Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Silver Lining #2

As we sit around in that halfway state of not-a-pandemic/still-a-pandemic, I still have about a zillion negatives, and they clearly outweigh the positives for both the world and the sufferers, BUT I can stretch myself to actually put a word to one more silver lining.


Did I actually write that? Did I actually put the death of live theater in a positive column?

Yes, because theater didn’t die. It transformed. Which is not saying that I don’t miss live theater – I do! – but I discovered a new way to enjoy it: Livestreamed or On Demand or Archived or however else theaters figured out how to get it to audiences.

Right away, by April 2020, I was watching London theater at home with National Theatre at Home and PBS Great Performances. By July, everyone was watching Hamilton on their TVs. And by October, I was watching theater from Los Angeles, from Oregon, and even from Isabella Rossellini’s farm on Long Island. Sometimes at crazy hours to catch a London livestream.

But I missed other people. Other people as in “let’s go see a play, let’s go out afterwards.” As in spontaneous applause, ovations, reactions. Now I know that I was missing “collective effervescence” (by the same guy who taught us about “languishing”).

So, in a rare Covid moment of energy and initiative, I emailed a few friends to watch theater with me. We’d be no more than seven – to save us from Zoom overlaps and interruptions – and talk for no more than an hour – to save us from Zoom fatigue. We’d watch a play in our own living rooms, but we’d talk about it afterwards on Zoom (with my sister hosting).

We started with Phyllida Lloyd’s The Tempest, and it blew our minds: all women – in prison! – even filmed with GoPros so we were there, on stage! From St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn – how had I missed them during my months in New York?

In the beginning, theaters were focusing on one-actor plays: easier to film, less Covid issues. So we saw some terrific one-person shows. Mary was so enthralled with Sara Porkalob’s Dragon Mama that she wants to search her out in Seattle.  And all of us think Anne O’Riordan’s performance in Irish Rep’s Ghosting topped the charts. We’re still talking about it.

We didn’t forget Shakespeare either. We saw two Julius Caesars: one all-women (from Phyllida Lloyd again) and one with standard casts. Marla thought a play about the ravages of testosterone needed men, I thought having all women emphasized the relationships, and we discovered Riki had taken courses in Shakespeare.
Fat Ham was Hamlet with a Black cast at a backyard BBQ; the play-within-a-play was a game of charades! But then the PBS Romeo and Juliet left me thinking: I hadn’t remembered Juliet’s mother being so caustic. When I checked the actual play – and Mimi is usually the one with those on hand – I discovered that by giving Lord Capulet’s lines to Lady Capulet, it really brought forth a whole new mother/daughter tension.

Sherri took notes … and changed the way I watched theater. I used to watch, enjoy, wonder about, talk about for a bit, and that was it. But once I started really watching, knowing I’d have to discuss, knowing I’d have to remember who was who and who did what, my appreciation grew. Chris says the whole experience opened her eyes to theater. We all loved The Approach, but we all had to watch it twice because it was so … meaty. And the three women, in discussing their play afterwards, said the intimacy of their conversations was actually more profound with a camera instead of having to project to a 500-person audience. How interesting!
So many different approaches to audiences, too! Every Brilliant Thing gave his audience parts, had them participating with his lists. And The Last 5 Years was a love affair in song: he started with meeting her and she started with their break-up, and their scenes moved chronologically either backwards or forwards. How creative; how heartbreaking!

The big question: What’s the difference between theater and a movie if the theater is filmed? Is it confinement to a stage, a set? We’re not sure – still debating – so I guess we have to keep watching. So far, we’ve seen 22 performances together, and I’ve watched another 34 on my own. Theater did not die during Covid!

We’re now meeting in person – all vaccinated – for our discussions. Not everyone knew each other beforehand, but now we do, and our connection helped me through darker months. Yes, we’re eager for the return of live theater; but I’m so grateful to the actors, the companies, the playwrights, and the techs who tackled a whole new medium and kept their art alive. Some days, they kept me alive, too.

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