BWW Feature: HERSHEY FELDER AS IRVING BERLIN: Live-Stream from Florence, Italy. 5/10/20
Five years ago, I wrote an article entitled: "Will live streaming become the future of all artistic performances?" The article received virtually unanimous negative feedback from presenters and performers alike. But it feels particularly prophetic today.
The manner in which art is presented is constantly changing, and although live streaming has been around for well over a decade, the pandemic has really forced artists to flex their streaming muscles.
For the last two months, we've seen streams of all different shapes and sizes from studios, living rooms, bathrooms etc. - with extremely mixed results (let's face it, mostly really bad results). I was beginning to think perhaps streaming may not be the way of the future after all.
That was until this past Sunday night.
On Sunday night, actor/pianist Hershey Felder may have changed the way we look at live streaming forever. Nowhere to be found was the grainy video, the boxy audio, the dreadful lighting, or the static camera. Rather audiences around the globe were treated to a magnificent, hi-quality, hi-fidelity performance of Felder's hit show "Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin."
Felder's masterful creation featured the actor telling the story of Berlin's life - first person - speaking, singing and accompanying himself on the piano through dozens of Berlin's most well-known songs, as well as wonderful stories and anecdotes about Berlin's private life and how he created some of the world's most memorable tunes: "God Bless America," "White Christmas," "Easter Parade" "Puttin' on the Ritz," "There's No Business Like Show Business." Since its inaugural run at The Geffen Playhouse in 2014, the show has enjoyed successful runs all across the country in Westwood, Pasadena, Laguna Beach, La Jolla, Seattle, Chicago and New York.
Possibly best of all was the fact that the entire event was a benefit for thirteen theaters hard hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. Theaters participating in the event included:
Berkeley Repertory Theatre, The Wallis, Laguna Playhouse, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, San Diego Repertory Theatre, Goodman Theatre, Actors Theatre of Louisville, Berkshire Theatre Group, Cleveland Play House, 59E59 Theaters, New York, NY, Lyric Chamber Music Society, New York, Pittsburgh Public Theatre, and the Seattle Rep.
The show began with a delightful sequence of Felder skyping with several of Irving Berlin's grandchildren. It set the stage for what was a truly memorable evening.
This live stream was not a pre-taped performance, nor was it before an audience. It was the actor performing directly into the camera and directly into our consciousness in a profound way. Those familiar with Felder's work know that his shows are one-on-one evenings, with performer and audience engaged in a communal journey through time and space - and always music.
But putting this extremely personal theatrical conceit through the medium of the camera and the microphone was a great gamble on the part of the artist - a gamble that succeeded beyond his imagination! Typically, in most live streams, the camera is secondary to the action onstage, used at a distance and unobtrusive. But Trevor Hay's adroit direction and subtle camera work enabled the audience to experience a profound sense of intimacy, the kind that a theater audience could never dream of. Whether speaking, singing or playing the piano, Felder's fastidiously precise performance of Berlin, as a youth, a songwriter, a husband, a father, and ultimately a legend, was spot on.
The performance arts are by definition a multi-sensory experience, often asking the audience to process myriad stimuli to fully appreciate the experience. So, if an audience is not in the immediate space with the performer, and if they are possibly many miles away and viewing the performance through the end of a cable, can they really be reached - and touched - in the same way? I think the answer is not a simple one, and that different types of performances will lend themselves better and be more successful than others.
However, in the case of Mr. Felder's particular brand of art, the answer is a resounding "yes." In fact, with this event, we've seen more than a simple live stream, we have seen the birth of a sort of new hybrid form of entertainment.
The streaming of performances cannot and should not ever truly replace the live experience, but in an industry that is far too often limited in its reach by physical proximity, it offers a very nice option to those who are not fortunate enough to live in artistic hubs.