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Digital Theatre Is Here To Stay: Paula Vogel’s Bard at the Gate

Paula Vogel was home in bed, feeling deadly ill and miserable, when she came up with the idea for Bard at the Gate.

It was March 2020, and all theatre had been shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. She had been in New York to rehearse her play How I Learned To Drive, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1998 but had taken twenty-two years to get to Broadway—except now it wasn’t getting there because everything was abruptly canceled. By the time she returned home to Wellfleet, Massachusetts, she had also gotten sick; it was not COVID, but she didn’t know that until later.

Thus, doubly frustrated and wondering if she’d ever see theatre again, she started thinking of all the plays she had loved to read that had not gotten their due; some had never even been produced. She thought of Kernel of Sanity, a three-character play about racism in white American theatre that Kermit Frazier had written way back in 1978, which no theatre had ever agreed to put on. Then there was Eisa Davis’ play Bulrusher about a multiracial orphan with the gift of clairvoyance growing up in the redwood country north of San Francisco who has a life-changing encounter with a newcomer, a Black girl from Alabama. This play had been produced, but for just a brief run Off-Off-Broadway in 2006. Vogel loved that play, so much so that serving on the Pulitzer jury, she pushed for it to get the prize for drama. The other jurors agreed, but the Pulitzer board ignored their recommendation.

Remembering all this, Vogel called up her friend Sam Rudy, a theatre publicist whose opinion she trusts, and asked him: “Would it be a good idea to make digital theatre productions of these plays I love and put them up for free on YouTube?” Sam listened and went: “We have to do this.” Using her last royalty check of twelve thousand dollars from the Broadway production of her play Indecent, she created Bard at the Gate, a virtual reading series. She put up three plays on YouTube within the next six months, including Kernel of Sanity and Bulrusher, with remarkably starry casts. (After all, what else was anybody doing?) They attracted relatively huge traffic. Over the four days they were allowed by union rules to show Kernel of Sanity, it drew eleven thousand viewers from all over the world.

Paula Vogel’s series was, of course, far from the only digital theatre project to be born out of the misery of the pandemic shutdown. Over the year and a half when there was virtually no in-person productions, the entire theatre community seemed to be engaging with some form of digital theatre, be it streaming of archival recordings that were not initially meant to be presented to the public, online panels (webinars), or celebrity variety shows like Seth Rudetsky and James Wesley’s Stars in the House that doubled as fundraisers (net-a-thons). But above all, Zoom plays, whether virtual anthologies of new dramas and comedies no more than a few minutes long, or, like Bard at the Gate, digital productions of full-length plays.

A performer in front of a virtual background with trees and bright sunlight.

Kara Young in Eisa Davis' Bulrusher.

By the fall of 2021, however, Bard at the Gate stood out. In-person performances were coming back; Broadway’s hits were reopening one by one. Many theatre people were relieved. They were ready to drop online theatre and go back to the way things were. Paula Vogel wasn’t. She was readying the second season of Bard at the Gate. “I wrote personal notes to theatre teachers at five hundred community colleges and public universities to invite their students to watch,” Vogel says.

Almost three years after she came up with the idea, Bard at the Gate is now in its third season, considerably less makeshift than when it started. The company has formed a partnership with the well-established McCarter Theatre and now presents its productions on Broadway on Demand, a theatrical streaming platform that was launched in May 2020 and has grown into what it calls “a venue, a channel, and producer all in one.” Bard at the Gate’s current season will present four plays, all written by women: Shapeshifter by Laura Schellhardt which premiered on 19 October 2022, Tent Revival by Majkin Holmquist which premiered on 30 January 2023, Cut by Nikki Massoud is scheduled to premiere 27 March 2023, and Wings of Night/Wings of Morning Light by United States Poet Laureate Joy Harjo is scheduled to premiere 19 April 2023. Each play premieres on Broadway on Demand with a live watch party and talk-back and then is made available as video on demand.

To Vogel, digital theatre was not a temporary substitute during a crisis. Bard at the Gate fulfills a mission to present those voices that had been in effect barred from conventional stages and to offer it up to people who had rarely, if ever, experienced theatre before. According to Vogel, the needs of underappreciated theatre artists and underserved theatre audiences haven’t disappeared with the reappearance of in-person theatre. Vogel says:

It's great to see Broadway reopened again; I am so happy that it did. Does that impact the life of an eighteen-year-old or an elderly person my age or anyone who lives in a small town in Arizona or New Mexico? Broadway gives the ephemeral a chance at eternal life. Off-Broadway and regional theatre give plays, particularly by women and playwrights of color, a chance at four weeks. Digital theatre can change the American canon; it can inspire live productions around the world; it can make theatre affordable or free, especially for teachers and students.

Vogel envisions the day when digital theatre versions of in-person productions have become as common as cast albums and digital theatre as widely accepted as televised ball games. “Sports games were first broadcast in 1938,” says Vogel. “We want to increase the demand to see live theatre in the same way that watching a broadcast of the Super Bowl increases the desire to plunk down airplane money, a hotel room, and get those tickets to treat yourself to sitting in that freezing cold stadium. In the arts, like in sports, supply creates demand.”

Six actors in separate boxes on Zoom during a performance.

The full cast of Eisa Davis' Bulrusher.

Vogel admits to being idealistic. She doesn’t dispute the many obstacles to her vision, among them money, union rules, complicated rights to negotiate, theatre community skepticism, and outright resistance. But Vogel is not alone, asserting: “All of us who have been doing this are believers.” In one way, though, Vogel stands out even among other digital evangelists now. She continues to use the Zoom platform. “It’s not just four heads in boxes any longer,” she says. “The visuals are increasingly more sophisticated.”

Bard at the Gate’s productions were actually always more sophisticated than the average Zoom play. Bulrusher was the first one I saw in September 2020, at a time (six months into the shutdown) when there was already talk of “Zoom fatigue.” But I enjoyed it—mostly because of the superb cast conveying great warmth and humor, but also in part because the action in the script was staged—the fistfight, the kiss, the love scene—even though everybody was in their separate Zoom cell. This stage business was half artful, half awkward, but preferable to having a stage manager simply read the stage directions.

In the productions so far in the third season, the Zoom cells seem to have disappeared. The actors appear side by side as if in the same space (although, in reality, they are miles apart). More often they are shown one at a time, in close-up, as each speaks. Laura Schellhardt’s Shapeshifter also features dramatically drawn backdrops of mountains and seas and sunsets, and in between the spoken scenes, there are animated landscapes involving shadow puppetry. Still, these productions retain an unmistakable Zoom-ness, sometimes to their obvious detriment. Majkin Holmquist’s Tent Revival tells the story of a man who loses his farm and becomes a preacher— initially a hilariously inept one—until one day his wife, who has used a wheelchair for ten years, suddenly stands up in the middle of the service, which the congregants see as a miracle. Her standing up is a pivotal moment in the play, but the audience doesn’t see it. We see only a close-up of her head and upper torso.

She doesn’t dispute the many obstacles to her vision, among them money, union rules, complicated rights to negotiate, theatre community skepticism, and outright resistance. But Vogel is not alone, asserting: “All of us who have been doing this are believers.”

Still, in her introductory remarks to the first play of the season, Vogel offers boosterish notes of gratitude “for this new medium developed out of necessity, and now honed to a unique and brilliant high art form by our collaborators at ViDCo.” Virtual Design Collective or ViDCo has designed all of Bard at the Gate productions and was founded during the outset of the pandemic by Jared Mezzocchi, an Obie winning multimedia designer who has become one of the foremost pioneers in digital theatre. Acclaimed during the peak of the pandemic for designing the online play Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy and more than fifty other shows, he has kept going post-shutdown.

Like Vogel, Mezzocchi has become a passionate advocate for digital theatre. But he is clear-eyed about the challenges: “We don’t know what this thing is yet, so can we just accept that what we’re producing is imperfect?” He was speaking as the guest at a recent Stellar Salon, an online conversation series named after the ticketing and streaming platform founded by Jim McCarthy. Like Broadway on Demand, Stellar began during the pandemic shutdown and has now formed a partnership with them.

Broadway on Demand and Stellar are among the companies that now offer to do the heavy lifting for theatre companies and theatre artists that want to go online but don’t want to master the technology. They are part of an emerging infrastructure—evidence that some people believe digital theatre has a promising future, even though its present is uncertain. “I call what I produce an ‘experiment’ rather than a product or a production,” Mezzocchi says. “If you say it’s an experiment, people can say, ‘oh, cool, I wonder if it’ll work,’ and that’s exciting. But if you say it’s a production, people will say, ‘I hope it’s good.’”

On this, the third anniversary of the shutdown of all in-person theatre in New York, it’s unclear where these experiments will lead, and how much of the theatre community and the theatregoing public will embrace them. Nobody knows which of the current digital platforms will have staying power, or what new ones will emerge. What does seem increasingly clear is that there is more to come.

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