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A year into COVID, how theater is changing maybe forever

The show that must go on is going on in whole new ways.

By: Amber Key

Atlas Theater boarded up on H Street in Washington, DC

At first, the shutdown of live theater came as a shock. Like many, the industry predicted shows would return after one month. Once artists were left to think quick on their feet, extraordinary innovation began to happen.

At the beginning of the Coronavirus Pandemic, the entertainment industry was crippled leaving thousands of artists out of work and theaters in survival mode. For live theater, which is predicated on driving people together, staying six feet apart is out of the ordinary. Despite all odds, live theater has found new ways to draw an audience; many of which may change the way live theater is viewed forever.

The building that once stood Atlas theater asks patrons to 'Help us keep the light on.' Located on H St. in Washington, DC

One year into the pandemic, the arts have emerged by transitioning to technological platforms such as film, online recordings, audio, and immersive theater. The explosion of digital productions over the last year has not only changed the way live theater is consumed, but is giving artists looking to break into the industry hope that theater is still alive.  
Imani Branch, a senior musical theater major at Howard University, was like most aspiring artists prior to the pandemic. A year ago, Imani wrapped up Howard University’s production of Pippin where she played Fastrada. Fastrada was a huge role for the rising senior who was ready to propel her career forward with auditions and projects with various companies over the summer. She was exhausted and excited for the next chapter. Once the pandemic hit, Imani’s goals altered. 
“I’ve completely shifted gears on what I want my focus to be. I thought that post graduation I would be in New York pursuing Broadway. But now, I’ve actually done more film projects,” Branch said. 
Film productions of theater have presented the option of performing with smaller cast sizes. A production that once contained over thirty cast members, now only needs about 3 to 4 members to film a scene at a time. Filming has also allowed for a more controlled environment for behind the scenes members.

Filming of 'Spring Awakening'. Shot by VCU

Virginia Commonwealth University’s arts department tried their hand at Spring Awakening, a classic rock and roll musical set in late 19th century Germany about teenagers coming of age. One would think performing ‘Spring Awakening’ in the midst of a pandemic would be against all CDC guidelines, but the face shields, gloves, limited cast members, and no limitations of the changes in costumes during the show has become a new way from producing theater. 

 “Our film crews are wearing masks and face shields. We all have limited exposure to the actors. Spring Awakening is known for its intimate scenes. which are harder to film in a pandemic, so they are doing close up shots during filming and less people in the room,” said Delaney Theisz, student costume coordinator at VCU.

While the future of live theater may require more precautions for safety, film productions of theater are giving audience members the up close and personal angles that we don’t normally see. Along with issues of safety, theater has been able to move into a direction of tackling other issues such as consent. 

“Spring Awakening has a lot of intimacy issues in it. We have had intimacy coaches walk through every single scene, making sure that everything is correct and that everyone is  consenting to what is being seen whether or not you’re actually performing that action, or you’re watching it. I think that’s going to be a major step if we’re going to start filming more theater.”

For companies and theaters unable to film live productions, zoom and other web camera methods have come into play for performances during the pandemic.

According to a recent study for JCA Arts marketing, a consultant firm that develops strategies for the arts, 43% of the digital audiences viewing films produced by live theater have never attended in-person performances at the company or theater that was being presented. The three-time Helen Hayes award winning costume designer and professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Kendra Rai, says that one of the biggest revelations she’s seen in live theater’s transition to film is how it has opened doors for bigger audiences.

“VCU performed ‘She kills monsters’ last fall and all of a sudden, all of these high schools from California and Seattle wrote over to us asking if they could have rights to the play. All of a sudden people everywhere could see the show when they never would have been able to before,” said Rai.

Not only is Zoom allowing for more exposure, it is also opening doors for unique and different storytelling.

Imani Branch in ‘What Happens There.’ Screenshot by DC Metro Theater Arts.

Following the killing of George Floyd American theater, like many industries, was called out for its racism and inequality in shows. Theaters have made a pledge to start hiring and allowing people of color to produce more stories that actually impact the American population. Because of these changes artists and writers have had more opportunities to dive into topics that may not have stood a chance in mainstream theater. Platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft teams have been able to stories happen. 

While theater has vowed to make better strides for equality in the future, artists of color are hoping that these changes are here to stay. 

“I definitely think that in regards to race and inclusion, and LGBTQ plus stories, there’s definitely a push for that right now. What I want to be cautious of is that it isn’t a fad,” Imani said. 

 

Click here to listen to interview of Imani Branch

Audio productions of live theater have also taken way in entertainment during the pandemic.

The medium began gaining traction prior to the pandemic through Audible, an online audiobook and podcasting service owned by Amazon. Since Covid-19, the medium has created a niche in live theater and has expanded the arts to other digital platforms.

Kalen Robinson, a working actress from Atlanta, Georgia is utilizing the audio-only social media app, Clubhouse, to perform live cabarets.

“Clubhouse is becoming a big theater medium. It’s kind of like radio plays. Audience members can join rooms and just listen to the music at no charge,” Kalen said.

Click here to listen Imani's recording of a self-tape

As the medium continues to gain popularity, small and medium-sized theaters are now producing their own audio plays, or what some are calling podcast playlets- theater works produced as a series of podcasts.

 

As theater continues to play by their own rules, another medium that theaters are delving into is immersive and installation storytelling.

The Rorschach theater, located in Washington, DC is known for creating theater in unusual and immersive forms. In true Rorschach style, the company created subscription boxes, called Distance Frequencies, where audience members are sent a box full of artifacts and objects that tell an overarching narrative over a series of months.

Chapter 5 of 'Distance Frequencies'

“Weirdly enough, we ended up being well suited to this period. In the beginning of COVID, we expected we were going to have 60 subscribers to distance frequencies. And that, even at the time, felt ambitious. Now we are six months into the project, and we have 395 subscribers. It’s now the highest grossing show we’ve ever done, and that’s not even including the later summer show. This is the best financial year we’ve maybe ever had,” said Jonelle Walker, associate producer and company member with.

The idea of the boxes is that all of the objects are telling a story and giving audience members a full five senses experience of the place they are in. Each box covers an obscure location in Washington, DC that subscribers can visit at their leisure. Distance Frequencies subscription boxes are $150 per box or in three installments of $60 each.

“The response has been overwhelmingly positive. The boxes have created a sense of community with our participants and has created a hunger for this kind of artistic experience even beyond Covid-19,” said Jonelle.



Click here to listen to interview with Jonelle Walker

The Rorschach theater has not detailed whether or not it will continue the immersive experience following the pandemic, but fans of the subscription boxes are hoping for more.

While the feeling that live theater gives its audiences can never be replaced, the coronavirus has allowed for expansion in mediums so that all people of all backgrounds and interests can in included.

“I think when people can safely go back to live theater, there’s gonna be an enormous hunger for it. But I think there are also all of these little experiments that we’ve been forced to do in digital theater making that is going to keep going because people enjoy it. And it’s different. It’s not traditional theater, but it’s expanding our understanding of what that could be. I think it’s going to be a good thing,” Jonelle said.

 

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