When I saw “Between Riverside and Crazy” on stage at Broadway’s Hayes Theater in December, I called it a “must-see” production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s 2015 Pulitzer Prize winning play, “as subtle in its craft as it is blunt in its language, and performed by a first-rate cast.”
Now through February 12th, the must-see show is easier to see, from around the country! Each performance is being “simulcast” – presented simultaneously live on stage and on screen, in a partnership between Second Stage Theater and a new non-profit tech company with the authoritative-sounding name, the League of Live Stream Theater (or, as they want us to call them, without meaning to be funny, Lolst.)
At the first livestreamed performance earlier this week (and presumably at every performance through February 12), Jim Augustine, co-founder of Lolst, introduced the show to those of us who were watching at home: “Every line that actors recite, every cue that technicians make, and every belly laugh that our audience is making are being beamed to you live right now and into thousands of schools, thousands of communal organizations, youth centers, hospitals, classrooms, and living rooms like yours. You’re about to experience the energy and excitement of live performance all without leaving the comfort of your home.”
It was indeed a thrill to watch “Between Riverside and Crazy” on my computer screen, not least because, like any great play, it rewards repeat viewing. But it was also exciting to be in on the latest development in the emerging field of digital theatergoing. Since Second Stage is so far the only Broadway producer to venture into livestreaming, it seems worth detailing the experience:
Captions top to bottom: Scene between Stephen McKinley Henderson and Common; Jim Augustine from Lolst, the message on our screen before the show (it’s a photograph here so not clickable); during intermission (notice that there are three minutes a six seconds left until the show resumes), a teaser of the talkback with the cast that was presented in full at the end of the performance; on my computer, the first scene of the play, between Stephen McKinley Henderson as Pops and Victor Almanzar as Oswaldo, with the optional live captions turned on.
- There was nothing that got in the way of my enjoyment of this stage play. The picture was clear, the audio was strong, there were no technical glitches.
Or, I should say, no glitches in the transmission: Twice, there were brief hiccups in the stream, but I blame this on my Internet connection.
That it went off without a hitch is not a given. I’ve witnessed several glitchy previous simulcasts, including the first-ever on Broadway, also via Second Stage, of Lynn Nottage’s “Clyde’s” a year ago. On the first night of the “Clyde’s” simulcast, the transmission simply didn’t work for the first ten minutes or so of the performance; we were invited back to try again on another day. At another simulcast, this one of an Off-Broadway production, the audio never worked. (I just read a post in a theater chat room of a theatergoer who paid for a matinee simulcast of “Riverside” but got an error message rather than the show, and was then unable to reach anybody to troubleshoot. That was not my experience.)
Remember, this is a new process. Although stage shows have been filmed for decades, this is a live transmission. That’s trickier than filming a stage show for later broadcast; in that case, editors have time to fix anything that went wrong (Often, such films are put together from recordings of multiple performances.)
- The use of several cameras, and a clearly competent editor, allowed for a seamless mix of longshots and closeups that were inobtrusive, and often enhanced the experience.
This was especially true with the closeups of Stephen McKinley Henderson as Walter “Pops” Washington, a Black ex-cop who is fighting both City Hall and his landlord. Pops is a complicated character who seems equal parts “lovable” (as he himself says), and cantankerous but in a winning way, until he’s revealed as something less than always admirable. The camera allows the at-home theatergoers to focus on Henderson’s facial expressions in a way that is not possible for every audience member at the Hayes.
On the other hand, there is a moment that drove home for me one of the advantages of in-person theater – that you get to decide what to focus on. It occurred immediately after the dinner Pops is having with his ex-partner Detective Audrey O’Connor (Elizabeth Canavan) and her fiancé Lieutenant Davie Caro (now portrayed by Gary Perez), when the bonhomie abruptly disappears. Eight years earlier, while off-duty at an after-hours club, Pops was shot six times by a white cop. The city offered him a settlement that he continues to refuse. It becomes clear that the two cops are on a mission to persuade the ex-cop to settle. It seems that Audrey was simply content for the dinner to be a happy occasion that would predispose Pops to relent at a later date, but Dave becomes confrontational. He threatens to arrest Pop’s son Junior (Common) and Junior’s girlfriend Lulu (Rosal Colon.)
“I was a highly decorated cop,” Pops replies indignantly.
“You weren’t,” Dave says. “I’m sorry. You weren’t a highly decorated cop. You were an okay cop….”
At this point, I wanted to see the reaction of Detective O’Connor, standing right next to Caro. Here her fiancé was going after Pops in a way that she clearly had not intended; is she annoyed at him? Is she swallowing her annoyance to present a united front? But I couldn’t see her at all; the camera was tightly focused just on Pops and Caro.
- The production did not provide captions; my hope is that theaters will start offering this option routinely. But live captions are currently available if you’re watching on a browser like Chrome. (Here are instructions on how to set up live caption in Chrome)
The option is not just a boon for accessibility. It’s blissful simultaneously to see and read Guirgis’ pithy New York dialogue. It also helps us better grasp just how deceptive, and self-deceptive, the characters are.
- The price of the simulcast, $68, is steep when compared to what even a first-run movie costs online (“The Fabelmans,” the Oscar-nominated movie by Steven Spielberg, costs $19.99 to buy, and is not available to rent.)
But it’s important to point out the difference: The actors in “The Fabelmans” performed once. Those in “Between Riverside” are performing live each time you watch it; they deserve to be paid for their labor.
That $68 is also actually one dollar less than the cheapest ticket to the show inside the Hayes theater, and 1. of course that’s for one seat rather than an entire household, 2. Those cheapest seats offer a more distant view of the stage than available on screen, and 3. Few such tickets are still available in the run, which ends February 19th.
Still, Second Stage, as one of the four theater owners on Broadway that are non-profit (along with Lincoln Center, MTC and Roundabout), is committed to making theater accessible to those who can’t afford current Broadway prices. It is offering such discounts as $39 rush tickets, and $25 student access tickets, for its in-person production.
Perhaps the economics of creating the livestream will eventually enable such discounts for the online version as well.
- It was great to hear the audience reaction (and to see them during intermission.)
Part of the pleasure of theatergoing is interacting with other members of the audience, even strangers. I recall several times when we spotted each other’s Playbills on the bus going home, and engaged in some serious conversations. It would make sense for Lolst et al to add a chatting function so that virtual patrons can discuss the show with each other, at least during intermission. Theater of War Productions now does this at every one of their digital productions – indeed, they remain largely virtual post pandemic shutdown precisely because of how much easier it is to spark audience discussion, which is that company’s raison d’être.
- I hope enough people are convinced that there is much benefit in continuing to explore the potential interplay between stage and screen. At the very least, perhaps the powers that be will finally see the wisdom in offering scenes from straight plays as well as musical numbers at the annual Tony Awards broadcast.