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Tony Award-winner Jefferson Mays performs during a one-man A Christmas Carol Live that is being filmed for streaming this month at the empty 3,000-seat United Palace on Broadway. The one-man show is an example of how many who work in theatre are increasingly defying Covid-19. Photo: Courtesy of A Christmas Carol Live/AP

Socially distanced, remote, or filmed for streaming, live theatre finds ways to carry on in defiance of coronavirus shutdown

  • Live theatre will be one of the last things to return to normal. In the meantime, actors, playwrights and drama troupes are improvising and innovating
  • From a single actor performing multiple roles for streaming, to a socially distanced outdoor production, to a play written for Zoom, creators are creating

There’s theatre on Broadway. You just have to adjust your sights.

More than a hundred blocks north of Manhattan’s shuttered theatre district but on that same famed thoroughfare, an actor recently read his lines from a huge stage.

But there was no applause. Instead, all that was heard was a strange command for the theatre: “And cut!”

Tony Award winner Jefferson Mays was performing multiple roles for a hi-tech A Christmas Carol that was being filmed for streaming this month at the empty 3,000-seat United Palace.

Artists anxious for pandemic measures to ease, so the show can go on

The one-man show is an example of how many who work in theatre are defying Covid-19 by refusing to let it stop their art, and often creating new hybrid forms.

“Because it’s such a roll-up-your-sleeves business, theatre people figure it out,” said Tony Award-winning producer Hunter Arnold, while watching Mays onstage. “Of everything I’ve ever done in my life, it’s the place where people lead from ‘how?’ instead of leading from ‘why not?’”

I would watch people, shoulders shaking as the show started, because they were weeping
Kate Maguire, Berkshire Theatre Group, on audience reaction to her troupe’s socially distanced outdoor production of Godspell

The coronavirus pandemic shut down theatre and the television and film industries in the United States in spring. Film and TV production have slowly resumed. Live theatre is uniquely tested by the virus, one reason it will be among the last sectors to return to normal. Props and costumes are usually touched by dozens each night, an orchestra is crammed into a pit, backstage areas are small and shared, and audiences are usually packed into seats. New ways are needed.

Mays’ A Christmas Carol, which was filmed on a hi-tech LED set, veers much more filmic than most other streaming theatre options and is raising money for suffering US regional theatres – one stage production helping others during the pandemic.

Other green shoots include radio plays, virtual readings, online variety shows and drive-in experiences that combine live singing with movies. The cast of the musical Diana reunited on Broadway to film the show for Netflix before it opens on Broadway.

The San Francisco Playhouse recently offered screenings of Yasmina Reza’s play Art, an onstage production captured live by multiple cameras, with a crucial wrestling scene reimagined to keep social distancing. A musical version of the animated film Ratatouille is being explored on TikTok.

“We will conquer it. We are theatre people. By God, we will conquer it and get it done,” says Charlotte Moore, the artistic director and co-founder of the acclaimed Irish Repertory Theatre in New York.

Melissa Errico during a performance of Meet Me in St. Louis by the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York, streamed with a dozen cast members, each filmed remotely and then digitally stitched together. Photo: Muireann Lalor/The Irish Repertory Theatre/AP

Her company has put on a free streaming holiday production of Meet Me in St. Louis with a dozen cast members, each filmed remotely and then digitally stitched together. Moore directed it – appropriately enough – from St. Louis. Other theatre pros are calling to ask how she did it.

The cast was mailed or hand-delivered props, costumes and a green screen. They rehearsed via Zoom and FaceTime. A masked and socially distant orchestra recorded the score, and the sets were beamed onto the actors’ screens.

“You learn minute by minute by minute along the way what works, what doesn’t, what to do, what not to do,” said Moore, who starred in the original Broadway run of Meet Me in St. Louis in 1989. “It’s torture and it’s thrilling – thrilling torture.”

Like many other theatrical hybrids venturing into the digital world these days, it’s not clear what to call it. It’s not technically live theatre, but its soul is theatrical.

“It’s not definable in our current vocabulary,” Moore said. “It has to have a new definition, truly, because it’s certainly unlike anything that has been done.”

It’s been exciting and heartwarming to see different ways theatre has reinvented itself during this time
Natalie Margolin, playwright

One of the companies to show the way forward was Berkshire Theatre Group in western Massachusetts, whose Godspell in August became the first outdoor musical with union actors since the pandemic shut down productions.

Artistic director and chief executive Kate Maguire refused to entertain the notion that the company – established in 1928 – would have an asterisk beside 2020 that said no shows were produced that year.

“We’re theatre makers, we’re creators”, she said. “We should be able to figure out how to create something.”

So they used Plexiglas partitions between each masked actor. The performers were tested regularly – at a cost of close to US$50,000 – and had their own props and a single costume. Each was housed in their own living space – bedroom, living area and little kitchenette. In an open-air tent, they managed to pull off a crucifixion scene without any touching or lifting, itself a miracle.

Audiences underwent temperature checks and were separated by seats. Staff were placed in three protective bubbles: artistic, production and front-of-house. And there was monitoring: last year it was an intimacy officer; this year it was a Covid-19 one.

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Maguire thrashed out a 40-page agreement with the stage union Actor’s Equity Association. “We never had a positive test,” Maguire said. “We had five false positive tests,” which was “harrowing”.

She credited grants for allowing her to keep her staff on payroll, making the stress level tolerable. It was clear audiences were hungry for theatre: “I would watch people, shoulders shaking as the show started, because they were weeping,” she said. They’re doing another outdoor show now – Holiday Memories.

Since that first brave step, other theatre companies have plunged into the void. Play and musical licenser Concord Theatricals says theatre companies across the US are looking for flexibility in case of virus restrictions.

“We’re seeing many groups applying for small-cast, easy-to-produce plays and musicals. They’re even seeking casting flexibility and asking for permission to perform with or without an ensemble,” said Sean Patrick Flahaven, chief theatricals executive.

“There’s also a trend for groups to apply for both live performance and streaming rights. Many amateur theatres are producing single virtual performances to keep revenue flowing.”

Actors in a scene from Natalie Margolin’s Zoom play The Party Hop. Photo: Natalie Margolin/AP

Playwright Natalie Margolin decided to write a new play during the pandemic but not a conventional one. She imagined what the world would look like when it was a given that all social life existed on Zoom.

Hence The Party Hop, a play specifically to be performed on Zoom that’s set three years into quarantine in which three college girls hit the town – online. It became her first published play, and she got stars such as Ben Platt, Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein and Ashley Park to perform in an online version, currently on YouTube. She hopes high schools and colleges will be attracted to a play reflecting the era.

“It was just exciting to take part in something where it wasn’t a place holder or a replacement, and no one needed to imagine they were anywhere else than where they were to fully realise the piece,” she said. “It’s been exciting and heartwarming to see different ways theatre has reinvented itself during this time.”


This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Theatres find ways to defy pandemic and stage shows