By Justin Sanders
A shining semblance of normalcy appears to be returning after many, many months of darkness. In the theater world, that darkness has been literal, with companies shuttered and in-person productions at a veritable standstill. But the show must go on, and the brilliantly creative theater community found ways to adapt – as brilliant creatives are wont to do.
It will still be a bit before theaters are reopened to the public – Broadway, the community’s lodestar, isn’t bringing live audiences back until September. But just knowing that time is coming feels fantastic! And of course, there is – and has been – plenty of theater being offered in the meantime, much of it delivered in startlingly innovative ways. Some of these productions have been so inventive, in fact, they may change how theater is consumed in general. Live, in-person productions aren’t going anywhere, but one silver lining to the pandemic is that it has forced theater companies to find different ways of reaching their audiences – some of which are likely to stick around in our increasingly connected digital age.
What follows are eight examples of how they are doing it.
Shakespeare’s plays have received every kind of interpretation under the sun, but the Royal Shakespeare Company’s brief online run of Dream in March might have been the first to be influenced by both Fortnite and the famously interactive Black Mirror episode “Bandersnatch.” Inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the 50-minute live experience turned ticketholders into digital fireflies and ushered them via their device of choice to a virtual forest with Puck as their guide. Traveling hither and thither, Puck led his online audience through encounters with Shakespeare’s other famous Midsummer fairies, including Moth, Peaseblossom, and Cobweb – each of them captured with the same elegant motion capture technology utilized by productions like The Mandalorian. Along the way, attendees could alter the events in front of them by clicking and dragging other fireflies around the landscape. Each performance of Dream was a singular experience, compelling The New York Times to describe the event as a “bounding leap forward for theater technology.”
A theatrical adaption of Jose Saramago’s transcendent novel, Blindness – in which a bizarre epidemic of blindness infects society – might be the perfect project to guide us out of the darkness of the past year and change. At the very least, this thrillingly executed immersive audio play is a spellbinding experience. In a stark room with socially distanced seats splayed like a game of musical chairs, audience members put on a pair of sanitized headphones and just sit back and listen as a lone actor’s voice fills their eardrums with the tale of a society in upheaval. Along the way, an evocative light design responds, as different tones and shades create rich textures within the space – sometimes even (as the title suggests) plunging viewers into total darkness. New Yorkers can still make Blindness the show that marks their return to the theater. As of now, it’s running through September.
Billed as “the world’s first opera in hyper-reality,” Current, Rising is an interactive experience from Royal Opera House that places the spectator in a dreamy virtual world of Escher-like projections and ambient soundscapes. Attendees put on VR headsets and, in groups of four, set forth on a dizzying journey of interlocking realms, accompanied by the strings of a seven-piece orchestral ensemble and the hauntingly beautiful vocals of acclaimed Baroque and contemporary music soprano Anna Dennis. The entire performance lasts about 15 minutes, but the layers of multi-sensory ephemera are dense and moving enough to last a lifetime – or at least until the next hyper-realistic opera comes along. As Current, Rising director Netia Jones told The Guardian, “This isn’t the future of opera… but it could be one of its futures.”
Theater does not get more intimate than The Nest, an experiential masterclass in immersive storytelling that plunges you and just one other person into a layered unraveling of a deceased woman’s life, one object at a time. The stars of this interactive exploration, which takes place inside the storage unit of the late protagonist, are not live actors but cassette tapes, strewn about the unit for you to uncover and listen to using a charmingly vintage portable tape deck. A mysterious and often heartbreaking tale unfolds of an ambitious woman whose disappointments caused her to lash out in startling ways. Each new chapter of her journey presents an opportunity to explore the room further, sending you down increasingly fascinating rabbit holes of long-buried secrets and a wealth of personal details. The cumulative result of so many richly realized details is “surreal, heartbreaking and beautiful,” wrote KCRW Radio. “It is art you can walk through.”
The 24 Hour Plays, where a surprise group of celebrities unite periodically to create, rehearse, and perform a new theatrical work in the span of 24 hours, have always been a bit unhinged in a good way. But the pandemic seems to have sent them fully off the rails – in a different but still very good way. Forced to adapt to our new, remote-performance reality, the project’s organizers acted quickly in the face of the virus, marshalling big-name playwrights such as David Lindsay-Abaire, Jesse Eisenberg, and Stephen Adly Guirgis to write 20 original monologues overnight, for transmission over the 24 Hour Plays Instagram account. Name actors such as Rachel Dratch, Hugh Dancy, and Patrick Wilson signed on to perform the pieces and, on March 17, 2020, Viral Monologues was born. That lone event became a flash point in theater-darkened times, sparking a digital series that, as of this writing, boasts 28 installments and more than 400 monologues performed by stars of stage and screen. Viral Monologues has become a buffet of bite-sized live performances, just enough to satiate fans until in-person theater is up and running again. Perhaps more importantly, “In their immediacy and profusion,” wrote The New York Times, “they tell a cumulative, often comical story of the pandemic, and of theater artists living through it.”
One of the silver linings of the Zoom era is that the technology allows for more than just the sharing of conversation with distant loved ones – it allows for actually doing things together, even if not in the same room, or even the same country. Co-produced by DC theatrical powerhouses PlayCo and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, the debut run of This Is Who I Am capitalized on this feature of the pandemic with which we all became intimately familiar, dramatizing a Zoom call between a Palestinian father and his son as they connect from thousands of miles away over trying to cook a traditional dish called fatayer in their respective kitchens. Focused on recreating the recipe the way their late wife/mother did, the two men virtually tussle over long-buried cultural and familial rifts as they chop vegetables, mix dough, and prepare their savory little pastries for baking while we watch. The almost voyeuristic intimacy of the format allowed for a startling level of emotional connection between audiences and the actors, meaning this powerful little drama may well continue in fully digital productions long after theaters open up again.
Ever wonder about the daily lives of the people charged with fabricating conspiracies, sowing dissent and division, and otherwise undermining American democracy through the power of the internet? So did playwright Sarah Gancher, whose morbidly funny Russian Troll Farm imagines the people who made Pizzagate a life-threatening cultural touchpoint as a team of Dunder Mifflin-types bantering, flirting, scheming, and celebrating from their florescent-lit office in St. Petersburg. It was also an impressive technical achievement, finding exciting new ways to make live theater compelling in the digital space, defining its characters through not just their deeply troubling actions (and justifications for them) but through clever application of visuals such as virtual backdrops, filters, and emojis. Premiering just in time for one of the ugliest, most contentious elections in American history, Russian Troll Farm’s buzz sounded all the way up to The New York Times, who called it “one of the first new full-length plays… since theater moved online that is rewarding as a text, makes the most of excellent actors and approaches full engagement with the new, hybrid form.”
As the long shadows of the pandemic’s darkest days crept across the land in spring of 2020, joy was in short supply. Fortunately, Mary Neely was here to scratch the itch in all of us for something, anything that was overtly, unpretentiously, achingly theatrical. “Since I’m single in the quarantine I’ve decided to reenact moments from my favorite musicals so it feels like I’m in love,” tweeted the actor, “first is LES MISÉRABLES.” Her live performances have run their course but live on in its glorious eminence on Neely’s Twitter account: a series of short videos spanning about a month in which she lip-syncs, with uncanny accuracy and startling power, songs from classic musicals. Overflowing with humor, ingenuity, and unabashed nerdiness (for the best theater is unabashedly nerdy theater), it all culminates in a multipart re-enactment of Beauty and the Beast in which Neely plays all the roles. Neely may not have had love in her life at the time of recording, but she had passion aplenty, and her exuberant little snippets are sure to bring a smile to the face of anyone who has ever, say, belted out a Rent number while doing the dishes (guilty as charged).
We end our round-up with Neely to show that, with all the bells and whistles the Zoom era offers to spruce up socially distanced theater, it’s still the most fundamental aspects of the form that have the power to hit us hardest. A great performer rocking some great material is all that has ever been needed to take theater to the next level – which is why, in the end, there really is nothing quite like experiencing it in person and feeling that electric connection with an audience.
We can’t wait for live theater to come back to the stages. In the meantime, we will just keep on providing more recommendations in the coming weeks to keep you motivated on the slow but steady journey out of this mess.
Until next time, find some creativity wherever you can, stay safe, and be well. #StandCreative