The Theatre and the Virus

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There has been no theatre to speak of in New York for months now, and the pandemic did its short-term damage to the people whose livelihoods depend on Broadway and Off-Broadway, and even Off-Off Broadway. The actors, technical crew and building staff have all been out of work since March. Producers are not getting any money from ticket sales. Restaurants and bars nearby have been closed, and now that they are allowed to open, their capacity is 25% of what it would otherwise be. The longer-term impact, though, is just beginning to be noticed by those in the business. And some of it is not entirely bad.

One of the hallmarks of capitalism is the emergence of new ideas when the old ideas collapse. Theatre productions are gone, but the people who made them happen are still around. And so, like every other business, they discovered they could use teleconferencing software to stream their product to consumers.

This is really a new take on an old issue in theatre, the filming of production for broadcast or release in the cinemas. Britain’s National Theatre has been doing this for ages, as has the Metropolitan Opera. Broadway HD built a whole business out of this before the pandemic hit. This time around, though, everyone has had to consider it, and thanks to technology, even the smallest of productions can participate. Indeed, the new streaming medium might be better suited to them.

For instance, a children’s production called “Show Up Kids!” (as well as an adult version called “Show Up”) is the brainchild of actor/producer Peter Michael Marino, directed by Michole Biancosino . It is essentially the kind of one-man show you would see at any fringe festival, some scripted and some improvised. This is Marino’s bread and butter; he is is the creator and co-producer of SOLOCOM, which has launched over 600 world-premiere, international solo comedies at The People’s Improv Theater.

He set up a studio in his apartment, sells tickets to the show to kids and their parents, and give them access to the show via Zoom. Is it exactly like live theatre? Of course not, and Marino would be the first to say so. Yet, kids are less concerned than adults about how they watch things. There is certainly wonderful chaos to a theatre full of kids yelling out improv ideas, but this works in a way that involves each kid, even the shy ones.

Another effect that the pandemic is having on theatre is the number of video conferenced table readings. As a script is developed, the table reading is where actors first get their hands on the playwright’s words, and they simply read through it aloud to get a feel for it. For many playwrights, this is invaluable in crafted a sharper show with better dialogue and stronger character development. For producers, it often gives them an idea of what they came to make financially from the show. Is it a popular Broadway hit, or is it a sophisticated piece that appeals to a smaller audience?

Doing these by video conference means people don’t have to be in the same place at the same time. It ends the excuse “I can’t do your reading because I will be in LA that week.” This gives casting directors greater flexibility, and it broadens the talent pool.

Naturally, some people have found a way to make the teleconference part of the story. Monica Bauer has written a piece called “Democracy Sucks!” which stars John Fico and is directed by John D. Fitzgibbon. The premise is that the audience are members of an online class taught by Fico at Upper Michigan State University. Thus, the Zoom medium becomes part of the message – and the show is exceedingly funny.

One of the ways that musicals boost their bottom line is by producing an original cast recording. I remember as a kid in Colorado being exposed to shows like Fiddler on the Roof, West Side Story and Jesus Christ Superstar by listening to the original Broadway cast singing their hearts out on our stereo. Once again, technology has made it possible for artists to put together an album without being in the same studio.

Earlier this year, “The Perfect Hit” was slated to record a studio album with Broadway Records. Then COVID-19 hit. We figured out a way to record the album layer by layer while each actor and musician was quarantined around the U.S. We released the album this summer, which charted on iTunes and Amazon Music. Then, this September we made history with a sold-out live drive-in concert of music from “The Perfect Hit” at Sharon Playhouse in Sharon, CT. A bigger and better version is set for November 17.

Jason Turchin, a backer of the project said, “We created a system which can give communities around the world access to Broadway as our industry returns, much like professional sports have done for decades with simultaneous streaming.”

Finally, there is the redesign of the theaters themselves. As much as I love some of the old buildings on Broadway, there is not enough room for my six-foot-plus frame. Aisle seats for me are a big plus. But with social distancing requirements, that is going to have to change.

Erez Ziv, managing artistic director of FRIGID New York, has removed seats in the Kraine Theatre in the East Village to allow audience members to keep a safe space. Sadly, this comes at a huge cost; his capacity is now about 30% of what it once was. Theatre under these circumstances needs an economic re-engineering. Streaming shows and the ticket sales from them may be a huge part of future endeavours.

In short, the recording “Hamilton” on Broadway that Disney+ now streams is going to be just one of many future offerings that will bring live theatre into your home.