COVID Creations and Derivatives: Is It Theater?
In March 2020 when COVID-19 shut down Broadway theaters followed by theaters and live performance venues across the world, the pandemic gave permission to every person, organization, and entity whether they be professional, amateur, or student to go all-out digital. Is it art? Is it theater? Is it fully developed? Is it good? It didn’t matter, someone had access to the internet and a cell phone or laptop with a camera and tada! We’re digital!
Organizations whose mission is presenting live stage productions found themselves in the position of mothballing; ceasing operations to save resources for a post lockdown life or turning themselves into TV studios overnight.
We won’t really know which of these efforts will continue in the future but we do know that life in the performing arts has changed forever. Some theaters tried streaming full length shows over Zoom or archival videos used with concessions and permission from the unions in lieu of refunding tickets. Some decided to use the internet to engage with audiences in other ways such as arts education support, conversations with theater makers about past performances, or the future of live performance. Some held expert-led discussions about shows that they had seen previously on stage or a digital version. These programs function in a similar way to book clubs, participants would watch the same show independently and then gather for an online community conversation about the creators, themes, or social issues surrounding the show.
In the last five months, I’ve received requests to view digital theater, digitized offerings, Zoom readings, virtual benefits and galas, interactive dramatic in-home site-specific performances in full costumes, watch parties with or without pants, Google Hangout conversations with theater makers and various other terms for entertainment content being created or repurposed.
Companies that used to sell tickets to live performances are now selling digital entry tickets to livestreams from actors’ homes and backyards, or online classes for yoga, dance, singing and acting, and the list goes on.
Many were one night only or limited viewings for free or requesting donations like the Rodgers and Hammerstein watch parties for the Actors Fund and other charities streaming on BroadwayHD, Playbill, Broadway.com, Broadwayworld, and YouTube. Some of the lockdown creations will be revisited and some will be quickly forgotten. But some of it has been truly inspiring like those listed below:
Lincoln Center’s Lincoln Center at Home: Memorial For Us All- a secular community remembrance to celebrate the lives of those lost to Covid-19.
Cats in Quarantine: A tribute by 333 cast members to choreographer Dame Gillian Lynne
Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration: Performances by Broadway stars and celebrities from lockdown to celebrate Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday
SummerStage Anywhere Presents: Honoring the 155th Anniversary of Juneteenth
As the founder of a digital theater streaming business, I am very much in favor of embracing all of these efforts. For years, I have heard the arguments that if it is not in front of a live audience, it is not “theater”. So, if you are not in the room with an orchestra and you are listening to a recording, is it not “music”? If you are not in the Louvre but looking at a photo of the Mona Lisa, is it not “art”? The book might be better than the movie but shouldn’t the question be, did you enjoy the story? A fine French meal is not a replacement for going to Paris and Hamilton on Disney+ is not the same as going to the Broadway show.
Recorded music, theater on video (digital captures), literature turned into movies, and reproductions of paintings are derivatives; a tribute or imitation of another source which is why they are usually viewed negatively. Even after lockdown, not everyone will be able to get to Broadway, go to Coachella, or visit the Met, so technological reproductions are a great alternative.
Instead of dismissing these derivatives and COVID creations as less than, let’s embrace them for the entertainment, comfort, and enjoyment that they can provide.