Pandemic Theatre Aesthetic

It was sunny and eerie after I left my apartment building for the first time in more than a week and walked gingerly through the empty streets of my neighborhood, Greenwich Village, to the corner that brings forth vivid memories of two past crises—the AIDS epidemic and the terrorist attack of 9/11—and the aesthetics that each generated.

The corner was where St. Vincent’s once stood, a hospital that had served the neighborhood for 161 years until it went bankrupt and shut down in 2010. It was razed and replaced with condominiums. That local officials didn’t save the only hospital in the Village was a shortsighted inaction that’s coming home to roost right now.

The hospital was at the epicenter of the AIDS crisis, the place that young men went to be treated, and to die, in the 1980s and 1990s. It is surely why the City of New York decided to construct the New York City AIDS Memorial Park in St. Vincent’s Triangle right across Seventh Avenue from what used to be the hospital.

I walked to the Memorial, where the only other people around were a group of men, each with Grubhub bags, waiting for the next delivery orders. Lining the sidewalk were the posters created in the heat of that epidemic: one with the slogan “Silence=Death” on a black background underneath a pink triangle and one of two dancers as a pair of green scissors cutting a red serpent that twists around them, beneath the words “Stop AIDS,” designed by Keith Haring.

painted tiles on a chain link fence

9/11 Memorial in New York City

St. Vincent’s was also one of the closest hospitals to the World Trade Center site. This is why on 9/11 its walls were taped with square pieces of paper, each a photocopied photograph of a missing loved one and a phone number in case they were found. When it became clear there would be no survivors to treat at St. Vincent’s, the sheets of paper were turned into little memorials, from paper to cardboard to glazed tiles. A decade after the death of the hospital, some of those tiles still hang from that fence: a heart-shaped one with “Port Authority of NY & NJ” surrounded by the names of the employees who died; a square one with a drawing of an apple and the words “9/11. We Will Always Remember”; many with childlike renditions of the American flag.

Last year, a play about St. Vincent’s, Novenas for a Lost Hospital, was presented at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, which is about a block from the old hospital site—so close that at the end of the play cast member Kathleen Chalfant led the audience on a procession to the AIDS memorial, where we stood in a circle to show our respect.

Like every other theatre in New York, Rattlestick was ordered shut down in mid-March, to help curb the spread of COVID-19. On the Rattlestick stage at the time were previews for Ren Dara Santiago’s professional playwriting debut, The Siblings Play, about an isolated and vulnerable family in Harlem. Rather than allow it to close before it opened, Rattlestick’s artistic director Daniella Topol decided to do something she’d never done before: stream the show. They had been planning to record the 14 March performance anyway, so on 23 March, thanks to a new agreement by Actors Equity, they streamed that recording online for patrons who had purchased tickets to canceled performances, as well as to new viewers for $15 a ticket.

This was theatre created for the internet, without ever having been performed on stage.

By the time Rattlestick began streaming, other theatre companies had rushed to do the same: New York City’s HERE Arts Center’s production of Anywhere, Chicago’s Theater Wit’s production of Teenage Dick (having recorded its one live performance in front of an audience), San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater’s productions of Gloria and Toni Stone (both with “pay the price that works for you” models), New York City’s En Garde Arts’s production of Fandango with Butterfly (and Coyote). These joined the long-established theatre-focused online streaming services such as BroadwayHD and OnTheBoards.TV.

But in that same week after the shutdown, something else was happening in theatre. Instead of just streaming prerecorded stage performances, theatre companies and theatre artists were livestreaming original shows created hastily and unfolding virtually. This was theatre created for the internet, without ever having been performed on stage.

It may be too grand—or at least premature—to proclaim a new theatre aesthetic for the 2020 pandemic. But just like the AIDS and 9/11 crises were accompanied by clear visual aesthetics, which came out of the need and urgency of those posters and missing notices, so too I sense a theatrical aesthetic emerging from the need and urgency that confronts us because of the pandemic.

two actors onstage

The Siblings Play at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. Photo by Julieta Cervantes

On 13 March, the day after the Broadway theatres were all shuttered, playwrights Lily Houghton and Matt Minnicino and actress Ali Stoner created a new Instagram account, Theatre Without Theater, inviting theatre artists to perform excerpts of shows that had been canceled.

On 16 March, the day after all remaining New York City theatres were ordered closed, the well-known Broadway musician, writer, and radio host Seth Rudetsky and his husband James Wesley launched “Stars in the House” on the YouTube channel of the Actors Fund with guest Kelli O’Hara singing and answering questions from the hosts in her own home. The twice-daily livestream episodes (which remain available on YouTube) are a hybrid of variety show, talk show, Actors Fund fundraiser, and coronavirus public service announcement, with a doctor or two on call. At the beginning of April, they added a twice-weekly “Plays in the House,” livestreaming readings of popular plays; the first one was Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles, performed by the original cast, albeit each in isolation.

On 17 March, the 24 Hour Plays—which, faithful to its name, has a twenty-five-year history of writing, rehearsing, and performing an original production from scratch in twenty-four hours—presented Viral Monologues on its Instagram account. The twenty monologues, each about four minutes long, were written by twenty noted playwrights and performed by twenty well-known actors; they were released one by one every fifteen minutes online, where they are still available. Exactly a week later, Viral Monologues Round 2 streamed another twenty-four original plays pairing a new set of playwrights and actors. And then, a week after that, Round 3. Whether or not the Viral Monologues continue, Methuen Drama reportedly plans to publish the scripts as a book.

There is a sense of informality, like even the most accomplished professional is a do-it-yourself amateur.

I put together a post, Where To Get Your Theater Fix Online, Old Favorites and New Experiments, initially on 19 March, and found I had to update it almost immediately. The task of updating has turned from challenging to impossible, as has watching it all. New online theatre is announced every day, from the one-time resuscitated the Rosie O’Donnell Show to La Mama’s weekly Downtown Variety livestreaming on HowlRound TV, from R&H Goes Live to National Theatre At Home, which offers its National Live recordings of its stage performances online for free.

Among new online theatrical platforms are Play-Perview, co-founded by theatre producers Jeremy Wein and Mirirai Sithole, which promises “unique, one-time-only, live-streamed theatrical events and original series,” and TrickleUp, the brainchild of Taylor Mac, which is charging a subscription fee of $10 a month in hopes of raising money for artists in need. TrickleUp launched on 23 March with a group of downtown artistic directors and artists, as well as a raft of promotional partners. It promises “videos of solo performances, conversation, and other behind-the-scenes goodies.” Its catalogue so far features such fare as Mac reading scenes from Gary, Sarah Ruhl reading some of her poems, Mia Katigbak singing “La Vie En Rose,” Dominique Morisseau doing a monologue from Skeleton Crew, Suzan-Lori Parks singing “Colored All My Life,” and Lucas Hnath reading material cut from his play A Doll’s House Part 2.

There are even some experiences in immersive theatre for an age of self-distancing: Sinking Ship Creations has created three LARP (live-action role play) plays via telephone, Adventures on Phone. And This Is Not A Theatre Company has created Life on Earth, an adaptation for chatroom of Charles Mee’s Heaven on Earth.

It would be tough to group all this activity as belonging to a single theatrical genre, but, for all the variety, I do detect an emerging aesthetic. It’s low-tech, low-key, one-on-one, close-up. And, in keeping with the much used hashtag #AloneTogether, there's copious use of split screens, notably in the many concerts of "virtual orchestras" and the Plays in the House performances—presenting individual people in isolation together on the screen artfully or (more often) inartfully. There is a sense of informality, like even the most accomplished professional is a do-it-yourself amateur, which is underscored by the comparatively low technical quality of the transmissions. Playwright David Lindsay-Abaire agreed. “It’s advanced technology that’s making all of this online theater possible, and yet by and large what’s being shared is mostly low-tech and homespun in a way that harkens back to the most primitive around-the-campfire storytelling,” he told me. “You strip away fancy sets and costumes and giant chorus numbers and you’re left with one person in their home telling you a story.”

It’s these conversations, oddly enough, that made me feel most as if I were attending live theatre.

Even the new scripted plays in Viral Monologues project a sense of casual intimacy. Many of those monologues are specifically about life during the pandemic. In “A Story of Survival” by David Lindsay-Abaire, Rachel Dratch portrays a character who discovers “a bottle of Purell on the bottom shelf, sad and lonely, just like I am right now,” but notices that an older woman in the store has her eye on it too. So, to win the bottle, she engages in direct combat… by coughing. She tells this story so close to the camera that her face looks distorted, as if to emphasize how inexperienced her character is in talking to an audience.

Eric Bogosian’s “Injustice,” performed by Clark Gregg, creates a character in the entertainment industry, spot-on for its depiction of the narcissism and self-importance even during a world-wide crisis: “Now we have this craziness. We’re lucky here. We have food, we’re taken care of. I’m not complaining. But I’m complaining because this baby…. Look I know that others, those poor folks in wherever are suffering and obviously… that’s terrible but this is my job…. We have to be ready to jump back in the saddle…. Yes, the world is going to hell in a handbasket but, my friend, without us, without what we do to convey the message of empathy, of what it’s all about, then what’s the point?”

What’s most instructive, though, are the plays that have nothing to do with the pandemic. In “Grandma Taught Me How to Kiss,” by Bekah Brunstetter, Ashley Fink portrays a character talking on a hands-free telephone to her grandmother in her car outside the home of her brand new boyfriend. “It’s been a year since I kissed anybody,” she tells her unseen grandmother. I briefly wondered whether she hadn’t kissed anybody because she had self-quarantined, and if the play was taking place in the future. But there is no indication that this is the case. What this suggests is Instagram, and other online platforms, offer congenial showcases for original theatrical dramas and comedies.

One more aspect common to many of these shows, even the prerecorded plays, is that almost all have a live, in-real-time component to involve the audience. Instagram permits comments, of which the Viral Monologues audience took generous advantage. When BroadwayHD offered the 1988 Oklahoma with Hugh Jackman for free over the weekend, it was in partnership with the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, which offered (and solicited) in-real-time commentary on Twitter. The tickets to Teenage Dick and The Siblings Play included a live after-show conversation, via GoToMeeting and Zoom respectively.

It’s these conversations, oddly enough, that made me feel most as if I were attending live theatre: when an audience member at Teenage Dick observed that the video “brought back a little moment of normal” and that it had “that live feel like I could have been sitting there”; when an audience member at The Siblings Play observed: “There’s such a sense of isolation in the play that I think can resonate differently right now,” that we all more identify with “a household of people so stuck and spiraling.” And then there was Theatre Wit’ artistic director Jeremy Wechsler sharing a prediction with us: “Playwrights will start writing Zoom/GoToMeeting/Skype plays that can be acted remotely.”

This is happening already, although perhaps not yet on those specific platforms. Will this emerging approach in an emergency have a lasting effect? Right before the shutdown, UK critic Lyn Gardner reminded readers of the plague in Shakespeare’s times. “The closure of theatres in 1606 eventually ushered in a new era, with the creation of the indoor playhouse. It is possible the Covid-19 virus may play a similar role in shaping the theatre of the future.”

Or, as the Segal Theatre Center’s Frank Hentschker likes to quote Bertolt Brecht: “New times need new forms of theatre.”

What are you seeing in your community? Let us know in the comments section!

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I'd like to add a link to my review of the livestream of Terrence McNally's Lips Together Teeth Apart, starring Celia Keenan-Bolger, Jesse Ferguson, Ari Graynor and Zach Quinto as two straight couples spending the Fourth of July weekend in a Fire Island beach house at the height of the AIDS epidemic, which I think furthers my argument.

Also an update: 24 Hour Plays just announced their fourth weekly Viral Monologues. So the series IS continuing.