The old showbusiness adage, ‘The show must go on’, has gone right out the window. Indeed, the show ‘going on’ would be seen as foolhardy, dangerous and insensitive in the face of a global pandemic.
After China, but before the UK and Ireland, curtains fell across the US in rapid succession, beginning midday on Thursday. By Friday evening, almost all US stages had gone dark.
But with the same situation playing out in every aspect of entertainment, in every field that doesn’t provide absolutely essential services, the creative community began to quickly explore what they could do, while keeping themselves and their families safe.
It’s impossible to pinpoint, and certainly unnecessary to do so, but the first effort that broke out in a big way was Laura Benanti’s call to all of the high-school kids whose shows had just been postponed or cancelled. She asked them to send her videos of them singing the song they might never get to sing on stage, and she was overwhelmed with utterly charming, exuberant responses, generating national press attention.
After China, but before the UK and Ireland, curtains fell across the US in rapid succession – by Friday evening, almost all US stages had gone dark
Other theatre luminaries, including Lin-Manuel Miranda, promised to watch them as well. My favourite was a 14-second video in which a member of a stage crew, in what looks like his living room, carries in a chair from off camera, places it carefully on spike marks, and walks off. Inspired, witty and a reminder that not everyone in the theatre sings.
The indefatigable Seth Rudetsky and James Wesley began lining up performers to offer concerts from their living rooms, with Seth joining in on split screen. The promised performers, already a lengthy roster, is pretty much a who’s who of Broadway musical artists.
The performances are live-streamed daily at 2pm and 8pm (typical US performance times) from the website of the Actors Fund, a charity whose many services will be called upon with ever greater need as the days pass.
I wanted to do something, but my first, hurried effort didn’t come off. While being outside was still a safe option, I offered to shoot videos of the many theatre artists in my neighbourhood singing a capella, but it didn’t yield any takers.
Walking home with some essential groceries the next day, I had a better idea, prompted by realising that you could create a premise simply by swapping ‘virus’ into the title of The Vagina Monologues. I called Mark Armstrong, head of The 24 Hour Plays, which seemed uniquely suited to the task, and on Monday night 20 writers and performers were paired up to create short solo videos that were posted online 24 hours later, with everyone working remotely.
In addition to ad hoc inventions, as productions were hurriedly shut down, a number of theatres committed their shows to video so that they might not be wholly lost and indeed may become available to audiences as streamed events.
While productions in rehearsal have evaporated for now, those in performance, sometimes only a day or two into previews, managed rudimentary and even complex recordings before the companies disbanded to shelter in their homes. One of the affected but captured pieces was Sanctuary City, the new play by Pulitzer prize-winner Martyna Majok.
The common link here, and among the many other inspired ideas rolled or rolling out, is that this all relied on the digital world: camera phones, video chats and social media. Is it necessarily all theatre? Not in the purest sense. But it is an outlet through which theatre artists can rapidly offer up distractions to audiences, even respond to the enormity we all face, demonstrating that although the show can’t go on, the people who make the shows do, even in frightening moments.
Although the show can’t go on, the people who make the shows do, even in frightening moments
It remains to be seen how long we must all limit our face-to-face interactions with our audiences, friends, and even with our extended families. If this lasts several months, and it well might, time will only reveal more innovative ways that entertainment cannot be stopped. It will be there for people, as it always has, in the darkest times. There are no people like show people – they will smile, sing, dance, write, and even move furniture when they, and we, are low.
Howard Sherman is a New York based arts administrator and advocate. Read his latest column every Friday at thestage.co.uk/author/howard_sherman/