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BWW Blog: Next to (Somewhat) Normal

The Case for Zoom Theatre in a Post-Pandemic World

BWW Blog: Next to (Somewhat) Normal

This week marked the one year anniversary of the first documented case of Covid in the United States. After a year of economic devastation and relentless turmoil, the slow path towards vaccination has given us a glimmer of light at the end of the 2020 tunnel. It hasn't been easy. Beloved theatre institutions in cities and towns across America have closed permanently, leaving behind only the shadows of the communities built during their tenure. Broadway shows are one by one deciding whether they will postpone or close when Times Square reopens, and even corporations as well-endowed as Disney Theatricals are choosing to economize. Artists and technicians, for the most part, haven't seen a stage in 365 days, its absence taking their peace of mind, and often, their health insurance with them. There's a lot to mourn this year, and an uncertain path ahead of us to rebuild. As we round out this new year, it's time to decide: what lessons will we take with us into the future of theatre production?

The pandemic, with all of its baggage, brought a new art form to the surface. The Zoom show. Not quite theatre but not quite film, often dreaded and occasionally inspiring, it seems every company has taken their stab at it. Independent producing for internet consumption has been available for nearly two decades, that in and of itself isn't novel, but theaters with established audiences and pull, and rarely any natural inclination to do so, were suddenly forced to take part in streaming their goods online. There are immense business complexities involved in recording and streaming commercial theater, but with less restrictions, fringe and regional theatre had more flexibility in creating new work. Seemingly, the major components of success with this endeavor was powerful community engagement and innovative theatre, having either one or the other, though not necessarily both, could equal some measure of success. The caveat being that both had to be done with technology. Many a theatre started from scratch, but some were uniquely positioned to capitalize off of the art form.

One major outlier has been Arlekin Players. When everything shut down, the obvious choice would have been to stream a show from their repertoire, but Director Igor Golyak sat down and did something else. He innovated. He took a show they had done in the past, Natasha's Dream, and reimagined it under the title of State vs Natasha Banina to be interactive with the audience and specifically performed for Zoom. But Golyak had never been shy with technology. His productions themselves tend to have beautiful technical elements in their design, accompanied with sophisticated cinematic trailers that outdo most companies of its size. Making the show interactive gave the impression of a collective experience, a whisper of what one might feel in an actual theater. Preparation, timing, and talent created the circumstances for Golyak to succeed, and succeed he did. Because of Golyak's willingness to embrace technology in his work, he was ready to strike when the unimaginable need to use it as his primary medium rose. State vs. Natasha Banina spread like wild fire, growing to become a New York Times Critic's Pick, and continued on to be screened around the world and in 35 states, affording Arlekin with the notoriety it rightly deserves.

While considering our imminent step into a post-pandemic world there is a valuable lesson to be found in this tale. Theatre is and always should be first and foremost performed in a theater, but when technology and the internet are integrated and embraced, the scale of an event is no longer limited to the number of people that can fit in a venue. Arlekin clearly realizes this, and when last checked, its Kickstarter to create its "Zero-G" space, a virtual theatre production

lab with the ambition to make the arts accessible to all, has amassed over $17,000. The decision to film a performance of a play is up to the shows producers. And typically, producers don't move forward with making a recording for two reasons, the cost of such an endeavor, and the fear that it will dissuade audience members from buying tickets to the live show. From a spiritual perspective, once could make the argument that art shouldn't be considered a commodity and should be accessible to all. From the unfortunate reality of a business perspective, it brings up the question-would offering streaming dissuade people from physically going to a theater in the future or would it stoke the passions of new audience members to create a new relationship with the art form, and thus proffer a lifetime of future revenue?

Arlekin clearly believes that the theoretical loss of in-person ticket sales is worth the cost of admission to make a world where art can be consumed by any one who choses, and theaters of all size would do well to take note. When the world opens up and we find our new normal, will the year of the Zoom play be entirely left behind? Doubtful. Looking back, there is a lot that happened on Zoom that we will be cringing about for years to come. But it's also possible that we grow to regard the pandemic as an important moment in theatre history, the moment where we first began to see livestreams penetrating the fringe and regional theatre space as a common practice. And with this evolution, we have the opportunity to move forward with the spirit of community in mind, the spirit of a larger community that transcends our individual cities and towns and can connect us all. We are not the same as we were a year ago, and it would be a pity if we were. The dawn of a new era is coming, and with it, perhaps we will see the buds of a new type of theatre, an innovative, and inclusive, and accessible type of theatre that will surely blossom into a renaissance of artists untethered, ready to create for their audiences who have been waiting so patiently for the lights to go down.

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From This Author Student Blogger: Lily Kaufman