When the pandemic erupted last year, many California theater companies and music organizations responded initially with shock, followed by a headfirst plunge into the virtual.
“I’ll never forget the week of March 9th,” recalls Jennifer Bielstein, executive director of San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.). “We went from gatherings of as many as a thousand people to zero.” Toni Stone, a period drama about a pioneering female baseball player in the Negro Leagues, had its premiere on a Wednesday. “Opening night,” Bielstein says, “turned out to be closing night.”
As executive and artistic director of UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance (CAP UCLA), Kristy Edmunds grasped the seriousness of the coming pandemic earlier than most. “I tend to be the kind of person who pays attention, out of habit, to what other fields are doing or talking about outside of the arts,” Edmunds says. In early February of last year, she listened to the concerns of university epidemiologists and watched as the UCLA hospital and state government began building infrastructure to tend to future COVID-19 patients. “We’d reached the midpoint in February when I said, ‘This is coming like a freight train at us,’ ” Edmunds recalls. “Early March brought full-blown cancellations and ticket refunds.”
A day before campus closures were officially announced, Edmunds ordered the staff home and told them to download this app called Zoom. “They looked at me like I was mildly off my cap,” she says.
A canceled show suddenly became a canceled season, with no end in sight as California’s COVID numbers kept climbing. Despite the grim reality, many venues refused to go dark or even limit themselves to streamable videos of plays and concerts recorded in years past.
Royce Hall, the main stage at CAP UCLA, was turned into a de facto film studio. But how to maintain the feel and immediacy of live theater and keep those key elements from being overwhelmed by the sensibility of the professionals recording it? “Film and theater are completely different literacies,” says Edmunds. “We worked with video camera operators to ensure that they didn’t impose their vision on top of the artist’s visions.”
A.C.T. is an educational institution as well as a theater company. For its first livestreamed performance, it tapped one of its MFA classes. Professor and students were just about to explore In Love and Warcraft, playwright Madhuri Shekar’s romance about a shy female college student who’s also a warrior in the fantasy universe of online gaming.
After pulling the plug on a critically acclaimed revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Passion and shutting down its two small stages, Pasadena’s Boston Court performing arts center emerged with a virtual series. Called Beyond the Concept, it has included a meetup with the creator and cast of the intersectional-feminist play Ladies and a discussion about the development of How the Light Gets In, an exploration of loneliness and the intertwining of inner strength and fragility. “When it became clear that we weren’t going to be connecting with audiences in person for a long time, we began pivoting towards digital,” says Jessica Kubzansky, the theater’s artistic director. “A real sense of resilience came from this opportunity to connect with the artists and the audiences.”
A few blocks away, at the venerable Pasadena Playhouse, producing artistic director Danny Feldman began cooking up a virtual feast for theater omnivores called PlayhouseLive. The slate of streaming and real-time programming has included an early glimpse of Iceboy! (a musical still in development starring Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman), a deep dive with the creators and cast of the Playhouse’s revival of Little Shop of Horrors, and a musical revue of Jerry Herman’s songs that featured opening-night guests Bernadette Peters and David Hyde Pierce. PlayhouseLive also offers courses in stage management and Broadway history.
Despite COVID barring them from filling a single seat, many companies have vastly expanded their audience size and scope through these fast pivots and programming innovations. “What’s been a game changer not just for us but for other arts institutions,” says Feldman, “is that we’ve become international brands and content creators.”
On May 7 of last year, the Geffen Playhouse in L.A.’s Westwood premiered The Present, an interactive, illusion-packed play written and performed by Portuguese-born magician Helder Guimarães. It became what may have been California’s first live-stream hit of the pandemic, selling out its original run and then three extended runs before its final performance in mid-October. The show was the first full-length production in the Geffen’s Stayhouse series—which rejects arm’s-length streaming of plays written for the stage in favor of original productions that are more tactile and participatory than live theater.
Following these principles, the Stayhouse audience for The Present was capped at 25 tickets per performance. The Geffen sent each “theatergoer” a small cardboard box tied with twine, containing various items that would come into play during the show.
“With the box of mystery items, the performance could happen both on your computer and in your own hands,” Matt Shakman, artistic director of the Geffen, says. “We all struggle when we’re home with our families in the other room and the phone ringing—how can you engage with something the same way you do in a darkened theater? What set The Present apart from a lot of what was happening in the early days of the pandemic is that it had that level of intimacy.”
Together, The Present and subsequent Stayhouse productions (including a hands-on murder mystery and a radical participatory take on dinner theater with major Bollywood overtones) have entertained patrons in every state and in 30 countries. “We’ve been reviewed regularly now by the Washington Post and the New York Times,” Shakman says. “Places that would have never covered our openings before.”
Expansion of the audience hasn’t only been a matter of erasing geographic boundaries. Through on-demand content, creative organizations have begun reaching people with little or no previous exposure to the performing arts.
Last year, Edmunds received a letter from a ranch hand outside Stockton in the Central Valley. On his lunch break, he had begun streaming Forced Entertainment’s Complete Works: Table Top Shakespeare: At Home—a hyper-condensed production of the Bard’s 36 plays for which CAP UCLA was a presenter and creative producer. “He was like, ‘I’ve never been in a theater,’ ” Edmunds says of the ranch hand. “ ‘I’ve never really been in a city. I don’t know how I even found this, but it has meant so much to me to feel like I belong to something bigger than my reality.’ ”
While theater and music companies were blindsided by COVID, their leaders had long recognized that eventually they would have to become creators of unique livestreaming content, and many had already begun working incrementally toward that future. In that regard, COVID acted as an accelerant, compressing a process that would have taken far longer into a matter of months.
“In this pandemic year, the LA Philharmonic essentially became a media company with an orchestra at its core,” says Chad Smith, the organization’s CEO. “That was out of necessity, but it also sped up strategic initiatives that we had been planning in media for some time. We had to move into this space in a big, big way.”
Pre-pandemic, the LA Phil had transmitted a live concert from the top of a downtown parking garage, while its VAN Beethoven, a tricked-out truck, wandered the city and welcomed people inside, where they could watch a 3-D incarnation of Gustavo Dudamel conducting the opening minutes of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 5 in surround sound. While there will be no concerts in Disney Hall through what would have been the 2020–2021 season, LA Phil at Home programming allows music lovers to enjoy performances at a safe social distance.
“Before COVID, we had already been talking about expanding our online presence,” says Feldman of Pasadena Playhouse. “We were already exploring how to provide content and education and community resources well beyond just our website.”
While the pandemic has spurred creative innovation, the financial repercussions have been considerable—and in some cases, calamitous. There have been mass layoffs among performing arts companies deprived of big-donor opening galas and ticket sales that, pre-pandemic, brought in the bulk of the revenue. And most organizations have not monetized their streaming content as successfully as they’ve created and delivered it.
In this environment, certain small theater companies find themselves at a surprising advantage. “We have been lucky,” says the Boston Court’s Kubzansky. “There are much larger institutions that have 50 people in a single department. We have only 9 staff members, so we haven’t had to lay anybody off.”
For most touring musicians, actors, lighting and costume designers, stagehands, and support personnel, COVID has been an unmitigated financial disaster, completely cutting them off from their livelihoods. “The devastating impact upon artists has always been at the top of our conversations,” says A.C.T.’s Bielstein. “It’s been horrible for actors, since they’re hired project by project, play by play.”
If artists are paid only if they’re onstage, and there’s no stage available, where does that leave their personal finances? It’s a question Edmunds asked herself as the pandemic kiboshed all of CAP UCLA’s theater productions and concerts. While cash-strapped students donated back their $5-to-$15 ticket refunds and major arts foundations increased their grants, donations from wealthy families and individuals haven’t been plentiful—despite burgeoning stock portfolios. “We needed to rapidly figure out how we could deploy the minimal resources we had to help artists,” Edmunds says. “I shifted as much as I could into artist commissions and found other ways of migrating resources to creative makers and their teams, knowing they would be in a cash flow crisis of magnitude.”
The artists’ circumstances will likely be further stressed in the months ahead—given the acute shortage of available vaccines, the soaring rates of infection and death over the winter, and the emergence of more contagious strains of COVID. By late last December, some of California’s leading music and theater organizations had ruled out any possibility of live staging in 2021. Others are holding out hope that the pandemic may subside to a point that allows for outdoor performance in front of large groups before the end of the year.
Post-pandemic, California’s theater and music organizations will have to determine how to serve their recently acquired virtual patrons while maintaining focus on the stage productions and longtime ticket holders at the core of their mission.
For his part, the Geffen’s Shakman isn’t among the doomsayers who predict that live theater will be steamrolled by the kind of digital content delivery that has wrecked once-invincible institutions like newspapers and bookstores. “People are always ready to say that the theater is dying, or that theater is dead,” he says. “They’ve been saying that probably since Athens, many thousands of years ago. Luckily, it has always survived.”•