One thing I love about theater is the moment when the lights begin to dim and I turn my phone off. Not to silent, not to vibrate. Off. It’s a moment of surrender that happens in too few other spaces and is one of many things I’ve missed since the global pandemic left all the world stage-less.

Yet a few weeks ago, as I sat at home, dimmed the lights, and settled in with my phone and earbuds to listen to the Wilma Theater’s James Ijames-directed audio presentation of Aleshea Harris’ Is God Is, I felt that same surrender. I couldn’t see the actors, but in a way they surrounded me. It felt closer to being inside a theater than anything had in months.

Five months into the shutdown, there isn’t a lot of good news for the arts, where budgets have been slashed and jobs lost. Yet creative people keep finding ways to create. We’ve seen theater companies and individuals respond with innovations meant to keep performers safe and audiences connected — now and in a possibly different-looking future.

Danielle Lenee (left) and Brett Ashley Robinson in Wilma's "Is God Is."
Wide Eyed Studios
Danielle Lenee (left) and Brett Ashley Robinson in Wilma's "Is God Is."

In some ways, theater has never felt more accessible. It cost $6.99 for an entire household to stream the filmed performance of Hamilton on Disney+ and as little as $10 to “attend” Is God Is during its four-day run. Earlier in the summer, Britain’s National Theatre was streaming some past hits on YouTube each week.

This fall’s Philadelphia Fringe Festival (Sept. 10-Oct. 4) will be predominantly virtual, with some performers “opting to have their performances free and just ask for donations,” according to festival coordinator April Rose, who said that costs may also be lower for creators who won’t have to pay rent for a venue this year. Running concurrently, and in part virtually, will be Free Fringe Philly, a separate festival unaffiliated with FringeArts whose participants won’t sell tickets but will also be seeking donations.

In the meantime you can head to YouTube, where you can find Speaking of Family …, a web series from Philadelphia actor and producer Michelle Pauls that was shot entirely on Zoom. Playwright Richard Nelson has also used Zoom to produce two new additions to his plays about the fictional Apple family, to benefit the Actors Fund. The second, And So We Come Forth, is streaming from theapplefamilyplays.com through Aug. 26.

So far there’s been plenty to see without leaving home. But is any of this truly theater? And what’s lost when we’re mostly experiencing it separately, often using the same devices theaters usually have us put away?

Tech cuts both ways

For Gabriela Sánchez, cofounder of Power Street Theatre in North Philadelphia, technology has both given and taken away.

“Doing the best we could with the resources that we had” after city budget cuts wiped out funding for a planned children’s festival in Norris Square Park, the theater in June staged a 90-minute show, Nuestras Historias/Our Stories, on Zoom that was also available on Facebook Live, Sánchez said. “It was really successful,” with “a couple of hundred people” tuning in live to the pay-what-you-decide event and some 2,000 having seen it in all. “We had people from all over be able to tune in.”

Gabriela Sanchez, cofounder of Power Street Theatre
Gene Smirnov
Gabriela Sanchez, cofounder of Power Street Theatre

But while Nuestras Historias reached far more people online than likely could have attended a public performance, Power Street’s focus is “really centered around the richness of diversity in North Philly,” Sánchez said. She worries that between people who may not have access to the internet or who right now might not have “the emotional capacity to deal with navigating [it], that we missed our audience.”

Emotional bandwidth may be as important as the actual kind.

Though “there’s a lot of effort happening to creating access … people have different learning styles,” said Sánchez, noting that she herself is dyslexic. “Someone could have a computer and not know how to use it.”

Additionally, “some people are already dealing with Zoom or Google Hangout meetings for work and may not want to turn to the same kinds of tech for leisure,” said LaNeshe Miller-White, one of the founders of West Philadelphia’s Theatre in the X.

“There are things that I want to watch, but after I’ve had three [virtual] things in a day, or more … I want my computer to go away,” said Miller-White, who’s also the newly appointed executive director of Theatre Philadelphia. That organization, which markets the region’s theaters and runs the Barrymore Awards, is also spotlighting a variety of virtual events on its website these days.

LaNeshe Miller-White, one of the founders of West Philadelphia's Theatre in the X, has been named the new executive director of Theatre Philadelphia, which markets the region's theaters.
Sharvon Hales Photography
LaNeshe Miller-White, one of the founders of West Philadelphia's Theatre in the X, has been named the new executive director of Theatre Philadelphia, which markets the region's theaters.

Forced to cancel its two long-planned August productions in Malcolm X Park for safety reasons, Theatre in the X turned to a virtually staged reading of Viv Is for Vengeance, on Zoom. Lindsey Hope Pearlman’s play is a comedic take on Euripides’ Medea, but featuring characters from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Pearlman’s play, Miller-White said, grew out of a real incident, “when they replaced the actress who played Aunt Viv with a different actress toward the end of the series.”

For the actors, “this was like the first creative thing that they had done since everything started to change,” she said of the reading. “We prerecorded it, did some light editing,” and then put it on Facebook Live so people could watch it together with the cast and chat about it. “People needed that togetherness in that moment.”

Another digital production, a four-day Juneteenth celebration in partnership with Norristown’s Iron Age Theatre, offered less immediacy. Miller-White said she’s heard from people who haven’t yet finished watching the 12 short videos, which remain online. It “was too much for them to handle, like, all three of those videos in one day on each day … and especially with this subject matter, too, which is heavier, definitely, than Viv Is for Vengeance.”

Though “there’s definitely some digital divide happening with the portion of West Philly that we work with,” a bigger problem has been getting word out about what the theater’s doing, she said. In the past, people would have seen them rehearsing in the park or in attendance at other community events. To promote the Juneteenth project to people who didn’t follow the theater on social media, they printed placards with QR codes and hung them up around West Philly. People could point their phones at the code, and the page with the videos would come up.

‘That live connection'

“This idea about what is theater, and what can we make under the restrictions that we’re working under at this time that actually feels like theater, is for me the question,” said Princeton-based producer Mara Isaacs, whose credits include the Tony Award-winning Hadestown. “And ultimately, for me, it’s the relationship between the performers and the audience, that live connection is for me what is theater. So how do we make that in a digital space?”

One possibility: making the space more intimate while still maintaining social distance. She’s working with Christine Jones and Jenny Koons on a new digital project launching Thursday, Aug. 20, that will bring the Theatre for One concept, conceived by Jones as a portable venue designed for one actor and audience member at a time, into a virtual space.

Mara Isaacs, one of the producers for the musical "Hadestown," navigates Times Square in June 2019, shortly before the show won eight Tony Awards, including best musical.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Mara Isaacs, one of the producers for the musical "Hadestown," navigates Times Square in June 2019, shortly before the show won eight Tony Awards, including best musical.

Commissioned by Arts Brookfield, Theatre for One: Here We Are will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote, and will run on Thursday nights for six weeks. Eight “microplays,” each several minutes long, and written, directed, and designed by BIPOC women (Black, Indigenous, and people of color), will be performed almost entirely by women. Among the playwrights: Lynn Nottage (Sweat), the first woman to win two Pulitzer Prizes for drama.

Audience members, who’ll sign in to a sort of chat room designed to mimic the experience of waiting in line for a physical Theatre of One performance, won’t get to choose which play they’ll see. They’ll wait in the chat room with others, then — when their turn comes — enter a separate “theater” space, where it will just be one viewer and the actor.

“They will be live. These are not recorded. … They’re ephemeral performances where the actor and the audience member can see each other,” Isaacs said. (Registration for the free performances is at bfplny.com/theatre.)

They’re also short. “What I learned as a theater maker, who is also a person dealing with the emotions of quarantine” and its attendant stresses, is that the “attention span for watching a play online is limited,” Isaacs said.

What may outlast the pandemic

You’re unlikely to find anyone steeped in live theater who isn’t eager to get back to it when it’s safe to do so. But as the Wilma recently floated a proposal for a Globe-like theater-within-a-theater equipped with multiple cameras to capture performances, there was a sense that a post-pandemic future might involve more technical innovations and maybe a hybrid approach to reaching audiences beyond the physical theater.

Miller-White, whose budget is considerably smaller, would like to have at least parts of future Theatre in the X performances recorded.

“I wish we had good recordings of our past presentations,” she said. Recording the company’s outdoor performances might be challenging, “but I’m thinking of having things documented, even if it’s just small snippets of shows, because that would have been something really great to be able to put out now.”

Rendering of the proposed Wilma Globe arena, which would separate theatergoers into individual stalls that face the stage. Space could be configured for as many as 100 patrons or as few as 35.
Wilma Theater
Rendering of the proposed Wilma Globe arena, which would separate theatergoers into individual stalls that face the stage. Space could be configured for as many as 100 patrons or as few as 35.