Sunday, December 6, 2020

Sunday Reading

Creating Theatre in a Time of Plague — Mark Kennedy at the Associated Press on how performers and playwrights have adapted to take the stage during the pandemic.

Jefferson Mays performs his one-man show “A Christmas Carol” for streaming. Photo via AP

There’s theater on Broadway. You just have to adjust your sights.

More than a hundred blocks north of Manhattan’s shuttered theater district but on that same famed thoroughfare, an actor recently read his lines from a huge stage.

But there was no applause. Instead, all that was heard was a strange command for the theater: “And cut!”

Tony Award-winner Jefferson Mays was performing multiple roles for a high-tech “A Christmas Carol” that was being filmed for streaming this month at the empty 3,000-seat United Palace.

The one-man show is an example of how many who work in theater are increasingly defying COVID-19 by refusing to let it stop their art, often creating new hybrid forms.

“Because it’s such a roll-up-your-sleeves business, theater people figure it out,” said Tony Award-winning producer Hunter Arnold, while watching Mays onstage. “Of everything I’ve ever done in my life, it’s the place where people lead from ‘how?’ instead of leading from ‘why not?’”

The coronavirus pandemic shut down theater and the TV/movie industries in the spring. Film and TV production have slowly resumed. Live theater is uniquely tested by the virus, one reason it will be among the last sectors to return to normal. Props and costumes are usually touched by dozens each night, an orchestra is crammed into a pit, backstage areas are small and shared, and audiences are usually packed into seats. New ways are needed.

Mays’ “A Christmas Carol,” which was filmed on a high-tech LED set, veers much more filmic than most other streaming theater options and is raising money for suffering regional theaters — one stage production helping others during the pandemic.

Other green shoots include radio plays, virtual readings, online variety shows and drive-in experiences that combine live singing with movies. The cast of the musical “Diana” reunited on Broadway to film the show for Netflix before it opens on Broadway.

The San Francisco Playhouse recently offered screenings of Yasmina Reza’s play “Art,” an onstage production captured live by multiple cameras, with a crucial wrestling scene reimagined to keep social distancing. A musical version of the animated film “Ratatouille” is being explored on TikTok.

“We will conquer it. We are theater people. By God, we will conquer it and get it done,” says Charlotte Moore, the artistic director and co-founder of the acclaimed Irish Repertory Theatre in New York City.

Her company has put on a free streaming holiday production of “Meet Me in St. Louis” with a dozen cast members, each filmed remotely and then digitally stitched together. Moore directed it — appropriately enough — from St. Louis. Other theater pros are calling to ask how she did it.

The cast was mailed or hand-delivered props, costumes and a green screen. They rehearsed via Zoom and FaceTime. A masked and socially distant orchestra recorded the score, and the sets were beamed onto the actors’ screens.

“You learn minute by minute by minute along the way what works, what doesn’t, what to do, what not to do,” said Moore, who starred in the original Broadway run of “Meet Me in St. Louis” in 1989. “It’s torture and it’s thrilling — thrilling torture.”

Like many other theatrical hybrids venturing into the digital world these days, it’s not clear what to call it. It’s not technically live theater, but its soul is theatrical.

“It’s not definable in our current vocabulary,” Moore said. “It has to have a new definition, truly, because it’s certainly unlike anything that has been done.”

One of the companies to show the way forward was Berkshire Theater Group in western Massachusetts, whose “Godspell” in August became the first outdoor musical with union actors since the pandemic shut down productions.

Artistic director and CEO Kate Maguire refused to entertain the notion that the company — established in 1928 — would have an asterisk beside 2020 that said no shows were produced that year.

“We’re theater makers, we’re creators, she said. ”We should be able to figure out how to create something.”

So they used plexiglass partitions between each masked actor. The performers were tested regularly — at a cost of close to $50,000 — and had their own props and a single costume. Each was housed in their own living space — bedroom, living area and little kitchenette. In an open-air tent, they managed to pull off a crucifixion scene without any touching or lifting, itself a miracle.

Audiences underwent temperature checks and were separated by seats. Staff were placed in three protective bubbles: artistic, production and front-of-house. And there was monitoring: Last year it was an intimacy officer; this year it was a COVID-19 one.

Maguire thrashed out a 40-page agreement with the stage union Actor’s Equity Association. “We never had a positive test,” Maguire said. “We had five false positive tests,” which was “harrowing.”

She thanked grants for allowing her to keep her staff on payroll, making the stress level tolerable. It was clear audiences were hungry for theater: “I would watch people shoulders shaking as the show started because they were weeping,” she said. They’re doing another outdoor show now — “Holiday Memories.”

Since that first brave step, other theater companies have plunged into the void. Play and musical licensor Concord Theatricals says theater companies across the country are looking for flexibility in case of virus restrictions.

“We’re seeing many groups applying for small cast, easy to produce, plays and musicals. They’re even seeking casting flexibility and asking for permission to perform with or without an ensemble,” said Sean Patrick Flahaven, chief theatricals executive.

“There’s also a trend for groups to apply for both live performance and streaming rights. Many amateur theaters are producing single virtual performances to keep revenue flowing.”

Playwright Natalie Margolin decided to write a new play during the pandemic but not a conventional one. She imagined what the world would look like when it was a given that all social life existed on Zoom.

Hence “The Party Hop,” a play specifically to be performed on Zoom that’s set three years into quarantine in which three college girls hit the town — online. It became her first published play, and she got stars such as Ben Platt, Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein and Ashley Park to perform in an online version, currently on YouTube. She hopes high schools and colleges will be attracted to a play reflecting the era.

“It was just exciting to take part in something where it wasn’t a placeholder or a replacement, and no one needed to imagine they were anywhere else than where they were to fully realize the piece,” she said. “It’s been exciting and heartwarming to see different ways theater has reinvented itself during this time.”

Theater makers have also leaned into the storytelling part of their craft, making The Broadway Podcast Network a hub for everything from audition advice to behind-the-scenes stories.

Launched shortly before the pandemic with 15 podcasts, the theater shutdown initially wiped out its revenue streams, advertising and sponsorship. The network has since righted itself and is growing with some 100 podcasts — from the likes of Tim Rice and Tonya Pinkins — plus benefits, show reunions and original programs, like the digital theater-based frothy soap opera, “As the Curtain Rises” with stars Alex Brightman, Sarah Stiles and Michael Urie.

“Even though we had lost all of our advertising, we just knew that this was important to our community, to keep our community connected and continue to tell stories,” said Dori Berinstein, co-founder of the network and a four-time Tony-winning Broadway producer. “It’s not anything that will ever replace live theater, but it’s an extension. It’s a different way of doing that.”

Barr’s Break — David Rohde in The New Yorker.

The Fox News host Lou Dobbs was among the first Trump supporters to denounce William Barr. On Tuesday, Dobbs began his nightly program by announcing “progress” in Donald Trump’s effort to remain in office and to vanquish “the insidious, radical Dems, corporate America, Big Tech, and the deep state, who have tried to overthrow his Presidency for more than four years.” Dobbs paused, briefly, and then lambasted Barr for having told the Associated Press earlier in the day that the Justice Department had found no evidence to corroborate Trump’s claims of election theft. “Today, a member of his own Cabinet appeared to join in with the radical Dems, and the deep state, and the resistance,” Dobbs said. “For the Attorney General of the United States to make that statement, he is either a liar or a fool or both. He may be, um, perhaps, compromised. He may be simply unprincipled. Or he may be personally distraught or ill.”

Barr’s actions during his tenure as Attorney General may be up for debate, but he is not compromised, distraught, or ill. Nor is he a member of a deep-state coup. There is no deep-state coup. As state and local Republican officials in six battleground states and nearly fifty judges have found, Joe Biden decisively won the 2020 election. Barr’s refutation of Trump’s false claims came late, but, nevertheless, it deserves praise. At long last, the country’s chief law-enforcement officer has defended American democracy. And that, in the waning days of the Trump Presidency, could cost him his job.

Rudy Giuliani and Jenna Ellis, the lawyers for the Trump campaign, immediately issued a statement accusing Barr of failing to seriously examine the President’s claims: “With all due respect to the Attorney General, there hasn’t been any semblance of a Department of Justice investigation.” Online, Barr was vilified. Joe Hoft, at the Gateway Pundit, wrote that Barr had destroyed “his name for all eternity” and claimed that he has spent his time in office working surreptitiously to keep Hillary Clinton, James Comey, and Robert Mueller out of jail. “Now we know why the DOJ didn’t arrest anyone for the past four years,” Hoft wrote. “The reason is they wanted it this way. . . . They never were going to arrest anyone.” On pro-Trump Reddit channels, Barr was declared a “deep state” agent. The President was reportedly livid at Barr. Asked at a White House event on Thursday if he still has confidence in Barr, Trump replied, “ask me that in a number of weeks from now.”

What actually motivated Barr is unknown at this point, and nothing is likely to become clearer until after Trump leaves office, on January 20th. This week, an associate of the Attorney General’s told me that Barr and Trump have barely spoken for weeks. The associate said that Barr had intentionally distanced himself from Trump as the election approached, because he wanted to perform the traditional role of Attorneys General—declining to take legal actions during an election season that favor one candidate, particularly the President who appointed them.

That explanation is charitable. During Barr’s interview with the A.P., he hedged, as he has in the past. He disclosed that, in October, he had secretly appointed John Durham, a federal prosecutor investigating the F.B.I.’s 2016 Trump-Russia probe, as special counsel. That move will please the President and make it more difficult for Biden’s new Attorney General to curtail Durham’s work. Then, after Barr’s comments about the election were attacked, his office released a statement saying, “The Department will continue to receive and vigorously pursue all specific and credible allegations of fraud as expeditiously as possible.”

The week’s events exemplified the tragic, destructive, and cynical nature of the Trump-era Justice Department. Barr has clear legal and political convictions—many of which infuriate liberals—but he has pursued them consistently throughout his career. Like other Republicans, he seemingly embraced an alliance of convenience with Trump. An adherent to the obscure legal view that the Presidency has too little power, Barr contends that special-counsel and congressional investigations have become so excessive that they hamper a President’s ability to govern the country.

Barr viewed the F.B.I.’s 2016 Trump-Russia investigation, the subsequent appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel, and the convictions of Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, and Roger Stone as illegitimate. He did his best to reverse each of those measures, by undermining Mueller’s report and lessening the punishment of the Trump allies who were successfully prosecuted by Mueller. During Trump’s impeachment, Barr accused Democrats of “waging a scorched-earth, no-holds-barred war of ‘Resistance’ against this Administration,” adding, “it is the left that is engaged in the systematic shredding of norms and the undermining of the rule of law.” Critics accused Barr of doing the same, in helping Trump to demolish decades of effort to build public confidence that the law is applied equally to all Americans, regardless of their proximity to the President. They contend that Barr’s politicizing of the Justice Department will lead him to be considered one of the most destructive Attorneys General in modern American history.

Until now, Barr has delivered virtually everything that Trump could possibly have wanted politically—from the Justice Department arguing that Manhattan prosecutors should not have access to Trump’s tax returns, to defying subpoenas from congressional oversight committees. Those acts and others that Barr has taken set legal precedents that have made Trump one of the most powerful American chief executives, in legal terms, since Congress and the courts curbed Presidential power after Watergate. In the final weeks of the campaign, though, Trump went too far, apparently, even for Barr. In the pursuit of victory and vengeance, Trump publicly called for him to open a criminal investigation of the Biden family, and demanded that Barr announce the results of the Durham investigation in time to sway votes. After the election, Trump’s campaign pressured Barr to become the first U.S. Attorney General to aid a de-facto coup attempt—albeit a chaotic and, at times, comical one.

Barr’s public defense of Biden’s victory—at a politically existential moment for Trump—was an irreversible step for the Attorney General. If Trump or his allies maintain control of the Republican Party, Barr will now have no future in it. George Terwilliger, who worked for Barr in the Administration of George H. W. Bush, told the Times that Barr’s intention this week was “just to be responsible.” Terwilliger added that, when false conspiracies are being spread about the Justice Department, “it is responsible to say no, that did not happen.” Barr’s statement showed an Attorney General doing what is required of him in a democracy. It also showed how utterly this President has failed to do the same.

Doonesbury — A meeting of the minds.