I haven’t lived in London or New York, so I have little or no experience with the breeding grounds of English-language theater. Although I travel to these cities frequently and my friends’ social media posts torment me with their Broadway fixtures, I live with an illness that makes it difficult to stay upright. This makes theater a difficult experience: When I first saw “Hamilton” after leaving the Richard Rodgers Theater, I was too sick to remember most of what had happened. It was only by luck that I was good enough to see the musical a second time on a book tour, as well as Andrew Scott’s award-winning London performance in Present Laughter. Everyone was exhilarating, but I was always painfully aware of my body. In other cases, a sudden flare-up of symptoms could force me to abandon or lose an expensive ticket during the week of a performance.
When the pandemic forced the theater world into survival mode last spring, theaters had to figure out how to produce shows for the homebound audience. In the Old Vic, where I saw “Present Laughter” the year before, Covid-friendly plays were shown in which an actor or two socially distant actors appeared for the cameras. I saw “Drei Könige” and “Lunge” in bed – a disabled-friendly arrangement – and thanks to these cameras I was able to see the stage from different perspectives. Although “Three Kings” and “Present Laughter” were each Andrew Scott’s star, the close-ups on the cameras showed his face in ways I couldn’t see from the cheap seats. I saw the dangerous curl of his grin as he transformed from an innocent child to his drunken, miserable father without adjusting his makeup or costume. I was able to admire this all the more when I discovered the details that the streaming theater illuminated.
Spurred on by the Playbill newsletter, I became obsessed with seeing as much theater as possible in these new, more accessible conditions. I saw plays and readings where the actors recorded themselves at home using Zoom and Skype, a technology often associated with remote working and learning. Many people have become allergic to Zoom due to overuse, but as a tool, Zoom and its staff can control what the viewer sees in ways that are different from typical stage art. When I stream Will Arbery’s play on conservative Catholicism, “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” a Pulitzer finalist, I’m allowed to have an familiarity with the characters that even high-performance front-row ticket holders don’t normally see cast members come in and out of dark zoom squares from their apartments. When Justin says, “I just think that being close to LGBT is a threat to Christian children and families,” his face is partially lit by a dangerous light that is not just my laptop screen. Every microexpression and every ounce of fidgety caution his friend Kevin utters in turn (“But why can’t we meet him, deal with it -“) is also up close. They are not in each other’s rooms, but via Zoom they are in mine. The unique lighting of each square hides the apartments and emphasizes the actors. I might as well be with them in the wooded darkness.
Zoom and his kind are able to control what the viewer sees in a way that is different from typical stage art.
Acting on a screen reveals the specifics of performance at home: Oscar Isaac and Marisa Tomei arguing as they readjust their AirPods in Beirut. Jesse Eisenberg drinks green juice from a glass, his character complicating everyone around him in “The Spoils,” which he wrote. These moments remind me that the actors involved, who may otherwise feel larger than life, are not exempt from moving through our international tragedy. Some of my favorite moments from these performances were immediately before and after the actual readings, when the actors were so clear about themselves. Eisenberg gave a selfless description of the play at the beginning – which makes it all the more exciting to see him step into his first scene in which he screams bombastic profanity.
Not all streaming theaters were broadcast over Zoom or Skype. London’s National Theater used its archive footage to create the National Theater at Home, where viewers can stream “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”, “The Cherry Orchard” and other popular plays upon request for a fee. I was intrigued by the professionally taped replay of “Angels in America” that I watched repeatedly – a story of a plague seen during another plague. “Proshot recordings”, which are shot during the standard run of a play, imitate the typical theatrical experience. While I’m grateful for the opportunity to see full-fledged performances with sets and all, pieces seen this way feel less immediate than the readings, which have necessarily captured a new medium.
Before 2020 I had never thought of exploring the theater beyond a play or two as it was a luxury for people with disabilities or in certain cities. Watching games on a computer screen is not a traditional experience, but it does provide access to some kind of storytelling to thousands who otherwise may never enjoy it. Our theaters are reopening and I have vowed to take the opportunity to visit them when the time comes. I admit, however, that I will miss the versions that I got to see at home – versions that will very likely be lost when the world reopens and the desire to be shoulder to shoulder that sends theatergoers back to Broadway again.
Esmé Weijun Wang is a writer and essayist whose books include the New York Times’ best-selling collection of essays, The Collected Schizophrenias.
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