Book Review: Theater of Lockdown

In “Theater of Lockdown: Digital and Distanced Performance in a Time of Pandemic”  (Methuen Drama, 247 pages), Barbara Fuchs attempts to chronicle what she calls “the fundamental transformation of theater during the pandemic,” by describing specific, innovative works created over the first ten months of life under COVID-19.
But there is a truly fundamental question she cannot yet answer: Is any of that “transformation” permanent?

With the reopening of in-person theater in the Fall of 2021, creators and advocates of digital theater have grown understandably defensive, as many in the mainstream theater industry seem to treat what went on in the many months after March, 2020 as at best stop-gap; not really theater. This ho-hum attitude toward a vibrant period of theatrical experimentation is not the exclusive province of those involved in commercial theater. In a recent survey by American Theatre Magazine of dozens of leaders of non-profit theaters throughout the United States, most had attempted digital theater in some way; many found  some upsides to their efforts (an increase in viewership, a way to keep donor’s attention); but most found a deep downside (bottom line: the shows “failed to deliver at the box office.”)

The dismissive reaction is not universal. As I point out in my end-of-year essay on seven theater trends, after the reopening, several Off- Broadway theaters have adopted a “hybrid” model — meaning their productions are presented in two versions, in-person theater and digital theater — and even one Broadway show: “Clyde’s,”  will live-stream at the end of its in-person run. Is this hybrid model a trend that will become an established part of the theatrical landscape, or will it die out with the curbing of the pandemic?

Although “Theater of Lockdown” has an official publication date of 2022, the book doesn’t directly engage in any of these recent developments and debates, because Fuchs finished writing it in January, 2021; we know this because she tells us that she was just about to turn in the manuscript to the publisher on the first day of the  year, when she happened to see “Ratatouille The Tik Tok Musical” and Theater in Quarantine’s “I Am Sending You The Sacred Face”* (and wrote a quick “postscript” about them.)

So it’s clearly an in-the-moment enthusiasm, rather than an observation backed by evidence, that leads Fuchs to write: “Virtual theater is a genie that will not go back in the lamp–it makes extraordinary new things possible, while showing the limitations of how theater used to do things.” 

Still, without automatically buying into any great claims for their future significance, the works of theater detailed in “Theater of Lockdown”– an appendix lists more than 70 that are at least mentioned — can be admired for their ingenuity, and the theater artists who put them together recognized for their resilience.

Fuchs begins with some of the earliest and most successful online works, which were presented on the Zoom platform.  One of the first, starting in April, 2020, was Richard Nelson’s “What Do We Need To Talk About?”*  The members of the Apple family (portrayed by actors who had been cast in the same roles in a series of  “Apple family plays” going back years) engage in a Zoom call in real time to offer support to one another in lockdown. The play reflected a practice happening in many families, and touched a chord (or, as Fuchs puts it, was “canonized as the birth of Zoom-native drama.”)

Nelson’s play was implicitly healing. Theater of War’s “Oedipus Project” was explicitly meant to be so. For this theater company that has long used Ancient Greek tragedies to provoke discussions of contemporary issues, Zoom turned out to be a surprisingly useful platform. This company was certainly not alone in finding the interactivity of the medium a revelation.

It wasn’t long before pioneering theater artists like multimedia designerJared Mezzocchi started figuring out how to bring out the maximum technical and design potential of the Zoom platform in works like “Russian Troll Farm”*, which Mezzocchi co-directed. In it, he created a visual aesthetic that merges the workers (using social media to undermine American democracy) with the work they do – scrolling Tweets superimposed on their faces.  

San Franciso Shakespeare Festival’s technical director Neal Ormond used Open Broadcasting Software  to enable the cast of “King Lear,” although stuck in their homes many miles apart, to perform live in what appeared to be  a shared three-dimensional location (in other words, no Zoom boxes.) This was quite a coup in the Gloucester eye-gouging scene. The production was accompanied by a “guided chat,” which so engaged the audience that artistic director Rebecca Ennals told Fuchs that this feature “should endure when the company resumes performances in Bay Area parks.” 

“In These Uncertain Times,” by Source Material Collective, overlaid the Zoom share function with images and texts, beginning with the statement by Todd London, rendered ironic by the pandemic, that begins “the theater is the antithesis of the virtual, and it’s the antidote. The theater demands our physical presence and our communal proximity….”

from “Game Over”

Those theater lovers who didn’t keep close tabs on everything going on might have had the mistaken impression that Zoom theater was the totality of “digital theater” or even of pandemic-era theater. But theater artists around the world refused to be so cyber-boxed in.

Fuchs, a professor of Spanish and English at UCLA, and the director of a festival of Hispanic classical theater in Los Angeles, details the Spanish-language “Game Over,” by the Madrid-based company Grumelot, which was inspired by the relationship between Chekhov and his wife Olga Knipper, and the letters she wrote him. They lived more than a thousand miles apart, because she was a member of Stanislavski’s company in Moscow and he was ill and needed to be in a warmer climate. Distance created by illness — relevant, and rendered into startling contemporary terms. To attend the play required for the audience member to use, yes, Zoom, but also the phone, Whatsapp, a website, Instagram, YouTube, Spotify, and the postal service: Grumelot had mailed letters to audience members (those in Europe, anyway)

Chekhov seemed a favorite of the innovators. New York Theatre Workshop presented “The Seagull on The Sims 4” with playwright Celine Strong’s idiosyncratic adaptation of Chekhov’s play taking place as a video game and simultaneously as two-way chat on the platform Twitch, an experience that Fuchs calls “more of a happening than a play.” — although perhaps more mainstream than it seemed:  During one of the Twitch conversations, “Slave Play” playwright Jeremy O. Harris shared that he would put a character who was giving him trouble in a house on Sims “see what happened, and write around that.”

Fuchs provides an overview of the work of Joshua William Gelb’s Theater in Quarantine.* Gelb has created increasingly complex original plays and classical adaptations in the 4X8x2 foot closet of his East Village apartment. (The book’s cover image is of one of Gelb’s plays, from April, 2020,  “The Neighbor,” an adaptation of a Kafka short story.) He live-streams the productions on YouTube, the videos meticulously manipulated  to superimpose props and costumes and even characters (usually multiples of Gelb) that don’t exist in three dimensions in Gelb’s closet.

Gelb is in a chapter entitled “Solo: Small-Scale Theater,” which also includes an extensive description (over nine pages) of “Here We Are”*, a virtual version of Christine Jones’ long-running Theater for One, in which one actor performs a new “microplay” for one audience member at a time. The main difference in the virtual version was that the playwrights for all eight plays were women of color, and their subjects often reflected the racial reckoning happening across the U.S. The company also developed two-way (non-Zoom) video technology.

Some of the works Fuchs cites do not center around the computer at all (much less Zoom), especially in the last two chapters, which focus on audio theater, and then on what Fuchs calls “distanced theater.”

Woolly Mammoth’s “Human Resources” took place entirely by telephone, and satirized customer service (“To file a claim for unhappiness, press 1.”) Audience members also used the phone for (the first third of)  “A Thousand Ways,” presented by the two-person company 600 HIGHWAYMEN. Individual audience members used a Walkman to listen to “Quijotes & Sanchos,” a walking audio tour adapted from Cervantes. The theater company that created it, los numeros imaginarios, presented it first in Madrid and then, upon invitation from Fuchs herself, in the streets of Los Angeles.

scene inside laundromat, viewed by audience members in the street, in En Pointe

The West Philadelphia company Shakespeare in Clark Park found inspiration from the morality plays of the Middle Ages, which were presented during the Plague years in a wagon placed just outside the (infected) city’s walls.  The company built a modern wagon, and presented “Every Everyman,” its adaptation of a 15th century morality play, to a handful of people at a time sitting on their porches. “En Pointe,” a presentation of nine short new plays by Tableau D’Hote Theatre,  took place in various outdoor locations in a working class neighborhood of Montreal – a stoop, outside a laundromat, in front of the local Y.

“Temping” took place for one audience member at a time in New York’s Wild Project – not in the theater’s auditorium, but in the lobby, outfitted like an office. The theatergoer was assigned to be a temp, and for 45 minutes was bombarded by emails, voice mail messages and printouts (but no present actors) to execute a series of instructions.

One intriguing aspect about some of the in-person, socially distanced shows described in the book is that the producers also captured them on video, sometimes streaming them, which is how Fuchs was able to see and write about them. The appeal of the hybrid model was evident even before the return of regular theatergoing.

Having spent much of the last two years as a theater critic reviewing shows every week that some people didn’t even consider theater,  I was eager to read “Theater in Lockdown,” delighted to find a kindred enthusiast and to learn of work I hadn’t caught. Early in the book, though, I discovered a mention of one of my own reviews, which Fuchs summarizes in a way I found so amiss that it led me to wonder how reliable her summaries of things I don’t know firsthand.   Occasionally (as in the five dense pages on a play called “Read the Subtitles Aloud”), she finds neither a concise nor a congenial way to describe the goings-on, which admittedly can be a steep challenge, given how novel, elaborate and convoluted some of these works were. Left without guidance as to why a particular show was worth so much detail, I would become bored or baffled. (More than once, I Googled shows described in the book to clear up confusion about the plot and other basic information.).

It’s best to think of “Theater of Lockdown” as a more or less useful historical document. The shows Fuchs details – or elements from them – could wind up helping broaden the definition of theater in convulsive ways. Or maybe they will help lead to changes that will be so thoroughly accepted that audiences wouldn’t even register that there has been any great alteration. After all, for all the talk of theater being an art form thousands of years old, I’ve never heard anyone lament the use of computers to run the lights or the scenery changes on stage, and video projections have been an intrinsic element of much stage design for years.

*These happen to be among the ten shows or theaters I chose as my ACTA  (American Connected Theater Award) winners for Pandemic Year 1. Fuchs includes five of these ten in her book. These are Theater in Quarantine, “What Do We Need To Talk About,” “Here We Are,” “Russian Troll Farm,” and “Ratatouille, the Tik Tok Musical.”

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