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This Is Theater in 2020. Will It Last? Should It?

The megahit live-capture of “Hamilton” on Disney+ notwithstanding, the American theater is not in good shape. The coronavirus shut down almost all productions; tourism ceased; actors, writers and backstage teams lost their jobs.

Though we are still miles and months away from a resuscitation, who would have guessed that, in the meantime, the savior of the stage might turn out to be its perpetual enemy, the screen? Adapting to the epidemic, artists immediately began to explore the possibilities of “distributed” theater on Zoom, Instagram, YouTube and other social media. Soon, entire plays — yes, plays — were being written or adapted for the hybrid medium.

The new tools were put to the test when, in response to protests over police violence against Black Americans, performers were able to respond rapidly and powerfully, as in the Public Theater’s polyphonic rendering of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy. To sort out this new world, Scott Heller, the New York Times theater editor, convened a virtual conversation with Ben Brantley and Jesse Green, the chief theater critics, and Maya Phillips, the Times’s arts critic fellow.

SCOTT HELLER The last live show we reviewed was “Conscience” which ran in print on March 12. That night, the pandemic shut down Broadway. The worry was: Would there ever be theater again? And yet in some way there’s actually more theater than we might have imagined out there. Or is that redefining what counts as theater?

JESSE GREEN I’m all for that redefinition. Since our lives became virtual, we’ve seen lots of bad Zoom plays and Instagram doodles, but I’ve grown more and more optimistic about the future of this hybrid new world, aesthetically at least, if not economically.

MAYA PHILLIPS I’ve had issues with the aesthetics of a lot of the Zoom plays. But one thing I do love about this hybrid form of theater is how it allows audiences to engage in a way that’s more active. Sure, it’s not live, in the sense of everyone sharing the same space, but it’s possible to invite individual audience interaction in a way that, say, immersive theater would have.

BEN BRANTLEY I too am feeling more positive about this amphibious form than I would have suspected, partly for the reasons Jesse and Maya suggest. I also feel a lot of the virtual theater I’ve seen seems to be such an apt reflection of a time in which we’re redefining even how we communicate with one another within new limitations. And this comes through both in custom-made works (like Richard Nelson’s Zoom-format “Apple” plays and the Jordan E. Cooper family comedy film short “Mama Got a Cough”) — that sense of frustration, of our longing to connect and being unable to.

GREEN During the month it was available online, the first Nelson Zoom play — “What Do We Need to Talk About?” — was seen by more than 80,000 people. It would have taken something like 400 performances, a year’s worth, to reach that number live at the Public Theater. But it’s not just about easier access, it’s also about newer content. I have seen so many things I might never have been able to see before.

HELLER Let me stop you for a second. The access is undeniable. But the plays you mentioned as succeeding on Zoom are family plays — so while the technology may be 21st century, the content is ultimately pretty old-fashioned, isn’t it?

BRANTLEY But I think the form in this case puts a new perspective on the content. We rethink aspects of such works that we took for granted before, and that includes the presumption among families that we can be together when and how we want to be.

PHILLIPS I’m going to be a bit contrary here and say that I’m not a huge Richard Nelson fan, so I have less interest in Zoom works that present the regular family play. In our current context, with protests happening, there is more radical content theater can consider instead of just productions about white families. In terms of successful Zoom plays that have delivered alternatives, we’ve seen “Mad Forest”; there’s “State vs. Natasha Banina”; there’s “Citizen” and “Molly Sweeney.”

GREEN So much out there is breaking down walls. We’re seeing one-acts, avant-garde experiments, musical collages and many pieces that blur the line between theater and protest. One was a series of monologues by Amber Ruffin, on “Late Night With Seth Meyers,” about her history of devastating interactions, as a Black woman, with the police. Was it theater? It certainly used all the tools of theater: engagement, careful manipulation of tone, dramatic construction. That I saw it on television means nothing; everything is television now.

HELLER That’s an interesting example, taken from a different sphere. For each of you, what has felt like the most successful use of the format, in terms of content and form. And why?

BRANTLEY I was very impressed by the Bard College student production of Caryl Churchill’s “Mad Forest,” a portrait of the events surrounding the end of the Ceausescu dictatorship, in the way it used the image of a fragmented population — embodied with aching intensity by its young cast in their separate frames — in a time when a society was collapsing. Ditto the Belarus Free Theater’s “School for Fools,” which deployed the split screen to convey the kaleidoscopic vision of a mentally unstable man in the Soviet Union. More conventional, but quite powerful, was the use of the single camera (or smartphone) in two of the “24 Hour Plays: Viral Monologues.” I’m thinking of soliloquies in which people of color address white people head-on. Liza Jessie Peterson’s “Do You Really Want to Know?,” in which a Black woman (a superb Saycon Sengbloh) talks to fellow office workers via Zoom is a work of extraordinary composure that acquires ever greater power as the anger beneath the surface asserts itself. Also, Stephen Adly Guirgis’s unprintably titled work about a man in a state of high anxiety after a California yoga class.

PHILLIPS Both “Mad Forest” and “State vs. Natasha Banina” demonstrated how plays that explore broken institutions, social unrest and isolation may be uniquely suited to this form. And both took advantage of the elements of Zoom theater that are often taken to be hiccups or challenges: the kind of glitchy, uncanny delay you get in virtual live broadcasts, the artificial effects. All create a sense of dissociation that both plays really tapped into. On a very different note, I was also a fan of the “Love Letters” reading, starring Sally Field and Bryan Cranston. It wasn’t in any way experimental, but the content was well-suited to the form.

GREEN You guys have covered the heavy stuff; let me cast a few votes for lighter genres that I wouldn’t have thought stood a chance in this environment. Bill Irwin doing physical comedy with Christopher Fitzgerald in “In-Zoom” was sublime, and not without deeper implications. A recent “Tartuffe” took a 17th-century satire and pulled it into our moment while retaining its integrity. And we’ve seen lots of superbly performed and beautifully edited musical numbers as part of galas and celebrations that brought new meaning to familiar titles. From their separate isolations, Meryl Streep, Audra McDonald and Christine Baranski made “The Ladies Who Lunch” into a triple-sec showstopper for the Sondheim 90th birthday gala; “Being Alive” got a similarly heartbreaking makeover on the Antonyo Awards.

BRANTLEY I’d like to bounce off a couple of things Maya brought up. I love it that technological glitches and fuzziness can seem like an appropriate part of the mise-en-scène, as in “Mad Forest” and “State.” It lends a spontaneity and serendipity to Zoom performances that you associate with live theater, but it’s different in how things can seem to go wrong and then turn out right. And apropos of “Love Letters,” “Lungs” (from the Old Vic) was about a couple who were often physically together. But the socially distanced staging (and the confining close-ups of its stars Claire Foy and Matt Smith) emphasized an interior sense of apartness that feels so apt and sad in this moment.

HELLER Theater often makes the case for itself as initiating conversation and, that old reliable, inspiring empathy. I’m not doubting it, exactly, but I do wonder: Can it still do that when those conversations are happening at home, or between the viewer and her screen?

PHILLIPS I think it’s possible, but it’s the challenge, right? Part of the thrill of theater is that you get to be present in this human moment, and, for the time that you’re there in the audience, among other viewers, you get to experience art as though it is something real. Your proximity to it helps you cross the boundary of artifice that you know is there. When you’re at home, looking at the screen, it takes an extra leap of imagination, and attention as well, because we can so easily be caught up in the everyday goings on of our lives: roommates walking around, tweeters tweeting, news happening, etc. But I have certainly been able to engage in some of these plays in a way similar to how I have engaged with live theater. It’s just difficult.

BRANTLEY It’s some of the same problems that are posed by virtual education, or so I hear from exasperated parents. It takes discipline and focus to throw yourself into a virtual world, without vigilant teachers or ushers.

GREEN Yet I would also add that there are compensations in seeing stage actors so close up and (sometimes) hearing them so well. Chorus members who would be undifferentiated onstage can be powerful individuals in a Zoom showstopper.

HELLER One capacity digital theater offers is to talk back to the screen, chatting as a play goes on or afterward. Have you watched anything with one eye on how other audience members respond? What do you get from that?

BRANTLEY Well, I had a great time watching the responses — often punning on the titles of songs — with which impatient viewers filled the chat stream as we waited, and waited, for the Sondheim celebration to begin. Otherwise, I tend to focus on the work itself and check out what other people say later. I wouldn’t want other theatergoers whispering their opinions in my ear during a live performance

PHILLIPS I agree with Ben. I don’t mind checking out the chat during benefit readings or celebrations, but I absolutely hate the chat elsewhere. I always turn it off. I’m the kind of critic who would go to the theater in a bubble if I could, to avoid the restroom line chatter and the whispers among friends. I just can’t engage with that or I feel like my head is going to explode.

GREEN I actually do go to the theater in a bubble, Maya. Or so I’m told. But I’ve been unexpectedly excited about the various blurrings now going on. I feel — or hope — we’re at the beginning of a new ecology of theater, and oddly it reminds me of what I’ve read about the theater long ago. Less professionalized, more seat-of-the-pants. Even the lack of production values is zeroed out as a problem, putting the emphasis on other values.

HELLER I know we have a colleague who argues that digital theater is already for the self-selected fan base. Agree?

GREEN The numbers don’t seem to support that. The “Tartuffe” I saw had 5,000 viewers on its first day and 10,000 on its second. From a brand-new company with no profile! But the problem you’re running us directly into, Scott, is money. Economics are either going to make or kill this new ecology.

PHILLIPS Someone might take in a digital play and say “I really enjoyed that,” but never think to re-engage with the art form again once theaters open back up, because it has never been made accessible to them. And there’s a good chance, unless the model suddenly changes, that it will remain inaccessible in the future.

HELLER So you mean financially accessible, or simply that it’s available at home, and at your fingertips? Part of the contract of the theater experience used to be you’d need to leave your home, and meet the actors, so to speak, on their terms, not yours.

GREEN Streamed theater pulls both of those barriers right down. Also the barrier of welcome. Audiences who rightly felt ignored in the past are seeing reasons to enter. That’s why I hope these new forms will continue, in parallel with “regular” performances when they come back. Every theater should commit to making new content like this available for free, even at the cost of fewer sequins or rotating sets on their mainstages. It would be good for them, good for audiences — and good for the art form.

BRANTLEY That’s the most hopeful (and by that I don’t mean unrealistic) prognosis for the future — that this bold new hybrid form will coexist with “traditional” live, in-the-moment theater, and each discipline will have its own ardent acolytes. And perhaps one form will learn from the other.

PHILLIPS Scott, to answer your question, I was talking about financial accessibility. Because people leave their homes for movies and museums. But there’s also the issue of geographical accessibility. How many theaters do you find in poor communities of color? How many people from those communities are going to spend whatever exorbitant ticket price to commute to midtown or wherever to see a play? For a lot of households that’s untenable. I do think that it would be great to have what Jesse suggests, a kind of theater-scape in which the live performances coexist with the digital offerings.

HELLER “Theater-scape” — I love that. Copyright it now! Seriously, though: As I mentioned at the top, the last live review we ran was on March 12. Do you think on March 12, 2021, we will still be talking about these digital shows? And would you want to, or just let them slide into the past as a moment in history?

GREEN I want them to proliferate. And then we can hire a new critic to cut them down.

BRANTLEY Absolutely. When was the last time — was there ever a moment in our lifetimes before this — that we were able to argue about what is an entirely new genre of art? Let it grow and mutate and thrive in all sorts of surprising ways.

PHILLIPS The world has changed so dramatically in the last few months, posing challenges to institutions — and, yes, I’m talking about government, and I’m talking about industry, and I’m talking about large social systems. But I’m also talking about our bodies of art-making, like theater. Why wouldn’t we let this art form evolve? That’s how we know it’s alive.

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