There was a powerful if unintended lesson over the weekend with the start of the state-sponsored NY Pops Up performances at the cavernous and near-empty Jacob Javits Convention-turned-vaccination Center; you might have caught bandleader Jon Batiste, opera singer Anthony Roth Costanzo, and sundry tap dancers and horn players if you were one of the lucky 50 health care workers, or an invited journalist (see 45 seconds of the roving concert below) or if you happened to glimpse it live on the new NY Pops Up Instagram account. That’s the lesson: For almost a year now, “live performance” has meant online.
It would be too cynical to dismiss Governor Andrew Cuomo’s sponsorship of 1,000 performances throughout the state over the next 100+ days as no more than a publicity gimmick (although the first show did get some nice coverage.) After all, these performances will provide paid work to perhaps hundreds of artists (although I suspect a substantial number of the stars who have agreed to participate, such as Hugh Grant, Idina Menzel, and Sara Jessica Parker, may not need the paycheck, which in any case would certainly be smaller than they’re used to.)
And then they could function as public morale boosters. As Zack Winokur, artistic director of NY Pops Up (yes, there’s an artistic director) told reporters covering the first event, these shows are “meant to revitalize and reenergize the spirit, ethos, vibe and energy of the city through surprising live performance.”
The operating word in that quote to me is “surprising.” These will largely be surprises, not in their content but in their very existence; few will be announced in advance.
It is hard to see how these unannounced “pop ups” will “revitalize” the arts in one of the most important centers of culture — including theater — in the world. That will take well thought-out policy and an extensive collaborative commitment by federal, state and city as well as the private sector.
If such a policy and commitment are currently absent, it’s fascinating to read several articles this same week by theater makers and theater thinkers contemplating a future of theater that incorporates its digital present.
In an article in HowlRound, multimedia theater artist Jared Mezzocchi (co-director of Russian Troll Farm) argues: “This present moment places us in an exciting crossroad between former traditions and the emergence of technical and multi-platformed storytelling. I do not believe we are in a purgatory until we return to in-person venues…Virtual artmaking is grueling, full of challenges, and steeped in unexpected turns. It is making critics of us all, clawing to identify what “is” and “isn’t” theatre. Instead of drawing lines in the sand, though, we should use all of these challenges as launchpads to discovery for the future”
In an article for Playbill, Damian Bazadona, president of the theater marketing agency Situation, writes that, the pandemic having forced us “to connect in ways we have never done before,” argues: “I see that the audience is ready, the technology is ready, and now I hope that we as an industry are ready to continue to invest in virtual connectivity even as our live performances come back.”
It’s intriguing to see that this attitude extends to some Broadway producers, such as Brian Moreland, who is quoted in Rob Weinert-Kendt’s article in American Theatre Magazine’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Reopening, (an interview-laden overview that suggests that, given Broadway’s likely delay in reopening, the “center of gravity” for theater may shift from NYC.) “‘The pandemic has shown us we need to think beyond our 41 buildings,’ [Moreland] said, referring not only to his still-extant plans to produce Charles Randolph-Wright’s play Blue at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre as soon as he’s able, but to the growing potential for the video capture and wide distribution of Broadway performances.”
In articles in The Stage, critic Lyn Gardner asks whether the art of theater has been too dependent on theater buildings — “We have to think about using space differently, whether that is physical space or digital space” — and Jack McNamara, artistic director of New Perspectives, writes that, after a year of unprecedented deep interrogation into the purpose and potential of theater, “the result is a worldwide swarm of approaches that have profoundly opened up the possibilities of the form, most likely for good…. A solo artist can now reach as many people as a building can, perhaps with more impact, although their PR machinery will never be as loud.”
Yes, their PR machinery will never be as loud. But it pays for us to listen.
February 2021 Theater Openings Final Week: De Shields as Frederick Douglass. Baryshnikov in a Computer Chekhov. A New Labyrinth Play Every Day
Week in Theater Reviews
Village Song 1: A Washington Square Park Police Riot, Malcolm X, Allen Ginsberg, A Tree and A Cookie
Village Song 2: Self-Indulgence and Art; Plus: McSorley’s Drinking Song
Village Song 3: Nostalgia for Ellen Stewart, Kenny’s Castaways and Bob Dylan, Contempt for Zero Irving.
Delejos (from afar): Jose Zambrano, brought back to life by his girlfriend.
The Past is the Past: A Black Son Confronts His Absent Father
Week in Theater Non-Reviews
Shows That Leave Me Speechless (Or, Why I Should Retire): Clippy and Ms. U. Before Fiddler. Little Miss Perfect. House Rules.
Week in Theater News
Black Members Of Broadway Community Want To See Change When Curtain Rises Again
After Years of Talk, Finally Some Money for Black Artists and Theaters
Mona Monsour has won the National Arts Clubs’ Kesselring Prize for playwriting, which comes with $25,000. The awards ceremony will be presented online on February 25th. at 6 p.m.
(In keeping with my claim above about the growing prominence of digital theater) the Oregon Shakespeare Festival announces “its first-ever combined onstage and digital season.”
Watch “Empty Stage.” Does it make you weep, swoon, or groan?