As the theatre companies reel from the effects of the coronavirus, a new trend has emerged in the theatre world: streaming productions. The New York Times has reported on the efforts of companies from all over the nation to stream productions; these companies’ streaming efforts vary in intent and preparation level.
The Utah theatre community has refused to be left behind. So far, two theatre companies have announced that they will stream a production online. This is not the first time that Utah companies have streamed productions, but this is the first time that the companies have done so under the extreme circumstances that the coronavirus has imposed on theatre companies. For most groups, this is a noble experiment.
To see how the streaming experience is working, I bought a “ticket” to stream Utah’s first two coronavirus-era recorded productions.
The Ziegfeld Theater’s Newsies (March 20-April 5, 2020), cost: $9.50 (link)
The first company across the finish line for streaming a show is the Ziegfeld Theater, with their bilingual English/ASL production of Newsies that got a rave review when it opened. It’s a fine amateur production that makes me see huge potential in either an ASL theatre company in Utah (or at least a smart company mounting an ASL production annually). The use of sign language is not a gimmick and adds a deeper dimension to actors’ performances while making the theatre more inclusive.
The video of Newsies is a close approximation to the experience of watching a non-Equity production live. Of course, it is missing the immediacy of live theatre, but that is to be expected. The production values are surprisingly high, especially when the company only had eight days from when they shut down the production to when the video started streaming. There are at least three camera angles, and the editing is seamless. The video is in high definition, and even in the wide shorts I could easily see the actors’ facial expressions. There are a few points where the camera work has pans that are too rapid or sudden zoom-ins, but the uncredited camera operators were generally good at their job. Jake T. Holt is the only person credited with the video production, and it is impressive that he could helm the filming of a stage musical with so little preparation time.
There are some rough edges that are apparent, though. Newsies was apparently filmed in one performance, so a few minor glitches are apparent in the video. Microphones occasionally fail, and there is a noticeable line flub. But hey, it’s live theatre! If you can’t forgive something like that in an amateur show, you probably aren’t interested in streaming the play anyway. Still, if time had permitted, it would have been nice for those errors to be edited out and replaced with the same scenes from a second performance or a later take. It is also clear that the lighting was not adjusted to handle filming, and it takes time to get accustomed to the dark look of some scenes.
There are little reminders in the video that the performance was filmed during a viral pandemic. Most noticeably, the silence after every musical number and the bows to an absent audience are eerie. Any videos that theatre companies make of their current productions are going to be historical records of how strange this time is for “live” theatre.
Is Newsies worth watching this week? The answer is a definite yes. Ironically, the same virus that closed the show early made it so I could see the play at all. If you are like me and missed this unique production the first time, then the coronavirus is a godsend that gives you one more chance to see an interesting staging of a Utah favorite—and for cheaper than seeing it live would have been. I have not seen an ASL production in 15 years, and I was grateful to revisit this genre of theatre. I hope that companies considering streaming theatrical productions watch this and see the strong start that streaming has in Utah during the coronavirus pandemic and look for ways to improve upon the Ziegfeld Theater’s work.
Hale Center Theater Orem’s Daddy Long Legs (March 27-29 and April 3-5, 2020), cost: $10 (link)
The second streaming production from a Utah theatre company during the coronavirus pandemic was a remounting of the Hale Center Theater Orem’s 2018 production of Daddy Long Legs, which received a positive review at the time. The show is ideal for pandemic conditions: a cast of two, an intimate plot, and a story that serves as comfort food for a troubled world.
The in-house technical staff at Hale Center Theater Orem have skills that transfer well to video production. The camera work is more sophisticated than many filmed plays; most of the shots are not stationary, and the filming has enough variety to prevent the video from feeling static. The gradual zoom-ins from medium shots to close-ups are especially appreciated and take advantage of the familiarity of film without sacrificing the “you are there” feeling of live theatre.
There are some rough edges—which is completely forgivable when one considers that tight time frame that this project must have had. (The time from when gathering sizes were limited in Utah to when this streaming production was announced was exactly two weeks.) Sometimes the actors’ faces are not entirely in frame, or a distracting shadow strays into the shot. But these are minor. More noticeable are the abrupt cuts where apparently the actors did a second take, and the scene was edited together. It is more professional than keeping mistakes in the film, but splicing scenes together with a change to a different camera angle would have worked better. But, for an experiment that the producers didn’t even know last month that they would be doing, I feel that this was 90-95% successful.
The theatre company has branded this experience as “Hale@Home.” I hope that this means that Daddy Long Legs will not be the last streaming experience that Hale Center Theater Orem gives its patrons. Watching this play in my living room made me excited for the types of shows that Hale could stream in the future. Rights holders for productions that are unlikely to get the Hollywood treatment would be lucky to have a company as competent as the Hale filming their plays. Even after the pandemic, I hope that Hale@Home becomes a regular fixture of the company. If rights holders are not as permissive when things return to normal, it would still be fun to see classic public domain shows, like Charley’s Aunt, The Importance of Being Earnest, or Saint Joan, get the Hale@Home treatment.
Plan-B Theatre’s The Audacity (March 28-April 5, 2020), cost: free (starting April 1)
The first professional theatre company to announce that they would be streaming a production is Plan-B Theatre. Their world premiere of The Audacity was originally scheduled to open March 26. After being closed for coronavirus and a pandemic, the show will be available to stream online starting March 26 for ticket holders. The general public can see it for free on April 1. See a preview here and here. Stream at planbtheatre.org.
An Other Theater Company’s Odd Shaped Balls (April 10-12, 2020), cost: flexible
Starring Colter Lee Brown, Odd Shaped Balls, is a one-man show written by Richard D. Sheridan that is available to stream from An Other Theater. The stream will be available April 10 to 12, and the company is letting audience members “pick your price.” Stream at anothertheater.com.