Howard Sherman applauds the performers who are stepping up and finding ways to keep connecting with audiences, as new work emerges and adapts during the Covid-19 crisis
To be clear, what we’re all watching and listening to right now isn’t theatre. It may have been theatre, or it may be created by theatre artists, or may it may use a script written for the stage, but we’re watching video.
It’s on our computers, our phones, our televisions and our podcast apps. It’s not living people telling a story to other people in the same space. That doesn’t necessarily mean there’s anything wrong with it.
As the pandemic wears on, it will seemingly be some time before people can get together in a room, or outdoors for that matter, for the enactment of stories, both spoken and sung.
But in a moment of uncertainty, and even fear, we are watching performing arts step up and find ways to keep connecting with audiences, as new work emerges and adapts. In fact, the theatre community seems to have responded much more quickly than film and television.
With readings, concerts, and new works all being streamed, what is now taking place is not geographically constrained
The past two months have afforded theatre artists something that was previously not often part of the process: access to a vast audiences around the world.
With readings, concerts, and new works – often using the suddenly ubiquitous platform Zoom – all being streamed, both live and on demand, what is now taking place is not geographically constrained.
Anyone with access to a computer and an internet connection (and we must remember there is a technology divide), it doesn’t matter whether you’re creating or viewing work in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, London, Dublin, Edinburgh or anywhere else. Barring occasional projects that are pay-per-view, anyone can watch. That’s terrific.
If you live in New York, this is the time of year when every Monday night is laden with fundraisers, all dripping with stage talent. But for those who can’t afford tickets that may run $750 or $1,000 each, and be in New York on the given night, all they can do is envy those who can buy access.
As it happens, I was given tickets to attend Stephen Sondheim’s 80th-birthday gala at the New York Philharmonic, but on Sunday, for his 90th, countless people could, through their screens, see a staggering array of stars salute the master.
That we watched in sweatclothes as artists performed in backyards (Mandy Patinkin) and bathrooms (Laura Benanti); that the audio was at times sketchy and the video less than high resolution made no difference. It was manna in lean times and all the more extraordinary for being live around the world and then saved for later viewing.
There are naysayers about the work being created in this moment, but they are welcome not to watch. This is not a time when we should be deciding what should or should not be done, though that’s not to say we can’t share, personally or professionally, what we think about the work itself.
If people want to create, even within extraordinary strictures, we shouldn’t criticise the impulse, even if the result is a hybrid, an amalgam, not necessarily for the ages, but certainly for right now. Otherwise we’d be stuck with nothing but reruns and rehashes.
Earlier this week, Richard Nelson debuted an online coda for his entirely extraordinary quartet The Apple Family Plays, which were a particular refuge amid both elections and tragic anniversaries, notably 9/11.
Nelson’s medium may be different, but the work is unquestionably rooted in theatre, even as it translates stage characters into a new form. I, for one, am pleased and comforted to spend time with the Apples once again.
Yes, we all long to get back into theatres, but it’s heartening to know that the virus has not cut us off entirely, and we can still share experiences together, albeit at a remove.
But let’s face it: at what other time could you have welcomed Meryl Streep, Christine Baranski and Audra McDonald into your home, in their white bathrobes, drinks in hand, singing The Ladies Who Lunch?
Theatre people are proving to be the silver lining on some very dark clouds at the moment, to be together virtually not just with one another, but with all of us, their voices and their glasses lifted. Everybody rise!