The famous last words, “dying is easy, comedy is hard” are attributed variously to celebrated actors David Garrick, Edmund Keane, and Edmund Gwenn. The last candidate appears to be authoritative, no matter how hard it is to think of Kris Kringle of Miracle on 34th Street saying something so uncheerful. But no records exist as to what any of these theater legends thought about comedy — and tragedy, and the rest of theater — dying, the situation we face as live stage work is flatlining as tens of thousands of actors, directors, playwrights, and tech wizards find themselves unable to perform in person for live audiences. Symphony Orchestras may play for potted plants, but the thespian crowd prefers observers who breathe even if their inhalations occur among unwrapping a candy, clearing some phlegm, and whispering to their seatmate asking for another candy. Thus we have to figure out how to make theater live or as a hashtag #maketheaterlive.
Theater folks will do anything to get in front of an audience. Proof of that compulsion arises in the number of plays now live streaming via Zoom and other like apps. Willingness to tackle the technological, logistical, and aesthetic challenges of presenting on platforms designed for office workers to hold mind-numbing, almost entirely superfluous, conversations about tasks, processes, and ‘who screwed up this time’ means you really really want to do theater. When New Yorker critic Hilton Als aptly defined theater as “a refraction of reality… a made-up world, an atmosphere of verisimilitude”, screens with actors in little boxes is probably not what he had in mind.
However, some notable successes in this medium already include The Public Theater’s rapid staging of the latest Apple family plays, which deal with Covid-19, ‘WHAT DO WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT?’ and AND SO WE COME FORTH, the NYT Critics Pick Arlekin Theater’s ‘State vs Natasha Banina’, Druid Theater’s How’s Life by Nina Mitrović,. and Signature Theater’s reading of ‘Rinse Repeat’. Our own nascent shoestring company, Knowledge Workings Theater, managed in mid-May two very well-received, ‘sold out’ (free) readings of Grudges, a new play by Joe Queenan and me. Emboldened, we organized with a new director a full production; i.e., the actors would memorize their lines, do a better job of hiding smoke alarms and plant hangers in their backgrounds, etc. In order to pay our team (but not ourselves) for these efforts, we set up ticketing and devised a Facebook ad campaign for a Zoom only production.
This is what theater must be for the next eight months in the USA. Not that Facebook ads and Zoom rooms make it easy. Don’t be dazzled by FB claims that 220,000 people might learn of your ‘problem comedy’. You’ll stress out on the paltry number of likes that trickle to your event page. Having started producing plays in the early 1980s surreptitiously slapping posters outside subway stations on the lower East Side next to faux Keith Haring graffiti and placards of Crime Dog McGruff advising me how not to get mugged, Facebook initially still seemed like the yellow brick road by comparison — until we hit quicksand. Two days after placing an ad with the help of an expert, we checked its status only to read that “Your ad for Knowledge Workings Theater was rejected. View your ad for more info.” Penitent and confused, I discovered via a pop-up that we had violated policies related to “ads about social issues, elections, or politics”. The idea that our play or any play influences a viewer’s politics did provoke a weak smile: does Facebook think Hamilton audience members change their party affiliation during intermission? Our play is not exactly ‘Waiting for Lefty’; the offending ad copy reads innocuously compared to what one will likely encounter on Facebook. We simply state that “In Grudges, two brothers whose friendship has been sundered by the 2016 election get together for a ‘bury-the-hatchet’ dinner. They solemnly agree to never let the words “Trump” or “Obama” pass through their lips during the course of the evening.” This text must have led to our rejection and not the bit about Early Bird Pricing. As to our play being potentially harmful, Facebook carried advertisements for the movie Cats, an entertainment that no matter what you were smoking turned out to be a really bad trip.
And so we resubmit the advertisement for review by starting the suggested 7 to 10 days process of confirming identity, which seems pretty quick given that at age sixty-eight I haven’t confirmed my identity. That allows us to concentrate on fixing Zoom with its tendency for an actor’s lips to skid to a stop three seconds after her voice, the problems with bandwidth when a housemate decides to play an online game during a performance, and, of course, the ever looming danger of Zoom bombers. The show must go on.
Theater is going to need a great deal of help in order to survive over the next few years. What I love about people in the theater is that they don’t care; all are determined still to make things happen, to enable what the playwright Eugene Ionesco described as allowing “others to share in the astonishment of being, the dazzlement of existence, and to shout to God and other human beings our anguish, letting it be known that we were there.” We have to #maketheaterlive, a tag that can be read in two ways: make it of this moment and make it continue to exist. One feeds the other and theater feeds all of us in turn. We can’t afford to lost this part of our lives.
Oh, and if you want a ticket to OUR live show, we’d love to have you in that ethereal audience.