Amidst the Pandemic, Top-Tier Theater Companies Are Taking Shows Online


With traditional stages dark and digital curtains rising, theater companies are proving that they’re as inventive as ever.

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In the early weeks of lockdown, pining theatergoers across the globe were happy to make do with whatever endearingly lo-fi offerings performers were able to muster: Patrick Stewart reading Shakespeare’s sonnets in casual wear on Instagram, say, or the New York–based Irish Repertory Theatre’s short-form The Show Must Go Online series, which, among other performances, had the actress-singer Melissa Errico singing “Look to the Rainbow” a cappella, with her dog in her lap.

But with the coronavirus pandemic stretching out for months, rather than weeks, the theater world recognized that it had to step up its streaming game. The Public Theater in New York was quick to make a dramatic virtue of quarantine, with the playwright Richard Nelson customizing What Do We Need to Talk About?—the fifth in his series of plays about the fictitious Apple family— as a Zoom meeting between the family’s members. Similarly, Darren Murphy’s 24-minute playlet, The Gifts You Gave to the Dark, which premiered on Irish Rep’s YouTube channel on May 27, is a moving three-character piece performed entirely on FaceTime: Tom, a young man in Belfast afflicted with COVID-19, awkwardly tries to comfort his dying mother in Dublin—and his own frazzled self—while his uncle facilitates the call. (The show will be available through October 31.)

Dan Butler performing from home in front of a green screen. COURTESY IRISH REP

Ciarán O’Reilly, who serves as the producing director of Irish Rep, recognizes that the public’s tolerance of homemade theater can last only so long. This summer, he revived his acclaimed 2013 production of Conor McPherson’s The Weir with most of that production’s original cast. The twist: “Our five actors are in five different states,” he says, “so we’ve gone the route of the green screen.” The equipment, which was mailed to the actors by the Rep, allowed the set designer, Charlie Corcoran, to use 3D technology to situate the characters convincingly in the same small-town pub.

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In Los Angeles, the Geffen Playhouse has taken to mailing items to its customers. Everyone who secures a ticket to The Present receives, a few days in advance of the performance, a book-sized “mystery package” wrapped in twine. Audience members are not to open it until they are instructed to do so, via Zoom, by The Present’s star, the Portuguese illusionist Helder Guimarães, a sleight-of-hand trickster whose show Invisible Tango was a hit at the Playhouse last year. The new show’s title refers both to the boxes that the audience members receive in the mail and this bizarre moment that we currently find ourselves living in. The show opened in early May and has been selling out ever since. (It will run through October 10.)

Only 25 viewing groups are admitted to The Present at a time. The show is a peculiar but winning hybrid: partly a Spalding Gray–like spoken-word monologue by Guimarães, who recounts his prior experience with quarantine as a child, when he was confined to his home for one month after being struck by a car and left unconscious, and partly an interactive magic show, mostly involving card tricks, that produces audible whoops of “How is that possible?” laughter from the Zoomers, who are not muted. “As every show goes on,” Guimarães says, “I totally forget that I am alone”—an act of magic itself, and one that The Present mines for a life-affirming conclusion.

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For years, La Jolla Playhouse has run a program called Without Walls, or WOW, predicated upon immersive, site-specific experiences away from the Playhouse’s three-theater campus. This year’s elegant adaptation to these times has been billed as Digital WOW, and this fall they will reprise several shows that have run as part of this summer’s program. Among these are Brian Lobel’s Binge, in which Lobel and his compadres offer audience members one-to-one counseling via Zoom about which TV shows best suit each viewer’s personal pandemic-era needs. The scenic and costume designer David Israel Reynoso is offering Portaleza, whose title is a portmanteau of portal and fortaleza, the Spanish word for “fortress.” As with The Present, each participant receives a mysterious package in the mail that is to be opened under the guidance of the show’s “opticians.” Says Reynoso, “The humble contents of this parcel hold the key to unlocking a reality beyond the realm of imagination.”

London’s venerable Old Vic theater is going a more straightforward route, streaming live nightly performances from its stage by costumed actors—albeit actors abiding by social-distancing protocols. The Old Vic’s In Camera series lets in a thousand paying viewers a night. Its first offerings this summer were Lungs, a new play by Duncan Macmillan starring Claire Foy and Matt Smith, and Three Kings, another world premiere, written by Stephen Beresford and starring Andrew Scott, best known as the “hot priest” in Fleabag. Further In Camera productions will feature live, rehearsed play readings.

Portuguese illusionist Helder Guimarães performs his one-man show The Present on Zoom. COURTESY GEFFEN PLAYHOUSE

With Broadway reconciled to the reality that it will be January at the earliest before live performances in front of packed houses are possible, the theater world is learning to be nimble. “There is something inspiring about trying to make art within these circumstances,” says the Irish Rep’s O’Reilly, who found the green-screen process not only persuasive but “fascinating.” He and Charlotte Moore, the theater’s artistic director, are keen to try other workarounds. “Maybe we’ll be streaming but allowing 20 or 30 people into the theater, maybe up in the balcony, just to give the actors that communal feeling,” he says.

O’Reilly was on the cusp of opening a new production of Eugene O’Neill’s A Touch of the Poet when the lock-down began. “We might get that back up again,” he says. “Only we’ll have to rename it The No-Contact of the Poet.”

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