American Connected Theater Awards for Pandemic Year 2

Below are the winners of the American Connected Theater Awards* for theatrical storytelling created and presented online during the year between March 2021 and March 2022.

Much has happened since the inaugural award last year — most notably, of course,  that in-person theater returned starting in the last few months of 2021.

That makes some of the admirable digital theater this second time around a reflection of an ongoing commitment to redefining what theater can be. If last year’s winners were the rare innovators who stepped up to the moment, some of this year’s digital theater practitioners have been working to expand that moment. The initials of the award. ACT A, could be changed to ACT B.

Two years after New York’s Governor ordered Broadway and most everything else to shut down — and six months after New York theater started to reopen–  the pandemic is not over. COVID-19 is still killing people; to deny this is an act of delusion. The toll worldwide has reached six million.

 But there is hope, and some evidence, that it is winding down, at least in New York. The question we have already been asking: Will the innovations of digital theater — will digital theater itself — last past the pandemic?

In her recent book “Theater in Lockdown,” which attempts to chronicle what it calls “the fundamental transformation of theater during the pandemic,” author Barbara Fuchs strongly believes it will: “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.” 

You’ll notice that what I call digital theater, Fuchs calls virtual theater. Others prefer other labels:

 I’ve also heard webcast. And then there’s the name of this award — “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.

The lack of consensus of even what to call these works is one indication of how new and fluid the phenomenon, and uncertain what will happen in the future.

In the meantime, the winners this year (as last year) are listed very roughly in chronological order,  to the extent that that’s possible. Some of the theater companies are being honored for keeping on going with work they began before March, 2021.

Theater of War Productions

“Oedipus,” Theater of War Productions. Clockwise from top left: NYC Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, Oscar Isaac, David Strathairn, Frances McDormand

Since 2009, theater artist Bryan Doerries, well-versed in Ancient Greek, has been presenting readings of classic plays, primarily those by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, with increasingly starry casts, to stimulate discussion about current issues facing specific communities. His company, now called Theater of War Productions,  had its most high-profile success with “Antigone in Ferguson,” an adaptation of Sophocles’ 2,500-year-old tragedy, inspired by the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown in 2014 by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. The adaptation was first performed in Ferguson, then taken on the road – where I saw it in 2017 in a playground in the shadow of the Howard public housing projects in Brownsville, Brooklyn.

The point of their performances has always been to prompt the discussion afterward by invited guests and members of the general audience.

In May, 2020, Theater of War began presenting its projects live online, and Doerries  had a revelation: Zoom turned out to be a surprisingly useful platform to encourage such community engagement.

And so Theater of War has continued to use Zoom for its shows, usually open to the connected public anywhere in the country, while still performing for specific geographic and/or demographic audiences. For example, it presented a live virtual reading of Sophocles’ “Philoctetes” for frontline and essential personnel in Knox County, Ohio in April, 2021, and for the American College of Emergency Physicians in October, 2021, as a prompt to discuss caregiving and death. It gave a live virtual reading of Sophocles’ “Ajax,” for veterans and military families at Syracuse University in December 2021, and then again for the United States Pacific Fleet last week, as a prompt to discuss war and mental health.

The company has thus brought its theater onto a new, virtual stage, and integrated “talkbacks” more fully into the theatrical experience, making it more vigorous and relevant. But the company has also expanded the concept of theater by presenting works of poetry and even speeches theatrically, in such recent virtual readings as Martin Luther King Jr’s sermon The Drum Major Instinct (on MLK Day) and Walt Whitman’s The Wound Dresser, in February. 

Bard At The Gate

Paula Vogel, Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright, acclaimed teacher and beloved mentor, had a simple idea: to use the Internet to bring back plays that didn’t get the attention they deserved when they were first produced. She began this online series in June, 2020, and in September of that year offered “Bulrusher” by Eisa Davis, which I found eye-opening — so wonderfully performed and directed by first-rate theater artists that it seemed to transcend “Zoom production.” (it had an encore performance this year.) As in-person theater reopened in the Fall of 2021, Bard at the Gate doubled down, partnering with McCarter Theater Center for a second season that continues its commitment to present online productions of “powerful, overlooked plays by BIPOC, female, LGBTQIA+, and disabled artists.”  Currently streaming: Passing by Dipika Guha, directed by Nicole A Watson; Charles Francis Chan Jr.’s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery written by Lloyd Suh, directed by Ralph Pena; How to Raise a Freeman written by Zakiyyah Alexander, directed by Reginald L. Douglas; Sonnets for an Old Century written and directed by José Rivera

Roundabout’s Reverb Theater Arts Festival and Refocus Project

The festival presented 24 theater pieces online starting in April, 2021, all created by artists with disabilities, Some of the individual works were especially impressive, such as Magda Romanska’s “The Life and Times of Stephen Hawking,” a complex and eerily magnetic offering, 

About half the pieces, it should be said, had nothing to do with disability issues, and many didn’t even explicitly identify any performers or characters as disabled. In any case, the festival as a whole offered a model for using digital theater to deliver original works that are accessible both to theater makers and theatergoers. This is not just because the online medium makes it easier to provide such technical assistance as captioning and audio description, but also because it  encouraged and enabled Roundabout Theater Company in partnership with some half dozen other non-profits, to conduct a nationwide search, and to select theater makers with a wide range of disabilities, pairing them with an established “collaborating artist” such as Scott Ellis, Ali Stroker and Lauren Ridloff, and present their work with professional casts,  including such Broadway veterans as Nikki James, Crystal Dickinson and Gideon Glick.

Roundabout also launched The Refocus Project, which presented  on the theater’s website five new productions of little-known twentieth-century Black plays, along with extensive information about their playwrights. My favorite: “I Gotta Home,” a 1940 comedy by Shirley Graham Du Bois — W.E.B.’s wife. 

The Woman’s Party

Clubbed Thumb presented Rinne B. Groff’s play for free in three clever, stylishly designed half-hour installments online in April and May, 2021. “The Woman’s Party” dramatizes an odd, little-known moment in the history of the fight for women’s rights. In a single day in 1947, there was an internal rebellion that got physical against the leadership of the National Woman’s Party. The party had been founded in 1916, pushed for passage of the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote in 1920, and then three years later rushed for the Equal Rights Amendment. That’s right, the ERA was introduced  into Congress in 1927. (It still hasn’t become the law of the land, although the U.S. Senate approved it in the 1970s.) The theater took advantage of the medium to supply a “timeline of voting and civil rights in America” from 1788 to 2021, with links to biographies of women’s right pioneers from Sojourner Truth to Shirley Chisholm.

Shadow/Land, and audio theater

In Erika Dickerson-Despenza’s play, the first of a projected ten-play cycle about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, Ruth and her mother are stuck in Shadowland, the bar and hotel that has been in the family for years, while the storm rages.

Debuting on the Public Theater website in April 2021, and available until April 13, 2022, “Shadow/Land” is  an audio play, a 70-minute podcast. It is as much about sound as anything else  – the sounds of violent weather, and breaking glass, and panicked 911 calls;  water flooding, dogs growling, helicopters passing by overhead. But it’s mostly a soundscape of language.  The Public Theater offers an Open Caption video to accompany the audio of “Shadow/Land.” 

This is my favorite example this year of audio theater, which is making a comeback, although it’s no longer synonymous with radio drama. If my hearing were better, I’d be more excited about this aspect of digital theater, best-represented by the theater division of the Amazon-owned company Audible, which now doesn’t just record plays; it commissions them. There is a glimpse of what the future might hold for the theatrical arts in terms of what used to be called synergy, in the play I just reviewed, “Coal Country.” It was originally mounted on stage at the Public Theater but its run was cut short by the pandemic. Audible then recorded it and released it as an audiobook. Now it is co-producing the in-person staging of the play that I saw at the Cherry Lane, with much the same cast as at the Public and on the audiobook.

The Drama League Awards

 The Drama League was the only long-time theater institution to acknowledge the reality of theater during the pandemic in 2021, and give over its 87th annual award to honoring digital theater of 2020, with three of the five categories explicitly for digital theater, one for audio theater, and the fifth for “outstanding interactive or socially distanced theater.” While the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2021 was given to a play with an in-person production (one that the pandemic shut down some two weeks after it opened), one of the two Pulitzer finalist plays is a work of digital theater (although the creative team colorfully described it as “a homopessimist hybrid of yesterday’s live theater and today’s livestream (set in tomorrow’s news cycle.)” — again, no consensus as to terminology.) Given how casually other self-proclaimed keepers of the theatrical flame dismissed digital theater, The Drama League Awards deserve their own award (even if it’s only from me) for stepping up to the moment.

Arlekin Players: ChekhovOS and Witness

In “ChekhovOS” (the OS stands for operating system), The Arlekin Players Theater presented a clever adaptation of Chekhov’s play “The Cherry Orchard” as if a live, interactive virtual video game. Our host and guide Natasha Prozorov (a character from “Three Sisters” portrayed by Darya Denisova), ushered the audience members into an elegantly designed and persuasive game world via Zoom on our laptops, chatted live with randomly selected  members of the audience, and instructed us how to turn our smartphones into game controllers, to  navigate through a series of  choices, such as the fate of the characters. 

In truth our choices didn’t matter;  the characters lived out Chekhov’s plot no matter how we voted. But this didn’t make the production any less brilliant; just the opposite. It drove home how the characters are stuck with their inevitable fate, no matter what they (and we) desire – allowing us to enter into not just the production’s virtual world but the play’s worldview. (The cast didn’t hurt: both Jessica Hecht and Mikhail Baryshnikov.)

This play, which I saw in June, 2021, is just one of the dizzying experiments by the Massachusetts-based theater company led by the Ukraine-born, Russian speaking, Jewish director Igor Golyak.  In January, 2022, it presented another such interactive experiment, “Witness,” a “virtual documentary theater piece” about  Jewish immigration in the face of antisemitism that centered around the story of the MS St. Louis, which in 1939 set sail with some 900 Jewish refugees from Hamburg, Germany for the North America, but was denied entry.The ship was forced to return to Europe, and more than a quarter of the passengers were eventually murdered in the Holocaust. I happened to be watching the play on the night that a rabbi and several members of his congregation were being held hostage in a synagogue near Fort Worth, Texas. Arlekin inserted into “Witness” the live scene of the police stakeout outside the synagogue  — proof that this work of theater was live…and that theater can be relevant to the most urgent issues facing the world.

Running for My Life

On January 6, the first anniversary of the riot at the Capitol, a community theater called Contra Costa Civic Theater gave a Zoom reading of “Running for My Life,” a play that dramatizes the verbatim personal recollections of that day by  23 female members of the House of Representative who were there. Contra Costa Civic Theater is located about five miles north of Berkeley, California, which means, had they not presented this live online, I would not have seen it. I found the play riveting, but I include it on this list to represent and honor all those theaters across the country smart enough to see the continuing benefits of digital theater. 

Clyde’s, and “hybrid theater”

Second Stage Theater presented the last two weeks in the run of Lynn Nottage’s play “Clyde’s” both live in person at Broadway’s Hayes Theater and simultaneously live online to viewers at home.  Time will tell whether this first-ever Broadway  “simulcast” is trailblazing – which is to say, whether other Broadway shows will follow.  I hope they do.

In the meantime, theaters as diverse as Flushing Town Hall, Frigid, New York Theatre Workshop and Rattlestick Playwrights Theater have been presenting their shows both on stage and online — sometimes simultaneously, sometimes sequentially — in what’s being called hybrid theater. (more new terminology.) I don’t see what the downside of this could be (of course, I’m not their accountant.) One of the great things about hybrid theater is it’s now more difficult for the nay-sayers to keep saying that digital theater isn’t theater. If some hybrid theater is aimed at theatergoers who haven’t felt comfortable enough to return in person, I’m guessing this will be one pandemic-era innovation that will outlast the pandemic.

Addressless

Rattlestick is one of the Off-Broadway houses that has committed to hybrid theater this season. But its latest play was exclusively online. It involved gameplay, it offered scenarios and asked the audience to vote on what the character should do — in short, it tried to entertain theatergoers while helping us understand the challenges facing New Yorkers who are trying to find a place to live. They even avoid the words ‘homeless” and “homelessness” understanding how even the words have become a turnoff — turning the people without a place to live into an Other. “Addressless” turned a “them”back into an “us.” It’s on the ACT A list because it’s the latest play I’ve seen that demonstrates the flexibility, the effectiveness — the theatricality! … of digital theater. 

*ACT A represents my personal choices, not backed by any institution. It was born out of my frustration that no established theatrical organizations had any apparent interest in honoring the innovative new theater that was happening all around us during the pandemic. (This was months before the Drama League did step up; several of their choices, as it turned out, were the same as mine.)

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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