Streaming shows keep theater alive after the lights went out on Broadway

Audra McDonald, Meryl Streep and Christine Baranski performed online during “Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration.” (Photo courtesy DKC O&M)

Back on March 12, I was all set to attend a press preview performance of Tracy Letts’ new comic drama “The Minutes.” My review of the all-female pop concert musical “Six” was going to be published that same night, and I was on the verge of reviewing countless other shows that would be opening on Broadway through the end of April, ranging from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” to “Mrs. Doubtfire.” 

Then everything came crashing to a halt. 

It’s been nearly two months since the shutdown of live theater in New York City (including Broadway, Off-Broadway, Off-Off-Broadway and everything in between) due to the dangers of COVID-19. For avid theatergoers such as myself, the ongoing situation has been both depressing and disorienting. 

On the other hand, the theater community (as resilient and resourceful as ever) has kept up ours spirits and remained on the cultural radar through an endless supply of streamed theater-related programming, including readings of well-known plays performed by stage actors from their homes using teleconferencing software, mixed-media projects, interviews, workshops and fully-produced shows that were previously filmed. 

Major highlights to date have included Richard Nelson’s “What Do We Need to Talk About?” (an original drama by Richard Nelson conceived as a family conference call on Zoom, presented by the Public Theater), “Take Me To the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration” and the ongoing “National Theatre at Home” series.

Putting these projects together involves improvisation, technical savvy and the cooperation and legal approval of major performing arts unions and intellectual property rights holders. 

Molière in the Park, which was forced to postpone its free outdoor production of “The Misanthrope” at the LeFrak Center at Lakeside in Prospect Park, worked with a software developer, a video designer and the Theatre Authority (which approves performances by members of Actors’ Equity Association at fundraising events) to present “The Misanthrope” virtually.

The livestream of Molière in the Park’s production of “The Misanthrope.” (Photo courtesy of Molière in the Park)

“It was very much an experiment for us,” said artistic director Lucie Tiberghien, who added that the company is still waiting to see if it might be possible to present live shows this summer. “This is unknown territory, but we have the advantage of being outdoors. We could do social distance seating for sure in our situation. Our flexibility is very much a bonus right now.” 

After Broadway shut down, Off-Broadway’s Rattlestick Playwrights Theater continued to present Ren Dara Santiago’s “The Siblings Play” for a few more performances under social distancing rules at half capacity.

Dalia Davi and Ed Ventura in “The Siblings.” (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)

Then, under a special agreement with Actors’ Equity, a recording of the play was available online for theatergoers who had already purchased tickets for subsequent performances. A limited number of “View at Home tickets” were also made available, with the proviso that the total number of online viewers could not exceed the theater’s seating capacity for each planned performance. 

“Though it doesn’t substitute for the actual run of the show itself, people were still able to experience the show and find meaning in it,” artistic director Daniella Topol said. Rattlestick also co-presented a free livestreamed performance of Jonathan Tolins’ one-man comedy “Buyer & Cellar” (performed by Michael Urie from his living room) to raise money for both the theater and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.

Thirdwing, a new theater company with an emphasis on digital media, is particularly well-suited to this moment in time. It had planned to stage “The Female Genius,” a series of short plays by Rachel Carey about groundbreaking women in history, at The Wild Project in the East Village. In spite of the cancellation of the run, the play (which was filmed before COVID-19) can be streamed as a series of web episodes.

“I always wanted to connect theater to streaming in a way that was kosher,” said founder Cameron Bossert, who shot the episodes under a SAG-AFTRA new media contract and likened them to 1950s teleplays such as “12 Angry Men” and “Marty.” “We didn’t film in a theater or with an audience. They were designed to be watched at home or on your phone, and we planned to then bring the same script and actors to a stage.”

One can’t help but wonder how streaming theater programming may affect how theater is produced and distributed in the future. I wouldn’t be shocked if companies start regularly selling virtual tickets in addition to in-person tickets, especially if social distancing rules require that theaters reduce their seating capacity. But even if it does not invade the theater space itself, streaming will probably play a much more prominent role in how theater is marketed to the general public.

Recommended Free Theater Streaming Series

  1. National Theatre at Home, nationaltheatre.org.uk
  2. Stars in the House, starsinthehouse.com
  3. Nightly Opera Streams, metopera.org
  4. Viral Monologues, 24hourplays.com
  5. Soundstage, playwrightshorizons.org
  6. The Shows Must Go On, andrewlloydwebber.com
  7. Public Everywhere, publictheater.org
  8. Playing On Air, playingonair.org
  9. Lincoln Center at Home, lincolncenter.org
  10. The Encores! Archives Project, nycitycenter.org