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July 3, 2020: On Creating New Works, New Forms

Good day,

I just finished writing a review for Variety of a new work by playwright Richard Nelson, a continuation of the four-play saga of the Apple Family dramas that were produced for New York’s Public Theater and later filmed for PBS.

No, it wasn’t a stage play but rather a 60-minute work presented as a live Zoom session featuring this fictional family sequestered in their in upstate New York homes and having a virtual dinner as they dealt with issues at home and the world beyond. It was widely available on YouTube and another website and was offered for free for a limited number of weeks. An earlier Zoom work by Nelson was viewed by far more people that would have seen had it been presented on stage.

But what is it exactly? It isn’t quite live theater, nor is it cinema or television. But it’s the most riveting and relevant new work I’ve seen created during the pandemic.

It reminds me of the endless creativity of artists and the importance of staying connected to them as we survey audiences, create returning scenarios and imagine our artistic homes open again.

An article in Howlround talks about the Belarus Free Theatre whose outlawed artists operate in the UK and underground in Minsk and who have created a purposeful connection with their audiences. When the pandemic hit, says its co-artistic leader Nicolai Khalezin, most theaters just didn’t have the technical know-how to continue to operate in such isolating conditions “For BFT, though, stopping has never really been an option.”

Howlround has presented some of the more interesting reports of artists continuing to create art in new forms, including another piece about students at the American Conservatory Theatre. "Clearly [live video theatre] is not live in-person theatre [and] will not replace live in-person theatre, nor will it replace television or film." But it goes on to say special live experiences that connect in a deep way are possible, especially with younger audiences. "The millennial generation learned how to build relationships, intimacy, and community through video and live chats. It’s about time everyone else got on board."

There are many more instances of artists who persevere in a pandemic, creating not only new work but new ways of working. San Francisco’s PlayGround has launched a virtual Zoom Fest, experimenting with a new form of digital theatre. A theater in New Hampshire -- the Seacoast Repertory Theatre -- is experimenting with webcasting live from its stage.

My colleague Jeffrey Sweet writes in American Theatre magazine that another way to keep theater alive is to put it on television, pointing to England's National Theatre Live; an earlier era when staged dramas were presented live -- minus an audience -- featuring writers like Horton Foote, Paddy Chayefsky, Rod Serling, Gore Vidal; and to the '70s when PBS presented filmed stage shows from across the country — when there were only four channels. Sweet also points to a recent article in The Guardian where British director Sam Mendes suggested “that, since Netflix has gained a windfall of subscribers because of the pandemic, it would make moral sense for it to come to the aid of theatres.”

But an arts channel is already here, at least with MarqueeTV, a performing-arts streaming service, which had its U.S. debut in February. "With the belief that the future of the performing arts is digital the service presents high-definition dance, theater and opera offerings, available on demand…"And if U.S. arts groups want to survive the coronavirus crisis and beyond, they need to focus on getting their work online, those at the streaming service say — because American artists have fallen far behind their peers overseas.”

Finally, one wonders with the release of the film of “Hamilton” stage show featuring the original Broadway cast this week on Disney Plus if it will perhaps create a greater willingness to see theater in a different way. According to The Hollywood Reporter: Disney describes it as a leap forward in the art of 'live capture,' "which transports its audience into the world of the Broadway show in a uniquely intimate way.”

-- Frank Rizzo

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