The sudden, pandemic-driven necessity for “social distancing” is a dagger to the heart of theater, and not just in a financial sense.
After all, this art form has traditionally drawn its power and purpose from its ability to collapse social distance and from the up-close-and-personal immediacy of live performance.
Central to the idea of theater is that an audience has a shared experience and responds as one to that experience. We imbibe a play or musical in the here-and-now while breathing the same air — now there’s a newly fraught phrase — as the onstage performers.
Today, though, as the public square empties out, a seismic shift from communal to cloistered is under way. At least for the duration of this unsettling intermission imposed by COVID-19, the Internet is the new playhouse.
To get a sense of what theater without theaters will be like, I decided to binge on recordings of previously staged productions available on the streaming service BroadwayHD. You can also find plays and musicals on PBS’s “Great Performances online archive”. (Of course, such online options are little help to current productions hit hard by the shutdowns, whether on Broadway or in regional theaters.)
My virtual-theater marathon made for frequently absorbing viewing. But it also confirmed my sense that theatrical productions just can’t transport you in quite the same way when they are seen on a screen. That extra degree of separation diminishes the experience, makes it less tactile, less personal, less special. Something is lost in translation. With a layer of technology between us and the stage, a theater piece can seem like just another TV show or movie.
Something less tangible is missing, too: the evanescence that is, perhaps paradoxically, part of the beauty of theater, and certainly part of its poignancy. Every theatergoer knows that the magical moments in a live performance are fleeting, retrievable only in our memories. We can’t freeze the frame and hit replay. We can’t download them. It makes those vanishing moments more meaningful, somehow. They remain lodged somewhere deep in our psyches, and when the times are such that we need them — like now, maybe — we can bring those moments forth in our mind’s eye.
Yet the reality is that right now we have no choice but to consume culture of all kinds remotely. We need it. Besides, there are compensations that come with the screen experience. Camera close-ups can achieve a proximity that even the best orchestra seats cannot match. While watching Noel Coward’s “Present Laughter” on BroadwayHD, it was a treat to see, in minute detail, the way Kevin Kline, playing the narcissistic actor Garry Essendine, would arch a quizzical eyebrow as his household was enveloped in chaos.
Although I’d seen Dominique Morisseau’s “Pipeline” at Lincoln Center — starring Karen Pittman as Nya, a teacher and divorced mother desperately worried about the fate of her teenage son, facing expulsion from his private school — it was only when I saw the play online that the full weight of Nya’s words early in the play (“I’m exhausted. You know that?”) hit home, the weariness etched in Pittman’s face registering more completely than in the theater.
As a young man, I sat spellbound in a Boston theater when the national tour of “Sweeney Todd,” starring Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett and George Hearn as Sweeney, came through town, triggering my lifelong fascination with Stephen Sondheim. So of course I watched it on BroadwayHD. The harrowing force of Hal Prince’s staging comes through onscreen, but it was the small moments that riveted me this time — including the startling spectacle of Lansbury rapidly alternating her feet like Curly in his frenzied, pre-battle “Whoop whoop whoop whoop” dance on “The Three Stooges.” I nearly fell off the couch.
Jolting in a different way, given our current situation, was the sight of a grizzled, baseball-cap-wearing Ed Harris, portraying a man named Dodge in the 2016 off-Broadway revival of Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child.” As the play begins, Dodge is slumped in a living room, coughing and wheezing. His wife, Halie, played by Harris’s real-life wife Amy Madigan, calls to him from upstairs: “What’s it like down there?” Dodge mutters grimly: “Catastrophic.” Uh-huh.
A curious combination of gold mine and mishmash, BroadwayHD features a West End production of “Kinky Boots” that does not, alas, star Billy Porter, who made that Cyndi Lauper-Harvey Fierstein musical strut, shimmer, and soar on Broadway. For good measure, I checked out a few productions I had not seen live, such as “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” which won Audra McDonald her sixth Tony Award for her portrayal of Billie Holiday.
Figuring this was a good time to bone up on more distant theater history, I watched a televised 1975 adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s “Moon for the Misbegotten” starring Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst, shortly after they performed it on Broadway, and a 1966 broadcast of “Death of a Salesman” with Lee J. Cobb and Mildred Dunnock, nearly two decades after they starred in the Broadway premiere of Arthur Miller’s masterpiece.
Seeing those giants of the stage, even on film, was undeniably stirring. But both dramas are, let’s face it, heavy sledding. Needing my spirits lifted, I watched a musical I’d seen live on Broadway: the buoyant 2016 revival of Bock and Harnick’s “She Loves Me,” starring a never-better Laura Benanti and Zachary Levi as clerks in a Budapest parfumerie who, unbeknownst to each other, have been carrying on an ardent correspondence. (National treasure Jane Krakowski is also on hand, always a plus.)
A play that works very well onscreen is Paula Vogel’s “Indecent,” which I first saw on Broadway three years ago. It’s about a pioneering Yiddish play that was built around a lesbian relationship and the enduring meaning of that play through generations of struggle and suffering. I found “Indecent” to be, if anything, even more timely as a reminder of the ways that theater can sustain human connection during the very darkest hours.
The theater world will have to be innovative now, though, if it wants to remain a vital part of the cultural conversation. The challenges are monumental. Consider the recent experience of Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company. On March 12, when the Huntington canceled the much-anticipated world premiere of Kirsten Greenidge’s “Our Daughters, Like Pillars,” the company announced that it hoped to create a digital recording of the production that would be made for ticket buyers.
But that plan soon had to be scrubbed. For it to be ready for filming, the production required more rehearsal time, which was not possible under new restrictions on public gatherings and travel. “We needed two more weeks of bringing people together in close quarters to make that [recording] happen,” Huntington managing director Michael Maso told me, adding: “The thing about theater is it’s labor-intensive. There’s an enormous amount of work that goes on, to allow us to open.”
New works like “Our Daughters,” unfortunately, are going to be left waiting in the wings as the public health crisis unfolds. The thrill of discovery that is such an essential part of theater-going might have to wait until playhouses can open again.
Or maybe not. A possible sign of the road ahead came this week when the 24 Hour Plays organization unveiled the wryly titled “Viral Monologues,” in which 20 playwrights paired up with 20 actors to create original works written, filmed, and presented online in the space of a single day.
Fittingly enough, the first installment, “A Story of Survival” — penned by South Boston native David Lindsay-Abaire (“Rabbit Hole,” “Good People”) — featured Lexington native Rachel Dratch (“Saturday Night Live”) as a vlogger relating the tale of her stand-off with an elderly woman over a store’s sole remaining bottle of hand sanitizer.
Can’t get much more topical than that.