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Two months into the shutdown, playwrights are trying different ways of telling stories, and the experiments have just begun. We spoke with four of them, including Pulitzer Prize winner David Lindsay-Abaire
Thursday, May 7 will mark eight full weeks since Broadway shut down, with theatres all over the city and the country following suit soon after. The first major initiative of new (not prerecorded or previously written) work to launch during the pandemic was the weekly Viral Monologues, the brainchild of arts writer and advocate Howard Sherman and the producers of The 24 Hour Plays, which started on Tuesday, March 17. Last week, the rapidly evolving virtual theatre scene reached a new milestone as 46,940 viewers streamed The Public Theater's What Do We Need to Talk About?, a brand-new hour-long drama created for the video conferencing app Zoom by Tony-winning playwright and director Richard Nelson, with the actors performing live from their respective homes. In between, countless theatre-makers have gotten in on the online action by debuting new pieces, usually shorts, including a 15-minute opera and a children's musical. Longer-form virtual premieres are on the way, notably magician Helder Guimarães' interactive show The Present produced by Los Angeles' Geffen Playhouse, which starts this Thursday but has been completely sold out for weeks, a clear sign that audiences are hungry for new performances, even if they're virtual.
Some in the industry have questioned whether any of this is theatre (truly, it's in the eye of the beholder), and a few have suggested that, in the face of so much death, theatre-makers should, like New York State, take a pause. But with no set timeline for when large in-person gatherings will be safe again, playwrights are turning desperation into innovation and salvation.
David Lindsay-Abaire, best known for the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Rabbit Hole as well as the lyrics and book for Shrek the Musical, has been participating in The Viral Monologues since its inception, and his contributions have been both hilarious and harrowing. "There's something exciting about the immediacy of The Viral Monologues," he says, noting that they are written, rehearsed, performed and put online within a 24-hour period. "I've never written in real time, and these are a reflection or rumination on something that specific day. Sometimes I can't focus; I get distracted and anxious. I feel like I only have bite-size opportunities to write at all. I want to be productive and The Viral Monologues are perfect for me. Some people go to Sunday mass; I do a Monday monologue instead. Maybe when CNN and Cuomo and the virus move out of my head, there'll be room for a play."
Jessica Blank, cocreator of The Exonerated, also appreciates the quick turnaround and short format of The Viral Monologues, especially since she's still mourning Coal Country, the docudrama she directed and co-wrote about the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine explosion that had its run cut short at The Public Theater due to the pandemic. Since she and her husband/collaborator, Erik Jensen, specialize in politically charged documentary plays, their friends and colleagues immediately started suggesting they interview frontline healthcare workers. And that's exactly what they did for their Viral Monologue Invincible, which is based on the testimony of an anonymous nurse working in a New York City hospital. "Erik and I both had a really profound sense of helplessness being stuck in our home," Blank says. "In any other crisis, we would be out doing things and marching in the streets. When there was an opportunity to do what we do, to have some kind of ripple effect early on in this crisis when a lot of the voices on the front lines weren't really being heard, it felt like a relief to be able to do this sort of rapid response contribution."
Currently, Blank and Jensen are working on resurrecting Coal Country as audio theatre, a genre that has exploded in the wake of the pandemic. Instead of cancelling its summer productions, the venerable Williamstown Theatre Festival is planning an all-audio season; Off Broadway's acclaimed Playwrights Horizons recently launched its Soundstage series and the Broadway Podcast Network, which used to mostly offer chat shows, is now premiering multi-episode musicals and plays. BPN's newest title is the vampire spoof Dracula, A Comedy of Terrors, an audio adaptation of a stage play by Gordon Greenberg and Steve Rosen featuring Broadway stars Christopher Sieber as Count Dracula, Tony winner Laura Benanti as Van Helsing and Alex Brightman as Renfield.
"I like to constantly rethink and reinvent, and I think that's a lot of what went into transforming Dracula into a podcast," says Greenberg, whose New York credits include directing and writing the book for Broadway's Holiday Inn, The New Irving Berlin Musical. "Thinking of Dracula not in three dimensions but just as a radio play was a great challenge and kind of brought me back to the days of riding around in my father's car, listening to cassette tapes of The Shadow. You can't see the quick changes or other physical fun, so we had to up the ridiculousness of some of the situations. This has some laughs that are inexpensive, let's say. It's got a Mel Brooks/Irma Vep sensibility."
Like Blank and Jensen, Greenberg and Rosen also had a show close prematurely due to the pandemic: the musical The Secret to My Success at Chicago's Paramount Theatre. They dealt with their disappointment by immediately turning to new projects. "In some ways, I think I've been preparing for this as a freelance artist all my life," says Greenberg. "I always ask myself, what else could I be doing to make more things? As someone who likes to create theatre, that's been my balm and my motivation.
The first thing Greenberg did after the shutdown was reach out to San Diego's Old Globe, where he frequently works. The theatre immediately commissioned him and Rosen to pen three projects: a full-length play for a future season; a humorous handwashing video featuring the cast of their holiday spectacle Ebenezer Scrooge's BIG San Diego Christmas Show; and a script for Play at Home.
Unlike the other new work being created during this crisis, the playlets that comprise Play at Home are not meant to be seen online—or anywhere for that matter. Companies from across the country, including The Public Theater in New York, Washington D.C.'s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and Baltimore Center Stage, paid writers to create shorts that can be downloaded by anyone during the lockdown for free and read aloud at home for fun. The intention is that they'll never be staged, and given how fantastical many are—Greenberg and Rosen's Killing Time opens with a massive but nonfatal plane crash—that wouldn't be feasible, anyway.
"So much of what Steve and I have written have been adaptations, so in the case of that 10-minute play, we were faced with a blank computer screen, which was frightening," says Greenberg. "We started to wonder, at this moment, how can we land something with resonance and humanity that will be a comfort for people? Quickly we realized we put too big a responsibility on our shoulders." They ended up mixing "The Count of Monte Cristo with a little Edward Albee and a high school prom at the Hilton together into this weird concoction. Allowing ourselves to go to another place in our minds was such a liberating experience."
Seemingly, Marc Palmieri holds the distinction of being the first playwright to pen a full one-act specifically for Zoom. His Waiting for the Host, originally titled Streaming Passion, premiered on April l6, which, in warped pandemic time, feels years, not weeks ago. The comedic play within a play about a church group rehearsing "The Passion Play" remotely has already been performed live online by two different professional theatre companies, and is set to be published by the Dramatists Play Service in the upcoming collection Technical Difficulties: Plays for Online Theatre alongside pieces by John Cameron Mitchell, Ken Urban, Beth Henley and Anna Ziegler.
Palmieri, who is also a teacher and performer, hadn't been planning on writing anything for our new surreality. But when he was asked to read the role of Jesus for a video of "The Passion Play" to be streamed on Palm Sunday at All Saints Episcopal Church in Bayside, Queens, he couldn't resist the impulse to make art that imitated life.
"It just seemed so perfect," Palmieri says, noting the themes of suffering for Lent and the plagues of the concurrent Passover eerily reflect this period of crisis. "I finished it in about two hours in my basement. Like most desperate playwrights, by the next day I sent it to my agent and Dramatists Play Service and, within two weeks, the first production was opening." Further blurring the line between fiction and reality, Palmieri wrote New York's noisy nightly 7 p.m. salute to healthcare workers into the script since he knew it would be audible in the background of that first performance as some of the actors lived in the city.
While each of these playwrights is taking a different approach to creating during the shutdown, they all agree on a few things. Their pieces are reaching many more people much more quickly than they would in a theatre. As Lindsay-Abaire puts it, in the course of 24 hours, "I write a monologue that David Hyde Pierce memorizes and performs and that people watch as opposed to spending two years writing a play that may be put up at Manhattan Theatre Club one day." Virtual performances are certainly breaking down financial and geographical barriers, allowing theatre lovers everywhere to see fresh work written and performed by major artists. Perhaps a small upside to all this is that new theatre audiences are being cultivated.
But despite the fun the playwrights are having trying new things, they all miss making traditional theatre.
"I think the experiments we're doing in this time, they're not meant to be replacements," says Blank. "Live theatre is live theatre, it's about being in a room together. These will be artifacts of this moment."
"I can't imagine writing anything full-length for this frame because that would acknowledge that it's not going to go away, and I want it to go away!" says Lindsay-Abaire emphatically. "I don't want to think we're still going to be on Zoom in a year. This is what we're doing for now because we can't do anything else."
Top image: A Story of Survival by David Lindsay-Abaire, performed by Rachel Dratch for The Viral Monologues.