The Show Must Go Online: Theaters Closed By COVID-19 Get Creative

Jeff Lunden,

Kevin Berne A.C.T.

Dawn Ursula plays Toni Stone in American Conservatory Theater's production of Lydia R. Diamond's Toni Stone.

When states and municipalities across the country began banning large gatherings, theaters — from regional stages to Broadway — shut down. But, in a creative solution to a difficult problem, some theaters made archival videos of the closed productions available online, for the cost of a ticket.

In March, the American Conservatory Theater, or A.C.T., in San Francisco had a new play on its main stage called Toni Stone. It was about a female ballplayer in the Negro Leagues.

“It opened on a Wednesday night, March 11th, and we had to close performances for the rest of the run the very next day,” says A.C.T. executive director Jennifer Bielstein.

Like many theaters, her company had recorded a video of the production for its archives and Bielstein wondered if it could be made available to audiences online. But that requires permission from Actors’ Equity and other theatrical unions whose rules strictly prohibit archival footage to be shown to the general public. Bielstein gave it a try.

“They responded immediately, very quickly and supported this effort so that in this moment in time, we are now able to share the work that we have created,” she says. “We’re able to make sure that this work gets seen.”

Actors’ Equity was actually ahead of the curve in recommending that theaters close. The union’s president, Kate Shindle, says it knew the show couldn’t go on — and not just because of audiences in close proximity.

“There’s no such thing as social distancing in theater,” says Shindle. “You’ve got dancers who are doing lifts, people who are standing across from an actor, giving a passionate monologue and there’s spit coming out of their mouth, or they’re kissing.”

When countrywide shutdowns hit, many shows were still in rehearsal, like American Mariachi, at the Dallas Theater Center. Kevin Moriarty, the theater’s artistic director, had to tell the cast the show was closing, the day before dress rehearsal.

“We decided to continue on in the final hours … and we were able to film that dress rehearsal using four cameras that we brought in at the very, very last minute and a very, very small audience of friends and family,” Moriarty says.

Like, A.C.T., Dallas Theater Center made arrangements with the unions to sell tickets to watch the show online.

“The video we’re sharing has a link that you can only watch once and then it expires,” Moriarty explains. “Very much like a live performance, it exists in the moment that you are experiencing it, as an audience member. And we’re still sending selling tickets to people.”

American Mariachi is streaming through April 19 for those who’ve already bought tickets. Other shows have completed their limited video runs, like Ren Dara Santiago’s The Siblings Play. She was about to make her professional debut at the tiny Rattlestick Playwrights Theater off-Broadway. Her play had only given seven previews when it closed, but Rattlestick made it available online — and Santiago says people from around the world bought tickets to see it for $15.

“This is an opportunity for people who don’t think of theater as the first medium, the first art form that they want to go to,” Santiago says. “This makes it really accessible.”

All three theaters — like their counterparts across the country — are looking at ways to keep going online, while the COVID-19 crisis continues.

“We are now putting our creative energies toward thinking about how can we create content that we can share with our audience between now and when we’re all able to come back together in a theater in person again,” says Moriarty.

Because, even if there’s no such thing as social distancing in theater, there is no shortage of online platforms to get virtual theater to audiences.

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