after completion, putting the scripts into the hands of the home audience instead of having them watch others perform.
“When we created the national Play At Home Initiative shortly after the March 2020 lockdowns, it was not a play development program, it was a possibility development platform,” said Chiara Klein, Director of Artistic Producing at Baltimore Center Stage and part of the founding team of Play At Home. “It was a way for theaters to put some money in the hands of playwrights, many of whom had productions canceled during the pandemic, and to facilitate joyful theater experiences for people sheltering in isolation. The beauty of Play At Home plays is the way that these playwrights extend an invitation for people of all ages to access their imagination and create theater in their own living rooms and Zoom rooms.”
People download the plays and perform them in their own spaces. It makes the play experiential rather than voyeuristic. It embodies the spirit of “play.”
“I miss getting to the rehearsal room fifteen minutes early,” admitted Matt Jacobs. “When rehearsals and workshops were in-person, you’d get there a little early, and someone else would get there, and that was really the time you’d talk about random stuff and get to know each other. Now the Zoom opens right on time, and there’s tendency to just get straight to business. I believe those small little conversations and connections can do a long way toward building connection and trust amongst the group, so I really miss them.”
But there are also joys. “With Zoom, it can be a different level of intimacy, seeing people’s homes,” said Danielle Carroll. “I kind of love that and think it’s perfect for writers who are naturally inclined to want to know what goes on behind closed doors. Seeing peoples’ pets, kids, loved ones pop up. Getting to know writers through their space.”
“During a break in the first workshop, one of the playwrights in the group, Emmett White, took out his acoustic guitar and started strumming a peaceful tune that went from his living room to everyone else’s,” related Jacobs. “Stuff like that wouldn’t happen the same way crammed into a NYC acting studio.”
Expanded reach is also a plus: “We can communicate with playwrights all over the world in this way. How cool is that?” Carroll stated.
“The relative ease at which we can bring in actors to read for the plays is an unexpected joy,” said Jacobs. “An actor can pop on to read a role in one play and pop off 30 minutes later, and they don’t have to take the subway to do it.”
“We never expected the global reach that these plays would have and the incredible range of the ways that they have been used,” added Chiara Klein. “From classroom instruction to professional virtual productions to birthday parties and so much more.”
Will plays need to be rewritten for social distanced staging? We don’t yet know. Theatre has always been an adaptable medium, from the Theatre of Dionysus in early 5th century Athens to 21st century worldwide collaboration via Zoom. As long as theatre artists connect with each other and audiences, it will evolve and thrive.