Digital theater is still here! 6 Innovators Who Persist. ACTA Year 3

On the third anniversary Sunday of the pandemic having shut down in-person theater, even people who welcomed digital theater in 2020 and 2021 surely now — some eighteen months after theaters reopened — view digital theater at best the way UK drama critic Lyn Gardner did recently: For a time, digital theater “opened up access and dismantled barriers. There were even some really exciting artistic possibilities explored. Then theatres reopened and it largely disappeared. The barriers were quietly raised again and exclusion continued.”

While it’s true many theaters abandoned their experiments, a wide range of new work hasn’t “disappeared” for those who keep an eye out for it.  That includes two major funders of the arts.

A scene from cutting-edge digital theater piece “Section 230” by Jared Mezzocchi on URHERE.

“While some of the new ways of working may have been born out of hardship, I’m heartened by the fact that new and first-time audience members have attended events virtually, and that available technology makes it possible to keep these audiences engaged,” Maria Rosario Jackson, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, said in her address to the 2023 convention of the Association of Performing Arts Professionals. “Many of the projects we’re seeing in grant applications are working to meet audiences where they live, and there’s evidence of thinking differently about the possible connection between virtual participation and live engagement.”  

Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Digital Accelerator Program, created during the pandemic in the summer of 2021, continues to fund theaters to help them develop their digital technology in several areas, including ticketing, customer relationship management and distribution – and also what it calls content creation. “Digital theater is not something new; the pandemic didn’t create it, but it created a need for many, many organizations to engage with their audiences that way,” Ethan Joseph from Bloomberg Philanthropies told me.  Post-pandemic, he says, “ I think digital is going to continue to have a place at the table. Both theater makers and theatergoers recognize this.”

On the first anniversary of the shutdown of New York theater in March, I honored 10 innovators with American Connected Theater Awards (ACTA) for Pandemic Year One.

The following March, I continued with 

American Connected Theater Awards (ACT A) for Pandemic Year Two.

Although the pandemic has not ended, most people would probably prefer that we not think of the current anniversary as Pandemic Year Three  (Even the federal government has announced its plan for the COVID-19 official Public Health Emergency to expire on May 11, 2023.) 

Yet the supposed return to normal is all the more reason to single out those who continue to innovate in digital theater, many of them expanding on their initial artistic explorations. even as most have resumed in-person theater as well.

Second Stage: Simulcasts on Broadway!

The most high profile innovator in digital theater of late is undeniably Second Stage, a non-profit theatre that for 44 years has championed work by living American playwrights. In 2015, it became the fourth non-profit theater to own a Broadway house, the Helen Hayes.  In January, 2022,  Second Stage presented the first-ever “simulcast” of a Broadway play. I watched the  same live performance on my computer screen that the audience was watching at the same time in person at the Hayes,  of “Clyde’s,” a play by Lynn Nottage about a sexy but heartless owner of a truck stop sandwich shop (portrayed by Uzo Aduba), and her four employees, all five characters formerly incarcerated

That first night wasn’t glitch-free.  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. But I found it thrilling to be witnessing the latest step the century-old interplay between stage and screen. And I wasn’t alone.

“It was incredibly successful,” says Chris McGinnis, general manager of Second Stage. “’Clyde’s’ was viewed in 49 states and Washington D.C. We did 14 simulcast performances, 11 of which sold out. Seventy-eight percent of the  simulcast audience were from outside New York City.”

The company was also able to present this play about formerly incarcerated characters to a currently incarcerated audience at the Rikers Island jail, which would not have been possible for them  to experience otherwise. 

Second Stage considered the simulcast so successful that they did it again this year. “Between Riverside and Crazy,” the Pulitzer Prize winning play by Stephen Adly Guirgis that opened at the Hayes in December, 2022,   was simulcast from January 31 to February 19, 2023.
This time they partnered with a new non-profit called the League of Live Stream Theaters, (or Lolst),  which hopes to make it much easier for non-profit theaters across the country to present their productions live online, covering the costs and sharing the profits. The success of “Clyde’s” inspired the launch of Lolst, which was founded by Jim Augustine and Oren Michels, both of whom worked on that first simulcast, Augustine as an executive at Zuckerberg Media and Michels as a board member of Second Stage. Guirgis’ play was Lolst’s debut streaming production

This time around, there were no technical problems, at least at the premiere that I “attended.” The picture was clearer, the audio was strong. This is no small thing. As McGinnis acknowledges, “a new type of media comes with its own set of challenges.”

But also its own set of benefits. Although the production itself did not provide captions (my hope is that theaters will start offering this option routinely)  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.

In both “Clyde’s” and “Between Riverside and Crazy,” I had seen the plays in person some weeks before I saw them online, and the differences between stage and screen were similarly intriguing, and instructive.

Seven cameras were employed throughout the theater to offer different perspectives of the stage, from longshots to close-ups.  This often enhanced the experience with “Between Riverside and Crazy,” .because it enabled the at-home theatergoers to focus more easily on the facial expressions of Stephen McKinley Henderson, who gave an extraordinary performance as Walter “Pops” Washington, a Black ex-cop who is fighting both City Hall and his landlord, a complicated character who is both lovable and cantankerous, and ultimately something less than unfailingly admirable. Some of the close-ups in “Clyde’s,” however, proved to be a distraction, such as the ones that allowed me to discern the unsavory details of the white supremacist tattoos on the one white character, which had been too far away to make out in person. 

There was also a moment during the simulcast of “Between Riverside and Crazy” 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 David Caro (portrayed by Gary Perez), when the bonhomie abruptly disappears, and David confronts Pops to get him to settle his lawsuit against the city. Audrey had just made it clear that she wanted the dinner to end on a friendly note, and I was curious what her reaction was to David’s attack; 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 David. 

It’s just such moments, I suspect, that help explain some of the resistance among some members of the theater community to digital theatre – to even considering it theater. 

Tacitly acknowledging the fear that digital theatre seems to inspire, McGinnis sounds as if he’s trying to be reassuring: “Live theater is very much alive. It’s not going anywhere. But we are interested in how we pivot into this new media to keep it growing.”

Nobody else on Broadway has undertaken such an ambitious experiment in live hybrid theatre.  

As a non-profit theater, Second Stage defines success in different terms than their neighbors in the commercial theater, who look more at the bottom line. “Our mission is to showcase the work of living American playwrights,” McGinnis says; reaching a wider audience for those playwrights helps fulfill their mission. At the same time, “we’re not going to do this in a financially irresponsible way.” 

While Second Stage is the most visible theater to launch into simulcasting it is not alone. This Presidents Day Weekend there were more than twenty simulcast shows to choose from, mostly from the Frigid Fringe Festival, but also 54 Below and Red Bull Theater.

Bard At The Gate: Yes, Zoom Plays and Proud of It!

Shortly after the Governor of New York shut down Broadway theaters on March 12, 2020, thus canceling the Broadway production of Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize winning play “How I Learned to Drive,” and sending her back home, the playwright came up with the idea for Bard At The Gate, a reading series online that would give a second chance to plays that had never gotten their due. The first play she produced was “Kernel of Sanity,” about racism in American theater, making its debut forty-two years after Kermit Frazier wrote it. Bard at the Gate is now in its third season, with four plays written by women of color: Shapeshifter by Laura Schellhardt which premiered in October, Tent Revival by Majkin Holmquist in January, Cut by
Nikki Massoud scheduled to debut March 27, and Wings of Night/Wings of Morning
Light by United States Poet Laureate Joy Harjo on April 19 — all on Broadway on Demand, via Zoom. Vogel (whose play finally did make it to Broadway) has kept at Bard at the Gate, which she plans to keep going forever. She has great hopes for the potential of digital theater, but no plans to switch from Zoom. “It’s not just four heads in boxes any longer,” she told me for an article on Bard at the Gate for HowlRound. “The visuals are increasingly more sophisticated.”

HERE Arts Center: URHERE digital hub

When the pandemic began, Jared Mezzocchi saw himself as a theater artist working with cinematic tools. He has expanded beyond designing for Internet productions (such as “Russian Troll Farm,” all those Zoom plays at Paula Vogel’s “Bard at the Gate”) to directing and performing on the Internet —  and writing a play for the Internet, explaining the complicated history of the Internet. “Section 230” gets its title from the much-discussed section of the United States Communications Decency Act, which since 1996 has protected Internet companies from being sued because of posts on their sites by third parties. The play, which was presented live, was informative, but very far from a dry documentary. Young actors playfully interacted live with audience members. The show used silly face filters from Snapchat, quick-hit vintage videos, the aesthetics of everything from video games to Tik Tok.

“Section 230” was commissioned by, and the inaugural offering in November, 2022 of a new project of HERE Arts Center, entitled URHERE, which HERE describes as a “one-of-a-kind, rigorously curated virtual platform for outdoor and digital premieres.”  Like so many other new and continuing digital theater projects, it had its origins in the company’s panic at the onset of the pandemic shutdown. “It was: ‘Oh no, we’re closed, We have no way to stay connected to our audiences and our artists,’” recalls Amanda Szeglowski, associate artistic director of HERE. “We didn’t have digital programming as part of our identity.” They scrambled to put something, anything, up: Facebook watch parties of archival works they had recorded just for ourselves, Zoom panels, a “sound walk” in Greenwood Cemetery using an audio app Gesso; works in progress during the lunch hour; calls on social media for the community to send in videos on specific themes. “Everyone was at that time just so depressed and humbled and longing for connection that we were excited to be all over the place using existing technologies. We didn’t have structure in place with personnel or technology or equipment.”

The following year, upon the creation of the Digital Accelerator Program, Bloomberg Philanthropies asked HERE to apply for a grant.  “Our idea to Bloomberg was that what  we would love to do is to continue producing virtual work and outdoor experiences, but through a hub, so we’re not reinventing the wheel each time.”

Bloomberg gave them a two-year grant for $200,000.  The URHERE portal offers a series of dots to click on and bring you to productions in four categories – Outdoor, Archive, Digital Native, Premieres.  They see these collectively as their third venue, the other two being in their brick-and-mortar building on Dominick Street in Lower Manhattan. They are raising funds to continue it past their grant.

Will digital theater innovation continue past the pandemic? Szeglowski believes it will. “There will be more theaters popping up with platforms like our when they get their feet back on the ground and have the bandwidth to start looking ahead again,” she told me. “It’s a great frontier. I personally believe that theaters such as ours will include a digital component from here on. It’s the future. The world has changed. I think people will be watching from their couch.

“What we do is something that can be experienced in a theater or at home. As long as you’re experiencing it, we’re happy.”

Theater of War Productions: In a Football Stadium AND Ukraine

 Since 2009, Theater of War 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. In May, 2020, Theater of War began presenting its projects live online, and founder Bryan Doerries  had a revelation: Zoom turned out to be a surprisingly useful platform to encourage such community engagement. So it’s kept at it. 

In October, 2022, it returned to in-person theater in a big way, presenting “The Suppliants Project: Ukraine” by Aeschylus at the  football stadium of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. But this was its first foray into hybrid theater, because they simultaneously streamed the play around world, and afterward streamed comments from theatergoers from around the world, including Ukraine, via Zoom.

Arlekin Players: From Gameplay Chekhov to Hybrid Ukraine

The Arlekin Players Theater during the shutdown in 2021 produced  “ChekhovOS”  a clever adaptation of Chekhov’s play “The Cherry Orchard” as if a live, interactive virtual video game. Last year it presented “Witness,” a “virtual documentary theater piece” about  Jewish immigration in the face of antisemitism that centered around the true story of the MS St. Louis, a ship full of Jewish refugees that in 1939 was refused entry into North America. Earlier this week, they produced an in-person staged reading at Lincoln Center of “Just Tell No One,” with material by a number of Ukrainian playwrights, and a starring cast including Jessica Hecht, Bill Irwin, and David Krumholtz – but in keeping with the company’s mission, the show was also livestreamed, and is now presenting the livestream for free on YouTube.

Rattlestick  Playwrights Theater

simulcasting at Rattlestick

When theaters were shut down starting March, 2020, Rattlestick was a week away from opening a play called The Sibling. Rather than scrapping it, they used a video they had shot just for their archives and presented it online – the first of a stream of archival footage, staged readings and panel discussions they presented online for the next year and a half. In August, 2021, Rattlestick was one of the earliest to return in-person, presenting Arturo Luis Soria’s Ni Mi Madre  on stage in the second floor theater it rents from from St. John’s in the Village, But it also presented the show online, an early example of hybrid theater. By January, 2022, when most theaters had settled back into in-person, Rattlestick produced “Addressless,” a completely online experience, involving gameplay, in which  it tried to entertain theatergoers while helping us understand the challenges facing New Yorkers who are trying to find a place to live. A few months ago, the theater did a simulcast of a new play called “The Gett.”

I attended the theater during this simulcast production, literally seeing the two versions simultaneously; I sat in the back with the technical director watching the screen, while also able from my vantage point to peak at the stage.  Two things were most striking about the experience. One is how much could go wrong; not long into the play, it became clear that the audio was not reaching the audience members viewing the show on their computers at home. As with Second Stage a year ago, the theater promised them tickets for a future performance. The second was a trick of perception.   The stage was tiny, barely enough space for the actors, yet the stage looked much more spacious on the small screen. The technical director told me this is common. We are trained through a lifetime of watching movie sets on screens to “see” a whole world when given just a small sample.

This odd effect of tiny appearing huge feels like a metaphor for the company’s digital involvement. “It’s really a lot of work, a huge amount of labor, even for a small audience,”  the managing director Yue Liu  told me. 

And Rattlestick is a relatively small company, reportedly with just five current full-time staff and an annual budget of about $1.5 million (less than ten percent of Second Stage’s reported annual budget.). At the time that I saw the production, they couldn’t afford to outsource to a platform like Stellar (this was before Lolst), so they hired their own technical director, a theater lover who gave them a deal because his video services company has become flush with all the corporations that continue to hire him to do video conferences, even though they could now meet in person.

Recently, the theater announced a new artistic director, Will Davis (His predecessor is leaving the field to become a nurse.) The future of digital theater is uncertain for this little company that could. But that’s more or less true for any company that has persisted.

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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