Virtual Theatre

Through Pandemic and Beyond

By: - Dec 12, 2020

Virtual theater has come in many forms during the last eight pandemic months. Our most recent theater review was actor/clown Bill Irwin’s new version of his bravura performance of On Beckett adapted for livestreaming by Irish Repertory Theatre. In this article, we look at how virtual theater is faring in Chicago and beyond.

The first virtual theater we saw in Chicago was in late March. Theater Wit’s Teenage Dick was the story of Shakespeare’s Richard III as a teenage boy going through high school trauma. COVID-19 loomed and artistic director Jeremy Wechsler, realizing the new play wasn’t going to make it to an actual run, filmed a preview performance with a live audience. Our reviewer noted that “the recording was edited to approximate the in-audience experience of the alley-style staging, including a pre-show curtain speech and post-show toast.”

Soon other theaters scrambled to stay alive for their audiences and we began to see Zoom readings of plays, such as Pride Films and Play’s series of live readings and Kane Repertory’s New Play Lab series. These readings featured actors in Zoom boxes, in dispersed locations, performing their roles with intensity and believability.

I don’t mean to denigrate “actors in Zoom boxes” because some of the best virtual plays I’ve seen were in that format by Chicago companies and the Apple Family plays by Richard Nelson, produced by the Public Theater. Chicago’s Trap Door Theatre presented a visually fascinating Alas and the workshopped plays by Kane Repertory Theatre have been outstanding, as were Stage Left’s gripping presentation of The Project(s) and Theatre Y’s We’re Gonna Die. So there has been great virtual theater during this pandemic and I think there’s a place for such theater even after we move to “the next normal.” I compared live, sweaty Chicago theater to theater on my sofa months ago, early in this live performance desert.

Igor Golyak, artistic director of the Needham, Mass., Arlekin Players Theatre, used a variety of techniques in creating State vs. Natasha Banina, a one-woman play about a Russian girl on trial for manslaughter. In a recent HowlRound Theatre Commons program, he describes how, near the end of the rehearsal process, they realized the Zoom-based production “wasn’t working.” They decided they needed to involve the audience as collaborators and used a variety of techniques such as popup questionnaires and showing audience members on screen. (The play was livestreamed in May.) One reviewer said the play “incorporates the possibilities of film and video-game-style animation into its storytelling, while retaining the live-performance component of theater.)

Golyak and the HowlRound moderator are in conversation with Wang Chong, a Chinese theater director, who recently produced Beckett’s Waiting for Godot set during the time of coronavirus. Actors in their own homes (including in Wuhan) each directed their own movement, lighting and transitions. Given the nature of Godot, Wang Chong said, characters may have been waiting for the end of lockdown, for the invention of a vaccine, or for a zero-number of new patients. “It was a very new creative experience for us and for our audience,” he said.

Golyak concluded, “All of us are waiting for Godot right now…. Nothing can compete with this theater concept.” The moderator commented that, “Our current limitations are freeing and helping us create new kinds of truthful stories.” You can view the HowlRound Commons video on virtual theater here. It runs about one hour.

The other night, before the Irish Rep production started and afterwards, I was interested to read the chat panel next to the YouTube frame. People signed in to say where they were viewing from and later, praised the production. Those who signed in were from 16 states and two other countries (despite time differences).

Similarly, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, world-renowned and a Chicago company in style and location, has found a huge audience for its virtual programming. While only a few hundred audience members (or fewer) can see a live Steppenwolf production at one showing, Steppenwolf has found virtual members joining them from more than 300 cities, 41 states and 12 countries, as of now. And the Steppenwolf Education team has brought George Orwell’s Animal Farm and its timely themes as a radio play to nearly 20,000 students around the world.

We asked a few theaters to comment on their experiences with virtual theater, for better or worse.

Daniil Krimer, artistic director of Kane Repertory Theatre, said, “I think the ability to invite practically anyone from anywhere has significantly raised our profile…. The relationships we’ve been able to build over the virtual medium with audience members and other artists will do a lot of good for the longevity of our organization.”

Krimer also said that they need more data. “Theatrical organizations are shooting in the dark, creating content that they think is interesting to their respective audiences. But there is no data to support whether any of these formats we are offering are anywhere close to as interesting to our audiences as a live theatrical event. Once (and if) things return to normal I think it is our job as theater makers to find out the answers to those questions.”

At TimeLine Theatre, marketing director Lara Goetsch says, “Approximately 30% of our online audiences have been from outside the Chicago metro area. (This compares to roughly 10% for in-person performances).” She added that combining online productions and the live-streamed events, they have recorded participation from 41 states and four countries outside the U.S. (United Kingdom, Canada, France and Australia). Outside of Illinois—Florida, New York, and California tend to be the other states with the most viewers thus far.

Goetsch also thinks that this expanded virtual audience will benefit the company in the long run. “It’s a privilege to share TimeLine’s work with as wide an audience as possible, and building name recognition and personal experience with our mission and programs is a wonderful aspect and gift of this difficult time. Perhaps folks who viewed a program from Florida will choose to check us out in person when they travel to Chicago! Or share their experience with local friends and family who may be inspired to visit us in the future.”

Nicole Wiesner, managing director at Trap Door Theatre, said they have not been tracking viewers’ locations but since they have been working with actors from different cities and countries, they believe their virtual work is reaching new audiences. Their current production (Decomposed Theatre by Matel Visniec, opening December 3) involves eight directors and more than 30 actors from five countries. Given the size of the Trap Door physical space, that size troupe would never be possible live on stage.

Wiesner concluded, “Time differences have proved challenging, but it has been really cool to give our ensemble the opportunity to work with artists they wouldn’t meet otherwise…. I think some things we have learned from [this] will remain post pandemic. Having staff meetings, board meetings, cast meetings on Zoom, for instance, saves us time and transportation money.”

Cedar Larson, producer and company manager for PlayMakers Laboratory Theatre, said about half of their virtual audiences have been outside the Chicago area. Larson said they have gotten opportunities they wouldn’t have gotten without their digital content, both free and paid, and that they will most likely continue to use virtual theater in some form later.

Whether we are viewing actors in Zoom boxes or creatively edited livestreamed video, there’s definitely a value in virtual theater. In addition to the benefits expressed by theater makers, lower production costs can enable theaters to try out new concepts or provide opportunities to emerging performers more easily. And virtual theater can open the theater experience to a wider audience, including those who might be unable to attend live theater for physical reasons. (And it’s saving our sanity right now, even though I know my theater critic colleagues would rather be sitting in a theater with a living, breathing, responsive audience.)