The COVID-19 pandemic forced Washtenaw County's theater companies into the gut-wrenching decision of canceling numerous planned shows, but many companies have found a new temporary home for their work online.
Facebook Live, Zoom, and YouTube are among the only safe means of presenting theater to an audience during the pandemic, and companies have adopted online platforms in a variety of ways. For example, Ann Arbor's Penny Seats Theatre Company launched monthly virtual readings of new plays this past summer. Tickets for the livestreamed shows cost $5, with the money going to the artists, the playwright, and, if there's extra, the Penny Seats' general fund.
Lauren London, executive director of the Penny Seats, says about 40 to 50 people have tuned in for each play. The series was inspired in part by a new play festival called "One Day More," which the Penny Seats presented just before the pandemic hit.
"We wanted to find a way to offer more new work," London says. "… ['One Day More'] was our first foray into getting new works out there, and these virtual play readings have presented us with new opportunities for more of that."
Ypsilanti-based Neighborhood Theatre Group (NTG), meanwhile, put out a call in June to local playwrights for new, 10-minute pieces inspired by a piece of music (like "Send in the Clowns" or "Last Train to Clarksville"). Viewers could watch the bite-size plays for free live or after the fact on NTG's Facebook page, although donations were encouraged. Kristin Danko, NTG's artistic director and co-founder, says NTG received about 25 submissions and staged five of them in October.
"Our main goal … was to develop new scripts and keep our creative spirit going," Danko says.
Ann Arbor's Theatre Nova also put out a call for 10-minute plays for its Zoom Play Series, selecting 15 from a pool of 35 submissions. The plays were presented in groups of three over the course of five consecutive nights in October. Viewers could buy a festival pass for $20, or a pass for any individual night for $5. If they missed seeing any plays live, they had the chance to watch a recording later. Diane Hill, Theatre Nova's producing artistic director, says the company sold 1,114 tickets for the live shows and another 57 tickets to stream the shows later.
"Audience interest and response was way better than I expected," she says.
The series' success has been hugely helpful to Theatre Nova since, unlike many other local companies, it has a performance space of its own at the Yellow Barn in Ann Arbor.
"The revenue from the Zoom plays will help to pay our rent and utilities for a short period," Hill says. "Our entire staff is basically laid off, but our overhead is high."Diane Hill.
Hill says she and Carla Milarch, Theatre Nova's founding artistic director, are focusing their efforts on fundraising and grant-writing to help the company continue to cover its expenses. But Theatre Nova's online productions were so successful that the company plans to present a Play of the Month series online early next year, from January to April. Although the playwrights and performers donated their time for the first series, they will all be paid this time, thanks to an underwriting donor.
"There's definitely been a learning curve"
Although online productions have helped many local theater companies get by, they're a markedly different experience, presenting many unique challenges behind the scenes.
"There's definitely been a learning curve," Danko says. "Our directors, myself included, found that we are giving notes that we would never give in a live performance. We also had things like lightbulbs burning out, internet cutting out, dogs barking, and cats jumping on computers during rehearsals. We all had a 'tech' rehearsal where we figured out camera angles, lighting, backgrounds, and costumes."
Plus, the give-and-take that happens between an actor and an audience in a live theater production falls away when the medium is a computer screen.
"When you're performing online, you get nothing. There's zero feedback," London says. "You don't know if the audience is into it, or if they've walked away from their machine, or they're dormant, or if they're truly engaged. And that's hard for a performer."
She says it's also tricky because the performers have to be their own stage managers.
"The worst is when, during a performance, someone just freezes, mid-sentence, onscreen," she says.
Even with these challenges, though, local theater artists have jumped at the chance to take part in online presentations.
"When I reached out to the actors … I got an overwhelming response of 'yes,'" Danko says. "It seemed like we were all craving a theater project and a chance to work together again."Kristin Danko.
And there have been some advantages to moving shows online. People from all over the country (and far beyond) can now easily watch friends or family members performing, thus extending a company's potential reach. Online theater is wildly affordable. And when an actor suddenly tears his ACL the day before a performance – as "Decade Dance" co-lead Jeremy Kucharek did before the Penny Seats' July play reading – "there was no interruption of the work," London says.
"Zoom may not be ideal, but it can provide opportunities you wouldn't think of," she says.
To name one example, Theatre Nova will next marry this new format with a now-established company tradition: the holiday panto. (Short for "pantomime," this English theater ritual combines comedy and music with current events for a family-friendly original show.) This year, actors will perform live, with sets and costumes, in the Yellow Barn, "but the audience gets to stay at home and even interact with the craziness on Zoom," Hill says.
An irreplaceable experience
Washtenaw County's theater companies are now contemplating what the performing arts landscape will look and feel like once COVID-19 is finally in our collective rearview, and whether online programming might carry over into that future.
NTG is now considering adding a virtual play reading series to its programming mix "even when we are back live, to help get new plays out there," says Danko. "Now that we understand the medium a little more, we can work to improve the quality of these virtual productions."
London wonders if audiences will be too haunted by this tumultuous, difficult year to want to engage with virtual theater anymore.
"When we're back to performing our main stage work, I'm not sure we'll have time to devote to a series like this," London says. "But part of me wonders, too, when we go back to live performance, if everyone who experienced this year will be banging down the door to get that live interaction again. Maybe Zoom, at that time, will feel triggering. Like, 'Don't remind me of the hell that was 2020.'"Lauren London.
Danko echoes that sentiment.
"As I watched these [short Zoom plays] every Thursday, it was just my boyfriend and my cat watching with me," Danko says. "There was no turning to my left and sharing a moment with a stranger. There was no group laugh at a funny line, or collective sigh when a tense moment was over. Yes, there were people writing in the comments, cheering on the artists and letting everyone know they were watching. But nothing can replace people coming together to share a live theatre experience."
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Jenn McKee is a freelance writer with a long history of covering arts and culture in the Ann Arbor area. She also has a pair of blogs: The Adequate Mom and A2 Arts Addict.
All photos by Doug Coombe.