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2021 Preview: A Wish List for Theater, Virtual and Live

The cast of the Public Theater streamed production of What Do We Need to Talk About? Image courtesy Public Theater.

There’s no need to say how devastating 2020 has been for live theater and all forms of live entertainment. Millions of careers, lives and families have been turned upside down by the pandemic and it’s doubtful that the disappearance of Covid-19 will rejuvenate the arts to a pre-2020 condition. We don’t know how long this interim period will last, as we move through the process of getting people vaccinated so we can return to in-person events (and dining).

We have some ideas for the coming year that we’d like to see explored by theater presenters and venues. Most are interim steps, as we progress through the vaccine process to whatever becomes the new normal for the performing arts. Some are ideas that could be effective in that new era of live theater, probably in 2022.

Virtual theater

I’d like to see continued exploration with ways of producing virtual theater. I’ve written a couple of times (here and here) about important uses of virtual theater in 2020 and what I see as the continuing value of virtual theater. We’ve seen excellent Zoom productions with actors in separate Zoom boxes. Sometimes it’s an effective production using a simple Zoom screen, as in Kane Repertory’s New Play Lab series and the Public Theater’s Apple Family plays. Sometimes video editing overcomes Zoom geometry to make it seem the performers are in the same physical space, as in ‘night Mother by Invictus Theatre and some of the Irish Repertory Theatre productions. Experimentation is always interesting to see too, as in Arlekin Players Theatre’s production of State vs. Natasha Banina or Trap Door Theatre’s current Decomposed Theatre production (which we hope to review soon).

Virtual theater allows presenters to explore new material and provide experience to emerging artists in an inexpensive way. It also vastly improves accessibility to theater for people who are physically unable to sit in a theater seat or who have vision or hearing problems. Let’s hope Theater on My Sofa is not going away and that theater companies will continue to explore new techniques in virtual production.

Screenshot from Kane Rep’s Such Small Hands, featuring Francis Guinan and Rondi Reed.

More staged readings. Readings are a subset of virtual theater. Staged readings or virtual readings of new material let the audience have exposure to new creative material and new artists. Presenters can also get input on in-process material from audience members and critics.

Revenue from virtual theater. Many 2020 virtual productions were free or pay-what-you-can plus donations. Audience members need to be willing to pay a fair ticket price for these viewing opportunities to keep theater companies from ceasing operations. Would a ticket price of $20 or $25, for example, achieve this? Can theater companies sell merchandise or activate an online tip jar to help this effort? Those all are modest income generators; what’s really needed is for deep-pocket donors to make four- and five-figure contributions.

Audience data. As part of one of our virtual theater articles, we asked companies about their experiences with virtual presenting. One thing we learned is that companies really don’t know what audience members think about virtual theater, what kinds of new opportunities they would like to be able to access, what they’re willing to pay for tickets, etc. We recommend that one of the large arts-oriented organizations (League of Chicago Theatres or the Theatre Communications Group?) commission a broad-scale survey by a professional research firm to fill this information gap.

Live theater vs. film

Is It a Movie or Is It TV? And Does Aonyone Really Care? Vulture.com asked last week and their two TV critics and two film critics debated it. The argument is related to the Is-It-Theater-Or-Is-It-Film debate that has been going on between theater and film/TV unions. Both are about structure, platform, production values and prestige, as TV critic Jen Chaney argues. But in that movie-TV argument, “… much of it stems from this long-held notion that film is the superior, true art form and television is for garbage people who do not understand cinema.” The movie vs. TV argument has some relation to the pandemic since so much that used to be delineated by its appearance on big theater screens is now being streamed on phones, tablets, laptops and smart TVs.

Clarifying definitions of theater vs. film. The film vs. theater question is important because of territorial claims by Actors Equity Association, the union of theater actors and stage managers, and SAG/AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild—American Federation of Television and Radio Artists). Recently the two unions came to an agreement on the coverage of live theater “that is recorded or streamed for exhibition for a remote audience.” (This affects large and medium-sized theaters but some small theaters and their performers are not subject to Equity requirements.)

The agreement, which is effective through 2021, spells out the film-vs.-theater distinction, American Theatre magazine reports. Equity will cover theater work that is recorded or produced for a digital platform, both productions recorded for online viewing, replacing what should have been a live season production, as well as online streams of performances captured in front of reduced-capacity live audiences. The work covered by Equity can include live readings, staged readings, live theater, and “other performances in the general nature of theatre.” Also “productions covered by Equity cannot be ‘substantially edited,’ include visual effects ‘or other elements that could not be replicated in a live manner,’ or be shot out of sequence.” The point is that work that feels more like a television show or movie should be covered by SAG-AFTRA.

The agreement clarifies the distinction but it will make life difficult for theater companies that want to explore new forms of virtual production “that could not be replicated in a live manner.”

Alas by Trap Door Theatre featured Malcolm McCarthy Herrera, Keith Surney and Ann Sonneville. Image courtesy Trap Door Theatre.

Changes in live theater

Collaboration in live theater. Our largest theaters are losing revenue, cutting programming and laying off staff. Small and medium-sized companies are teetering on the edge of financial insecurity. Collaboration may be one approach to staving off collapse for all types of companies.

As an interim step in the return to live theater, I’d like to see two or three small companies collaborate in new productions to be presented in our very large spaces, such as school or college auditoriums or churches. This would enable physical distancing but still allow audiences of 100 or more, depending on the size of the space. Large theaters like Steppenwolf and Goodman, which now rent their studio theaters to smaller companies, could support this process with help from creative crew as well as space use.

Staged readings, which I suggested above for virtual productions, also can be presented live in large spaces that have minimal stage and backstage space, thus making them inappropriate for full-scale productions, but enabling staged readings with larger audiences and ticket sales.

More adventurous creative development. Last year’s racial justice protests made clear that the civil rights reforms of 50 years ago crashed and burned in decades of discrimination, denial of voter rights, police brutality and police murders of Black men. The protests also revealed the relatively puny efforts by theater companies to reflect these decades of discrimination and seek out challenging new work by BIPOC playwrights and add BIPOC performers and creative crew to their casts and staffs.

Some large theaters are making efforts in this direction now. But we need more attention to showcasing and producing scripts by BIPOC playwrights and musical directors. Casting directors also must ramp up their efforts at inclusion. There will always be room for classic theater productions but those too can be designed and produced to take advantage of the diverse universe of performers and creatives available.

Online banner for London production, January 2020.

My personal wish list for live theater

Real theater. Some of my favorite theater evenings have been watching a live, vivid, sweaty play in a tiny theater with 40 or 50 other people. I miss you dreadfully, Gift, A Red Orchid, Steep, Trap Door, Raven, City Lit, House, Gift, Griffin, Boho and many more. I hope that by a year from now, we’ll be back in those seats again.

A Stoppard production. Tom Stoppard’s newest play, Leopoldstadt, was produced in London in January 2020 and has not been seen on stage since. (It’s now scheduled for a 12-week London run in the same West End theater in June.) As I wrote in my essay on Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia recently, Leopoldstadt focuses on the emotional and intellectual lives of a wealthy Jewish family in Vienna who go through wrenching political change in the first half of the 20th century. I read the script when it was published last summer and found it powerful and moving. I desperately want to see a production in Chicago or New York, and I hope it happens in late 2021 or 2022.

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