The ACTA Winners: Online Theater Awards for Pandemic Year One

Below are the winners of the ACTAs — American Connected Theater Awards* — for theatrical storytelling created and presented online during the year between March 2020 and March 2021. These are awards for  “connected theater” because they were online, requiring an Internet connection, and also because, even when we each were forced to stay isolated, they kept theater lovers (and theater makers) connected..

Many online events, institutions and individuals have stepped up to the moment in various ways, but the ten winners below – whether a specific production from American theater makers or a theater company’s entire body of work over the year — stepped up specifically through works of digital storytelling theater that in some way advanced the art form, suggesting the promise and possibilities of a reimagined theater in this strangest and most challenging of times.

The list below is in roughly chronological order, hinting at an evolution in the art of digital theater.

Kerry Conte (as Lucille Ballard), William Bellamy (as Lon Smith), Ian Holcomb (as Warren Sheffield),, Ali Ewoldt (as Rose Smith), in “Meet Me in St. Louis”

Irish Repertory Theater

Within days of the shut-down of physical theaters, Irish Rep went digital – at first with company members singing Irish songs or reciting Irish poetry, but eventually with a full season of nine new virtual productions of established theater, ranging from serious contemporary plays (Brian Friel’s Molly Sweeney, Conor McPherson’s The Weir) to classics (adaptations of Beckett and Joyce; Eugene O’Neill’s  A Touch of the Poet ) as well as a solo show, a revue and a musical (a reworking of the Broadway musical adaptation of Meet Me in St. Louis .  The productions were of increasing technical ambition. The actors appear to be acting on stage together, even though they were locked down in their apartments hundreds of miles apart, acting into their iPhones. The Irish Rep deserves acclaim not just for the quality of their productions, but for their understanding of the needs and challenges of their potential audience. Tickets were offered pay-what-you-can, including zero, and the theater made sure to provide closed captioning at specific performances of each production – a commitment that seems  just common sense, but has been surprisingly rare in this year of theatrical performances on screen.

The season is now available on Broadway on Demand (with no option not to pay) but the theater’s founders Charlotte Moore and Ciarán O’Reilly have promised all new work will first be offered on their website for free.

Theater in Quarantine

Starting at the end of March, Joshua William Gelb created videos for a YouTube channel in which he turned his tiny closet in the East Village into a stage. At first, it felt like a gimmick A fast-motion 55-second video of his building and painting the closet; a minute 47 seconds of his tapping his knees to jazz music. Soon, improbably, he began adapting Kafka and Beckett, the shows expanding in length and ambition.  Remarkably, Theater in Quarantine developed into an exemplary (though still tiny) showcase of imaginative and provocative original avant-garde theater, in collaboration with a slew of respected and cutting-edge theater artists. “I Am Sending You The Sacred Face,” a musical about Mother Theresa whom he portrayed in drag (respectfully!), was written by Obie winner Heather Christian. Gelb recently got even more ambitious, taking on a co-star, who performed in a second closet, in the basement of LaMaMa though the video looked as if they were together in the same space, in Blood Meal (written by Scott R. Sheppard of “Underground Railroad Game.“)

Clockwise from top left: Jay O. Sanders, Maryann Plunkett, Sally Murphy, Laila Robins, and Stephen Kunken in the livestreamed world premiere of the Apple Family Play, What Do We Need To Talk About?, written and directed by Richard Nelson.

“What Do We Need To Talk About?”

Coming just some six weeks after the shut-down of physical stages, Richard Nelson’s new original, hour-long play, reviving his Apple Family series, was able to capture the effect  the pandemic was having on the characters – which was a precise reflection of what viewers were experiencing at that very moment as well. “What Do We Need To Talk About?” also provided an early glimpse at how theater makers could overcome the limitations of the Zoom platform to create  satisfying theater without its seeming makeshift or make-do:  The characters, isolated from another, are on a Zoom call.

André De Shields as Elder Qualls in “A Father’s Sorrow,” part of Covid and Incarceration. Jake Gyllenhaal in “Across the Way”

Viral Monologues

The 24 Hour Plays—which, faithful to its name, has a twenty-five-year history of writing, rehearsing, and performing an original production from scratch in twenty-four hours— was one of the earliest companies to leap into the Internet, presenting Viral Monologues on its Instagram account a few days after the physical shutdown of New York theaters. The twenty monologues, each about four minutes long, were written by twenty noted playwrights and performed by twenty well-known actors; they were released one by one every fifteen minutes online.

From the get-go, the company established what I initially came to think of as the pandemic era aesthetic –  spontaneous, makeshift “let’s-put-on-a-play” but with some of the most established and starry theater artists in the country;  collective even though everybody was in isolation.  If it hasn’t much grown in format, focus or technology, it has proliferated, producing close to 400 videos of original work; for a long while, there was a new batch every week   And some of it has stood out, such as the special docudrama series of 15 monologues about “COVID and Incarceration” based on interviews, and “Across The Way,” a mini-musical by David Lindsay-Abaire and Jeanine Tesori performed by Jake Gyllenhaal, about a man yearning for the woman  he spots in a window where she too is in lockdown 

Lynn Whitfield and Esau Pritchett in “Mississippi Goddamn,” part of #WhileWeBreathe

#WhileWeBreathe

#WhileWeBreathe is an hour-long video of 11 original plays, subtitled “A Night of Creative Protest,” which grew out of conversations the week after the police killing of George Floyd. (It remains online indefinitely.) The Black Lives Matter moment has given birth over the last nine months to a surge in advocacy, conversation, confrontation and commitment in the theater community — and it has also produced a body of solid, satisfying and provocative theater online, that this anthology exemplifies. The plays range widely in tone from satirical to grim. The last of the 11, Aurin Squire’s “Mississippi Goddamn,”  is the longest play (at about ten minutes) and feels like the most developed. Lynn Whitfield and Esau Pritchett play an older couple who live through five days of the current crisis, recalling a lifetime of tragedy, including the circumstances in which Nina Simone wrote “Mississippi Goddamn.”  Their relationship is touching and subtly amusing, their recollections deeply sad, their attitude evolves into…hopeful?

“Songs From An Unmade Bed”

BD Wong working with his husband the videographer Richert Schnorr, and enlisting some starry accomplices, turned a 15-year-old solo stage musical about a gay man in New York reviewing his life of loneliness, lust, loss and love into a witty and inventive series of music videos that hung together as a cogent narrative. “Songs From An Unmade Bed” suggested a new way of approaching adaptations for online theater.

Patrice Bell in “Thank You for Coming, Take Care,” one of the micro-plays in “Here We Are”

“Here We Are”

This series of eight “micro plays” was the first online version by Theatre for One, the experimental company that for a decade has created short works for one performer and one audience member at a time. “Here We Are” managed to combine several aspects of our current moment into something fresh and different. The creative team led by Christine Jones and Jenny Koons developed technology to reproduce the sense of intimacy between actor and audience that comes naturally to the stage — the actor could see the audience member, not just the other way around. The production took full advantage of this advance; in many of the plays, you the audience member became a character. “You don’t look anything like I expected,” Patrice Bell said to me in Stacy Rose’s “Thank You for Coming, Take Care,” and then said she thought I would be blond and short (knowing that I’m tall with brown hair.) She turns out to be an inmate, and I turn out to be a foster parent who wants to adopt her child.

The monologues, each about 15 minutes, were all written by Black women playwrights (including Lynn Nottage, Lydia R. Diamond, and Regina Taylor) with all the directors and cast members BIPOC (Black, Indigenous (or) People of Color) Each was presented separately. An audience member signed up to go online and was assigned one of the plays at random — which encouraged me to return again and again.

“The Great Work Begins: Scenes from Angels in America”

This extraordinary video is something more than a selection of eerie, riveting scenes from Tony Kushner’s landmark seven and a half hour AIDS-era play performed by a starry cast.  It’s a gorgeous  lesson in the power of making connections. There are the unlikely, lovely, loaded connections that the characters make with one another.  There are the connections that the creative team makes between stagecraft and what we can call video craft, when two characters who are sitting next to each are portrayed by actors actually thousands of miles apart. And then there’s the connection between the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and the COVID-19 pandemic of today, made most vivid in the last scene in Bethesda Fountain when Prior proclaims “This disease will be the end of many of us, but…we are not going away” — and he’s joined by a montage of voices and faces by current-day Americans who have been affected by the coronavirus.

“Russian Troll Farm”

The Russian trolls in the title are inspired by the actual employees of the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency who tried to sway the American Presidential election of 2016 through fake news, incendiary memes and outrageous conspiracy theories manufactured by dummy social media posts. But Sarah Gancher’s full-length original play was not just extraordinarily well-timed. It was both funny and frightening,  but also surprisingly empathetic to the five characters, who are recognizable as office workers everywhere. And the production was impressively designed, its visual aesthetic merging the workers with the work they do – scrolling Tweets superimposed on their faces.  “Russian Troll Farm”  could wind up as well offering a model of collaboration in the future – it was a joint production of TheaterWorks Hartford and TheatreSquared of Arkansas, in association with The Civilians of Brooklyn.

“Ratatouille The TikTok Musical”

There is no way to leave out this musical, which, as you might have heard,  began in the middle of the pandemic as a ten-second video on TikTok, based on the  2007 Disney Pixar animated film, prompting hundreds – maybe thousands – of Tiktokers to add their own videos. An enterprising producer hired some Broadway pros to fashion a more or less traditional musical translated into the visual language of the Internet.  I ultimately found Ratatoutille The TikTok Musical deeply satisfying for a whole host of reasons, not least because of the exuberance with which it was created, and the enthusiasm with which it was received. Whether or not the show turns out to be a landmark musical, or a harbinger of a new way of creating theater, it offers proof right now that, for many people – for more people than one might have expected — theater can thrill.

ACTA

THE AMERICAN CONNECTED THEATER AWARD

*This is not an institutionally-backed online theater award. (Although I made an attempt to get several institutions interested, these are my personal choices.) Update: The 87th annual Drama League Awards, scheduled for May 21, have stepped up to the moment with nominations primarily recognizing digital theatrical productions.

Author: New York Theater

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

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