As we look ahead to the end of this year, the prospects of re-opening seem as far away as ever, especially following the recent news that Broadway has extended its closings yet again, this time through at least the end of May.
It’s hardly alone — at least in the U.S. where one after another arts organization is telling its audience that it isn’t likely see it in person until the fall of 2021 — and fingers are crossed for even that forecast. The Joffrey Ballet of Chicago canceled its entire 2020-21 season. The Metropolitan Opera in New York announced that the cancellation would extend to its entire 2020-21 season. The list goes on and on.
But what may be the more disturbing news — at least in terms of audience confidence in returning — is what happened at the White House recently. People attending a White House event without masks and social distancing — including the president — later tested positive with the coronavirus. The images of that tagged super-spreader crowd are likely to remain in people’s minds when it finally comes time to even consider returning to indoor cultural and performing arts venues.
But innovation continues on many levels in virtual creative spaces.
Los Angeles’ largest nonprofit theater company, the Center Theatre Group, said at the end of March that it hoped to stage live performances by fall of ’20 at all three of its venues: the Ahmanson, the Mark Taper Forum and the Kirk Douglas. That didn’t happen obviously and after laying off more than half of its staff, it announced that it will remain dark until April 2021. With almost seven months between now and then, and with spring of ’21 still very much uncertain, the Los Angeles Times reports that the Center Theatre Group is expected to announce the creation of a fourth venue built for the COVID-19 era: the Digital Stage.
And changes are happening in smaller groups, too, that are finding strength in forming new partnerships and alliances. Take Alternative Theatre Los Angeles, a new group of 64 small venues that have joined forces to create an online festival as well as collectively prepare safety protocols, work with unions, rally and work with artists, press legislators for support — and especially engage audiences in innovative ways. But this new dynamic is only a little more than a half-year old.
As Vinson Cunningham writes in The New Yorker about the new audience dynamic in on-line presentations, the very definition of what makes an audience is being re-conceived. ““Virtual theatre”—a sprawling category, more experiential than formal, which ranges from high-quality performance recordings, such as the recently released filmed version of “Hamilton,” to staticky live Zooms, and is unified as a genre only by its reliance on Wi-Fi — is still in its vulnerable infancy. But something else, perhaps even more important for the future of the art, is happening, too: we are undergoing a worldwide reconstrual of what it means to be a member of the crowd….And so, in a very real way, each of us is on her own. The work of playwriting, acting, and theatrical production today might be to reintroduce us to one another, one at a time.”
Listen to artists in a recent Howlround session talk to each other about how their imagination is being simulated by this new, still-to-be-defined format and how they see that alt-audience.
As London based theater-maker Amy Clare Tasker said: “I try not to get too wrapped up in what things are called. There are probably going to be lots of people writing PhDs about virtual theatre or online theatre or whatever we call it. I do think it is something unique. It’s somewhere at the intersection of theatre, film, and site-specific performance. When it’s live and the audience is on Zoom with you, that is theatrical.”
Peter Marks writing in The Washington Post took his readers behind the scenes in the actual creation of an online new work of art and how artists — and audiences — are together finding their ways in this new interactive landscape.
In The New Yorker playwright Michael Frayn (“Noises Off,” “Copenhagen”) had a throw-away idea for a piece in The New Yorker, that might seem so fanciful — if it wasn't for the often surreal year we are experiencing. “If Zoom could make their system more sophisticated,” he said, “so that everyone in the audience could be represented by an avatar in the theatre, and each avatar could hear the other person, it would be as good as having an audience. But you see the difficulties we’re having even maintaining this conversation with two people. The thought of all the people with avatars being visible and audible, coming back into existence, going out of existence again, would be a very dicey prospect. It’s one of the criticisms that people make of actors sometimes, that they’ve phoned in their performance—but, theoretically, the audience could phone in their responses and that could be broadcast around the empty auditorium.”
Will audiences go alone with these experimental virtual ventures? That remains to be see but there are promising signs — and warnings, too.
A recent study by Baker Richards Consulting in England offered good news in study that showed a dramatic rise of “arts attenders” going online and a willingness to do so in the future — but a drop when surveyors asked about people’s willingness to pay for events, especially after having received them for free. The pay, it seems, is the thing. Though eight out of 10 said they would continue to engage online, according to another survey, as reported in U.K.'s The Stage, there are concerns about the quality of digital content and people’s willingness to open their wallets for it.
Rest assured, theater artists aren't the only ones being innovative. Technology gurus at Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook are working on new levels of interactivity that artists and arts leaders will be able to tap into, according to a fascinating piece this summer in Vox. There’s much more to come sooner than we think.
And perhaps Frayn’s audience avatar isn’t that far away after all.
— Frank Rizzo