Immediately after I watched the first-ever “simulcast” of a Broadway play — the exact same live performance of Lynn Nottage’s “Clyde’s” on my computer screen that the audience was watching at the same time in person at the Hayes on Broadway – I received an email from Second Stage Theater and Assemble, the company that they had hired to do the live-streaming.
“Dear Patron,” it read, “we are very sorry for the technical issue you experienced with the Clyde’s simulcast this evening. We have worked to resolve the problem and would like to invite you to watch another performance before the show closes on January 16….”
It’s embarrassing to admit that I hadn’t until that moment realized there had been a technical issue.
Back in November, when I saw it in person, I had loved “Clyde’s,” a wonderfully acted, savory comedy about four employees and the sexy but heartless owner of a truck stop sandwich shop, all of them formerly incarcerated. But I had not remembered it well enough to realize that the performance last night didn’t simply get a late start, as I had thought. Those of us at home missed the first ten minutes or so of the play that the audience was watching at the Hayes.
I offer two defenses for my not realizing this. Yes, the play seemed to begin in the middle of a conversation between Clyde (portrayed by Uzo Aduba) and her chief sandwich maker, Montrellous (normally portrayed by Ron Cephas Jones, but last night by his understudy, Kevin Kenerly,) But I knew that’s how the play does start, in the middle of a conversation (The first line in the script is Montrellous saying: “And…that was that. What else could I’ve done?”)
The second defense is that the first image that I saw on the simulcast was a close-up of the sandwich that Montrellous had prepared for his boss – which seemed the exactly right way to begin.
In any case, the glitch didn’t bother me (as it surely did viewers who were seeing the play for the first time.) This was the first night that Second Stage was simulcasting the play, and “Clyde’s” is the first show on Broadway to be live-streamed like this; there are bound to be birth pangs. I was thrilled to be witnessing the latest step in an evolving phenomenon that is as old as the history of film, and as new as the latest Internet start-up — the interplay between stage and screen.
Back in 2011, I wrote an article for American Theatre Magazine (before it was online; now it’s only online) entitled “Putting the ‘Theatre’ in Movie Theatre.” I led with the story of Todrick Hall, who was then in the ensemble of the Broadway musical “Memphis” (he is now a celebrity YouTuber.) He had grown up in a town in Texas that had no live theater, but he had fallen in love with it because of film adaptations of Broadway musicals that he watched on television. When I talked to him, “Memphis” was one of three Broadway shows that were going to be “live-captured” on stage and then presented in movie theaters across the country. (I haven’t heard anybody say “live-captured” to mean “recorded” for a while. There wasn’t a universally accepted term for these stage-to-screen experiments – and there still isn’t.)
The rise of streaming platforms led to a high-quality recording of the stage musical “Hamilton” (similar to the process of “Memphis” a decade earlier) streaming on Disney+ in 2020. This went one step further in 2021, when “Diana” streamed on Netflix before it had started performances on Broadway (The actors had performed on stage at the Longacre without an audience, just to make the recording.)
These recent stage-to-screen presentations were undoubtedly a direct result of the peculiar circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic – or more precisely, the moment when theaters reopened during the pandemic — also resulted in what’s being called hybrid theater, which has come to mean two versions of the same production, in person theater and digital theater (as it’s recently come to be called.) It’s been embraced by Off-Broadway theaters like Rattlestick Playwrights Theater and New York Theatre Workshop. These two versions are not usually presented simultaneously.
But that’s what “Clyde’s” is doing for the rest of its run.
Time will tell if this live hybrid model is a good business model for Broadway. The theater is charging $59 (plus fees) for what is arguably a view from the front row. Orchestra seats for the in-person production range in price from $59 to $140. Will the price seem worth it to out-of-towners, or to New Yorkers who want the convenience or safety of viewing from home? The experiment certainly turns out to be well-timed, given the concerns about the current surge of COVID-19 cases (although it’s worth pointing out the obvious — that if breakthrough cases in the company cause a cancelation of the live in-person performance, the live online performance would have to be canceled as well.)
Meanwhile, putting aside the early glitch with the transmission, the experience from moment to moment of watching this play on my computer screen at home had its pluses and minuses.
Obvious pluses: Nobody was going to complain about my using a cell phone or not using a face mask, yet we at home could still feel part of the live performance, in part because we could hear the audience’s reaction. It helped to see a live view of the audience before the play began (I would have preferred that be all that we saw beforehand, rather than the bombardment of trailers for Second Stage shows. Or perhaps they could have done what the Metropolitan Opera does at the beginning of their broadcasts, and have a host briefly introduce the play.)
Seven cameras are employed throughout the theater to offer different perspectives of the stage. That includes close ups, which has obvious advantages when a character has a long monologue – which most do in this play, explaining the circumstances of their past incarceration – or when there was an emotional moment between two characters. It also let us luxuriate in Jennifer Moeller’s endless fashion show of fabulous and funny costumes for Clyde.
But a few times, the close-ups were of a part of the stage that was empty, while we heard the actors talking off-camera – which must have been a mistake, because it made no sense as an artistic choice.
And other times I found the close-ups disconcerting. When I saw “Clyde’s” in person in November, I had a good seat, but not so close that I could clearly see the food they were handling, nor the details of the white supremacist tattoos on Edmund Donovan, who normally portrays Jason. But they were clearly visible on the understudy portraying Jason last night, Stephen Michael Spencer, which was less disturbing to me than distracting. And the food sometimes looked unappetizing to me, and their handling of it, occasionally unhygienic.
I sang the praises of the entire cast when I saw the show in person, and this is still the case. Kara Young in particular shines on camera as she did on stage. But much of the humor of Reza Salazar’s character Rafael is in how demonstrative he is. In close up, Rafael’s over-reacting occasionally felt like Salazar’s overacting instead; it played too big. I’ve heard many a performer talk about the difference between stage and screen acting; it’s going to be a challenge for them to do both simultaneously.
If the close-ups occasionally required some getting used to on my part, they as a whole worked better than when the camera went wide. My computer screen (even though it’s a big desk top) seemed inadequate to take in the whole of scenic designer Takeshi Kata’s wide, busy set, the kitchen at Clyde’s, in particular when there were special effects.
The audio also felt relatively distant – the kind of sound you’d hear in the theater rather than what we’re used to from our screen entertainments. (Not inaudible, just not close up.)
If the point of the simulcasting is largely to make “Clyde’s” more accessible, I was most disappointed in the theater’s failure to include the option of captioning, which strikes me as one of the major potential assets of digital theater. Forward-thinking theaters who use the hybrid model in the future might consider offering a chat option as well. Some of the joy of the live musicals on network television has been the opportunity to Tweet in real time with fellow viewers.
Second Stage deserves credit for its willingness to pioneer a worthwhile experiment. My experience with their simulcast was on the whole positive, my objections mostly quibbles, which strike me as easily fixed. The question for the future is: Will simulcasting take off , and if so, how much will it – and should it – affect the design, the acting, the staging of the play or musical? (And will we stick with the term “simulcasting”?)
A Sundance Institute report “Emerging from the Cave: Reimagining Our Future in Theater and Live Performance, released in August, featured many interviews with theater artists, including one with playwright Lynn Nottage, who talked about how “three dimensions…is what theater is,” and how she had to pivot during the pandemic, asking herself: “How do I create for the digital stage? And is that going to be creatively satisfying in any way?” On the other hand, she also argued for the need to eliminate “the tyranny of the proscenium” — to create “spaces” that serve the artists’ imagination rather than the needs of institutional theater.
There is no reason I can see why those spaces can’t include cyberspace