An Unspoken Upside, And Possible Downside, to Online Theater

After watching last night’s streaming of six short plays by the students of Labyrinth’s summer workshop as part of the theater company’s Barn Series 2021, I was struck by what these shows said to me about online theater during this pandemic year. Nobody seems to have brought up this particular aspect of the burgeoning phenomenon, despite all the talk of the unforeseen benefits for established theater companies of digital theater.

 “Arts organizations are reporting massive increases in online audiences driven by viewers and participants who have never set foot inside their buildings,”  arts administrator Hannah Grannemann wrote – and I quoted – last September, basing her assessment on several studies, and I’ve written frequently on how screens have become the norm.

An article yesterday in the New York Times on  digital theater’s unexpected upside offered examples from more than a dozen established theaters, from Irish Rep to Oregon Shakespeare Company.

But the replacement of stages with screens has also offered an opportunity for emerging theater artists to get the kind of audience that they would not have been able to attract a year ago, a tangible benefit for both artist and audience. There is, however, a potential side effect that gives me pause.

Labyrinth’s annual summer workshop, which it calls an “Intensive Ensemble,” gives students about a week to write, rehearse and present original works of theater. The students from last summer presented theirs online, and presented them again last night as part of Labyrinth’s annual Barn Series . with a new full-length play streaming each evening this week. Like other theaters during the past year, Labyrinth deserves credit for making the move to digital (but like too many others, it deserves discredit for failing to take advantage of the ready technology in order to provide captions.) It’s the students themselves, though, that should get the bulk of the bravos.

I enjoyed watching “The Zookeepers,” written by Julia Rae Maldonado and directed by Yair Kaos, a Zoom call late at night among employees of the Bronx Zoo,  because one of them, Oscar, is concerned about Eddie’s behavior during the pandemic. “ Eddie’s a very sensitive elephant,” Oscar says. “I think he misses all the people.”

“I don’t miss all the people,” one of Oscar’s colleagues retorts. “This is like a dream come true for me. All animals and no people.”

The group suggests ways to make Eddie feel better – get him a mate, give him a hot dust bath, have him take up painting, even trade him for an elephant at a California zoo for a change of scenery (“Hard no on trading Eddie, bro,” Oscar says.) 

In “The Rave” by Juan Cortes, a woman is angry because she felt her friends abandoned her the night before, because she was arrested at a protest and nobody seemed to notice. “The point of the protest was to defend black bodies. And none of you were there to defend mine.” For some of her friends, the protest was indistinguishable from a party, and (what the playwright seems to be saying) some of the protesters no more serious than partiers.  

“Hail Elisha,” written by Jake Brasch and directed by David Zayas Jr, has fun with the Labyrinth workshop itself, the characters being attendees who are secretly members of an anti-theater cult set out to destroy the program. “Theatre is dying. We are winning,” Elisha says. “I mean, come on! They’re all desperately performing for no money on Zoom from their living rooms. “

The play ends with a surreal assertion of the beauty of theater as an art form by introducing Dionysus, who is a dog, and breaking out of the Zoom boxes. Unlike Zookeepers and The Rave,  which use Zoom in a conventional way,  “Hail Elisha” begins to break out into video art — and the remaining three plays in the program go further.   “The Basement” by Yhá Mourhia Wright directed by Anita Sibony de Adelsberg looks like a full-on film, and “Lies We Tell Ourselves in the Dark” written by Isabella Gonzalez  and directed by Enemy Jones manipulates the video imagery in Alice-in-Wonderland like ways to evoke dream-like encounters between the main character and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

“Giving Into the Bit” written and directed by Khalif J. Gillett, cleverly depicts habitués of a bar as characters broadcasting from a pegboard hung with electronic devices, from smart phones to TV sets. It’s ingenious as video art. I wasn’t sure whether it could work as a stage play – or at least I wasn’t sure that I would be as intrigued by it.

I asked the author and director whether focusing on the video art like this was something new for him during the pandemic. He explained that he’s a writer, actor and director, but he’s also a photographer, “and got involved with filmmaking in grad school. I do a lot of video editing and visual poetry so this digital space has become very familiar to me. With my play, I wanted to make the audience feel like they were watching a piece not just on zoom, but it has a purpose for the actors being on screens. I didn’t want to have to use stage directions. That was very important to me.”

Gillett, in other words, has stepped up to the moment.  But is the moment molding our emerging wordsmiths into….screen crafters? it occurred to me that the plays in the Intensive Ensemble felt closer to photographs than conventional plays. This was true even of the ones that stuck to the Zoom platform; they were portraits of a static situation, presenting it to us from different angles perhaps, but without a sense of forward motion, of characters changing. To be fair, these were short plays done quickly — conditions that encourage sketches rather than dramas. Perhaps it would have been the same on stage. 

In any case, there are far worse things to worry about than whether the playwrights of the next generation are being redirected into video artists, and far more reasons to be cheered by the workshop plays in the Labyrinth Barn series. As Dionysus the dog muse muses in “Hail Elisha”:

“I know it is a profoundly strange time. Connection has always been hard, but now, it’s damn near impossible. I cannot give you an answer. But I can lend you an ear. I am here to hold your duality, your fear and hope and how they crash against each other to create the glorious dissonance that is you…”

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

Leave a Reply