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Two Hundred Digital Theatre Reviews and Counting

Act One: What the Hell Is This?

Scene One: Our First Review

In January 2020, someone broke all the windows in our house, Dana’s phone was stolen, and Ricky got fired from one of the schools they subbed at. On top of that, we both have disabilities, so we were dragging ourselves out of bed to go to in-person reviews and then bringing ourselves back into bed needing three days of recovery. By February we were constantly overdrawing our bank accounts just to live, and we were two months behind on rent. We were also emotionally broken. We had no roots or community at all, so we quit. Maybe we just weren’t meant to be theatre critics. It was time to walk away.

Then Friday, March 13, 2020 happened, and we rushed around the store looking for supplies like the rest of humanity. We spent our rent check on hand sanitizer, bleach, and whatever canned goods were left. We sat in bed most of the time, glued to our phones and watching theatre closure after closure. Among the sad posts, we found a frantic one by Nicole B Atkins, Ricky’s former mentor at Hollins University, who had been directing a play by another dear friend, K. Willow Coleman. That production, Helvetica at Elm Street Cultural Arts Center, was being rushed into filming. They were racing lockdown orders in Georgia.

One thing you need to know about Ricky and Dana Young-Howze is that we often think the same thing at the same time. We never even discussed pitching to review the play. One: it would help our friends. Two: why not? Helvetica looked just like many of the shows that we saw except it was more than eight hundred miles away from us and we were sitting in our jammies in bed. Plus, it was our friend’s play, so it was like seeing family. It was a flicker of pre-pandemic life shining as brightly as it could. From then on just about everything we saw was conceived, rehearsed, and performed in a new era of theatre.

A photo of a Zoom play with characters named Potential White Ally and Unapologetically Black Specialist.

Unapologetically Black, a Zoom play.

Scene 2: Our First Zoom

I’m predicting that the most successful Zoom productions will be the ones that blur these lines. Is this naturalistic theatre or an indie-found footage film? Who knows and who cares? ... This is going to be a hard skill to master, and in thirty or so years we’ll be reading textbooks about the people who started this trend thinking about how we were all just figuring it out.

That was the statement Ricky threw out to the world after watching one evening of short plays performed at Missouri University of Science and Technology. It was staged by the directing students of Taylor Gruenloh and written by Kevin Ferguson, Erin Lane, Mike Moran, and Amy Lytle—all Hollins Alumni. We got the tip that Taylor had found a way to salvage his directing class final project, and we came to watch.

After the performance, we immediately launched into the theatre-versus-film argument. Dana studied as a screenwriter/filmmaker, and Ricky studied as a playwright. The one moment that hooked both of us was when Amanda Toye and Luke Goekner, who were playing husband and wife, walked around their house with their devices. They had the audacity to make a moving performance, and we didn’t miss the stage. All we saw were the possibilities of the medium to create something that would be impossible on stage but was just as moving, intimate, and ephemeral as live theatre. Also, we got to do something that we never did before: we called Erin Lane, our friend and one of the writers, after the show. We weren’t too tired because we didn’t have to travel anywhere. We felt connected to the work. We felt connected to people.

In digital theatre, artists could create a digital performance space far more expansive and mysterious than the in-person space.

Scene 3: Our Minds Were Blown

We agreed very quickly that digital theatre wasn’t film or theatre but its own artform. Nothing highlighted that more than Killjoy, Ohio by Queen City Flash at Cincinnati Fringe.

Cincinnati Fringe was our first fringe festival, and we probably didn't have the experience yet to tackle twenty shows in two weeks. We were making it up as we went along. All of the artists at Cincinnati Fringe were doing the same thing. Trey Tatum and Bridget Leak had to scrap their original show and create Killjoy, Ohio in under a month. In two rooms miles away from each other, and in two Zoom windows that never cut away or closed, they used borrowed lighting equipment to create a fantastical world that stretched everything we knew about theatre—digital or otherwise. We learned something very important: in digital theatre, the camera is the surrogate for the audience. It isn't the tool of the director like in cinema. In digital theatre, artists could create a digital performance space far more expansive and mysterious than the in-person space.

Later, we watched a Cincinnati Fringe talkback with Trey, Bridget, and actor Jordan Trovillion. We commented on their livestream, and Trey stopped the interview to say, “You guys are fucking awesome!” It turns out that the artists needed to have this feeling that someone saw them and what they were dealing with. What we didn’t know is how badly we needed that affirmation, too. At that moment, we learned we were fulfilling the purest role of a theatre critic: being the voice on the other side of the ravine, adding to the conversation.

A photo of a Zoom play with characters named Potential White Ally and Unapologetically Black Specialist with other people on screen for stage directions.

Unapologetically Black, a Zoom play.

Act 2: What the Hell Are We?

Scene One: We Had to Get Skin in the Game

Over the course of the past year, we have carried on that conversation across the ravine with many people. It became vital when George Floyd was murdered. At that time Dana was ripped apart emotionally. Dana knew there had to be Black artists who were feeling just as devastated as them.

The entire tone of digital theatre shifted from experimentation to revolution. Having access to the same software as every other theatremaker emboldened Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) artists to find their voices in new ways. BIPOC artists used this medium to tell the stories “traditional” theatre was afraid to tell.

We started to realize that Dana was the only Black theatre critic our new Black artist friends knew. We had to raise our voices and get skin in the game. We posted “Our Promise to American Theatre” stating we would shame and blacklist white theatre companies that continued racist policies. We hosted our first Black Theatre Round Table, a series of private discussions on Zoom with BIPOC theatremakers from around the world. We thought that it would be mainly artists airing grievances, but it quickly became about artists sharing their personal struggles and realizing that they had shared experiences. Ricky, who is white, sat and listened to yield the floor and make it a true BIPOC event. We kept raising questions like, "How do we speak out? How do we demand change? And how do we open up spaces?" All of us were wondering what we could do now and where we were going to go from here. We knew we couldn’t go backwards. Black theatremakers knew that progress would still be slow. However, if white theatre was going to continue this behavior, both of us needed to be connected to this network of BIPOC artists so that we could challenge them together.

A man in a short-sleeved black shirt with both forearms raised and hands flexed with the palms up.

"What The Fuck Just Happened?" Created and Performed by Mike Daisey.

Scene Two: Joining a Global Community

If you had told us in January 2020 that we were about to become part of a global community of creators and actors, we would have thought you were lying. It started with a seven-hour binge-watch of three versions of a single show, The Art of Facing Fear. These productions were created by a coalition of artists from Africa, Europe, the United States, and South America, all led by Brazil’s Os Satyros. Each production had fingerprints from the regions they came from and the artists that created it.

On Zoom, we talked with the production team. They shamed us with only three words: “It’s more democratic.” While theatre artists in the United States were arguing about aesthetics and egos, the international community had zeroed in on the real issue: a theatre that can be made with the devices in the creators’ hands is a more democratic theatre.

The Art of Facing Fear led to more reviews for more productions. We felt more than a connection with Os Satyros; it was a bond built from having a common mission. We all want to create a global family based on collaboration and democracy. We all want to amplify the work of the individual. We have never hugged or shared a meal with these people, yet we count them as family.

Digital theatre launched this group of artists—and hundreds like them—into a national arena where they could be seen by a wider audience.

Scene Three: Finding Little-Known Writers

We rarely knew any of the artists that we reviewed before the pandemic, which could not be illustrated better than through our experience with Tabitha Chasse’s A Pirate Christmas Carol, presented by Frank Sanchez Musicals. When theatre moved to digital platforms, Frank Sanchez Musicals—a company based on Long Island, New York—created a broader network that would not have been possible before the pandemic. One of the organizers of the show left a comment in a digital theatre Facebook group, which is how Dana found it. We are Christmas Carol devotees and have seen just about every adaptation out there, so we were sold immediately.

This Zoom play had some of the best design and performances we had seen that year. Tabitha had written the most streamlined adaptation that synthesized everything pirate and everything Dickens perfectly. She would later tell us that this was her first play, but we were so certain that she was a seasoned professional who we should have known about before. The real story was one that we had seen ever since we started reviewing: a group of local theatermakers putting out high-quality work in relative obscurity. Digital theatre launched this group of artists—and hundreds like them—into a national arena where they could be seen by a wider audience.

There are more of us who see what digital theatre can do, what it’s doing now, and what it will do in the future. Digital theatre needs to be good, it needs to be understood, and it needs to be accessible to everyone.

Act Three: What Now?

Scene One: The Return of In-Person

We had mixed emotions when we joined hundreds of digital audience members to watch Mike Daisey at Frigid NYC. First, there was a feeling of triumph because it was the first hybrid—meaning it was viewable in-person and digitally—show for Frigid. Second, Daisey’s piece harnessed all the pent-up emotions we had after the tumultuous election. Third, we couldn’t help but fear that this was both the beginning and the end.

Every time we have seen advances and setbacks in the fight against the virus, we have had to deal with the real possibility that everyone would turn off their screens and flood right back into theatres. Then, our sources for reviews—not to mention all the artists that we have been calling the core cadre of digital theatremakers this whole time—would exit the game. There would be no way for us to start attending every event we were invited to in person. With every twist and turn of the COVID pandemic, we have no clue what's on the other side. The one thing we are afraid of is everything going back to the status quo. We should have known better.

Scene Two: Looking Ahead

An award show we pitched as a joke in 2019 became a full production a year later, with a team of screen managers from Combined Artform on a livestreaming setup lent to us by Frigid New York. For the first time, we saw all the creators we reviewed come together to honor the work that everyone had done over the year. We hosted the show, and hundreds of people on five continents attended. Afterward, the two of us were numb for an entire week.

We found that there are more of us who see what digital theatre can do, what it’s doing now, and what it will do in the future. Digital theatre needs to be good, it needs to be understood, and it needs to be accessible to everyone. We always thought that if we weren’t talking about this then nobody was. Once we reached two hundred reviews, we needed a rest. We were tired, and we had never given ourselves permission to take a break. We know now that we’re not leading from the front, and we want to help build a unified community that has a bright future.

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