When he first asserted that the medium is the message, Marshall McLuhan had television and other electronic media in mind, not live theater or the present-day version of the Internet.
Yet 2020 has been a year in which McLuhan’s maxim was borne out in the theater industry, for both good and ill.
After the COVID-19 pandemic closed down playhouses in March, theatermakers scrambled to adapt to the online medium, replacing live performances with livestreams on platforms like Zoom, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram Live. Then, as 2020 dragged on and stages remained dark, some dramatists and directors went a step further, weaving the Web itself into the marrow of the virtual theater they were creating. Digital platforms morphed from emergency stopgap — a means to tell theatrical stories when theaters were closed — into a core element of the stories themselves.
What resulted in these productions could resemble an online hall of mirrors, where the subject of a play and the mode of that play’s presentation converged. Frankly, I saw enough awkward hybrids this year that I came to concur with what playwright-actress Melinda Lopez told me in July, as she pondered theater’s future: “I would rather meet in people’s backyards 10 at a time than move to all-Zoom-all-the-time.”
When theaters do reopen, scenic designers really ought to hike their fees. Nothing reinforces the importance of a good set when it comes to creating the world of the play quite like watching nine months of pandemic theater streamed from actors’ kitchens, living rooms, and bedrooms.
Another pitfall created by the Zoomification of theater was the temptation — which some theatermakers did not avoid — to overload those stories with digital distractions, to allow form to dictate content and the medium to overwhelm the message.
Still, there are reasons to believe that this year’s enforced relocation online could pay creative dividends down the road.
For one thing, theater’s obligation is to reflect the way we live now, and all those English-majors-turned-playwrights have been getting a crash course in the role technology can play as connective tissue in an age of massive disruption and dislocation. Some of them will surely confront the implications of that in the dramas that emerge from this period.
More broadly and deeply, theater artists — along with the rest of us — are being forced to confront the experience of suffering and loss on an individual and societal scale, and to think about who and what we value in a time of protracted crisis. It’s hard to imagine richer dramatic themes, whether or not the COVID-19 pandemic is the specific subject of any given play.
Few theater artists moved more quickly to dramatize the impact of the crisis on interpersonal communication than the celebrated playwright Richard Nelson, who swiftly churned out a “pandemic trilogy” of new installments to his Apple Family plays: “What Do We Need to Talk About?,” “And So We Come Forth,” and “Incidental Moments of the Day.” Presented by New York’s Public Theater, the plays were a major early splash in the digital pool as the Apple siblings, far and close at the same time, exchanged confidences and delved into family issues on Zoom — and we watched them do so on Zoom and YouTube.
Younger playwrights, too, were engaged in a similar spatial experiment. In the current premiere of Alexis Scheer’s “A Very Herrera Holiday” by Watertown’s New Repertory Theatre (through Dec. 13), a bubbly lifestyle blogger named Emma Herrera generates a faux intimacy with her fictional audience over Zoom. Meanwhile, the actress playing her, Amanda Figueroa, is, in effect, chatting live with a real audience (namely, us) over . . . Zoom.
Early on, Emma brightly declares that “What I really love doing is playing with expectations,” and the same is true of playwright Scheer, author of “Our Dear Dead Drug Lord” and “Laughs in Spanish.” At first, Emma’s goal seems to be only to chat with viewers about her family’s Coquito recipe and to offer instruction on “creative crafts.” But bit by bit Emma moves into darker territory as the subject of her mysteriously absent husband recurs. By the end both the fictional audience and the real one are drawn uncomfortably close to an unsettling situation.
In Miranda Austen ADEkoje’s “[keyp-ing],” also premiering at New Rep through Dec. 13 and also presented on Zoom, freelance commercial producer Monica Jenae (Jasmine M. Rush) confides her fears to her Instagram Live followers about the delayed return of her Black film crew from a COVID-19 testing site in an overwhelmingly white Boston suburb.
The producer is haunted by the idea that she may have risked the lives of her crew in order to stay in the “good graces” of her employers. Even amid a pandemic, racial inequities in health care abound that she and her crew have to contend with. On the right side of the Instagram screen, (scripted) feedback from followers — some supportive, some hostile — is constantly flowing. Tensions escalate as Monica responds in real time, with the commenters emerging as unseen but very active characters in “[keyp-ing].”
Many theater leaders have told me that online components such as livestreams and even video-on-demand will endure as part of the theatrical mix even after vaccines make it safe for us to gather together. But there’s a baked-in structural issue with streaming theater that proved challenging this year: namely, that live performance simply resonates differently when it is mediated by screens.
Then there are the specific logistics involved when members of a large cast are presented in Zoom’s “Brady Bunch”-style adjoining boxes while performing individually in their own homes. That disjunction hobbled Hub Theatre Company’s updated “Much Ado About Nothing,” presented on Facebook and YouTube. “Much Ado” lacked the unity of performance essential to making that Shakespeare comedy work, even though adapter-director Bryn Boice leaned into the present moment by having Beatrice, Benedick et. al. communicating from within the COVID-19 “quarantine bubble’' so many have been confined to. Since it is likely to be months before actors can gather together in the same space, this will continue to be a problem for large-cast shows.
There are only two characters in the world premiere of Amir Nizar Zuabi’s “This Is Who I Am,” which was jointly commissioned by the Washington, D.C.-based Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and the New York-based PlayCo and is being presented through Jan. 3 by those theaters in association with Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and the Guthrie Theater.
Accessible through Broadway On Demand, Zuabi’s play is about a father in Ramallah and his estranged son in New York who cook a family dish together during a video call over Zoom. As they do, the two men try to repair old wounds inflicted by both personal and national history, in hopes of closing the emotional chasm between them.
In an interview conducted by PlayCo, Zuabi mused about Zoom theater’s upside as well as its limitations. “Maybe the ability to gather a lot of audiences from different places to hear a story together is something that will become another tool that we can use,” he said. “I think that the opportunities, like in every new media, belong to the youngsters. I hope it won’t replace the real thing.”
Amen to all of the above.