Hodgins: Theaters Determined to Recreate Magic Online, Is It Worth the Effort?

Photo courtesy of Jordan Kubat/SCR

From left, Richard Doyle, Devon Sorvari and Lynn Milgrim in ​"Outside Mullingar." South Coast Repertory's 2020 ​production was filmed during a pre-opening night performance so that the theater could stream it online for audiences after it was canceled for live performances on March 13, 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Paul Hodgins

A highly respected and award-winning arts journalist. In partnership with Heide Janssen, Hodgins has in just over a year established a community-focused, award-winning and widely respected Arts & Culture section at Voice of OC. In addition to his work here as an arts writer, columnist and editor, Hodgins teaches at USC. Previously, he was an arts writer and critic at the Orange County Register and the San Diego Union-Tribune and a professor at UC Irvine and Cal State Fullerton. Hodgins holds degrees from USC, the University of Michigan and the Royal Conservatory of Music.

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Like many theaters around the country, Costa Mesa’s South Coast Repertory entered the coronavirus era quickly, unexpectedly, and with a minimum of preparation.


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As the crisis deepened in early March, the theater’s leaders convened daily.

“For several days, the executive staff was pulled together in the morning and we’d start the day with a meeting about possible next steps,” said Bil Schroeder, SCR’s director of marketing and communications. “We knew we’d have to do something quickly.”

The week that statewide restrictions were announced, SCR’s bosses decided to pull the plug on live performances. Its production of John Patrick Shanley’s play “Outside Mullingar,” then in previews, would have to be shut down. First, though, it would be preserved in a way that was new to SCR.

“We made the decision to film (the play) around 2 p.m. on Thursday, March 12,” said an SCR spokesperson in response to emailed questions from Voice of OC. “We decided to videotape that evening’s final preview performance – the final (performance) for the run.”

Like most regional theaters, SCR customarily makes an archival recording of its productions, using a single camera placed at the back of the venue, resulting in a long-distance, static video that isn’t intended for public viewing. This time, something more elaborate was tried.

“We filmed with that evening’s audience in attendance,” the spokesperson said. “We did a three-camera set-up, with cameras at mid-house (on the orchestra level): one camera in the center, and one camera on each side. Each camera was connected to the house audio system that feeds the assisted listening system. Each camera filmed the entire show and then the three were edited together. There wasn’t a video director, per se, but there were a few edits that were reviewed.”

SCR co-founder Martin Benson brought some outside talent to the project: his son Justin, an accomplished director and videographer.

“For the syncing and editing process, Justin was able to figure out the best angles for each scene,” Schroeder said. “It was made from three separate captures from the three cameras that got synced together.”

That editing process took only a few days. Then came the more complex part: getting legal permission from various unions to allow the video version of the play to be viewed by the public.

“Basically the process was to get the concessions (from) the unions — get the unions to agree to (public broadcast),” Schroeder said. Fortunately, the League of Resident Theatres, a professional organization that represents 75 major theaters in 30 states, engaged in negotiations on behalf of many theaters who were attempting the same thing as SCR with their suddenly frozen productions. “LORT dealt with (unions representing the stage directors, actors and choreographers), and for some theaters with IATSE.” (The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees represents the technicians, artisans and craftspeople in the entertainment industry.) “The concession basically gave permission under certain conditions to distribute the performance video through a platform to the audience.”

Once the legal logistics were worked out, SCR had to find a viewing platform for “Outside Mullingar.” But it wasn’t as simple as sticking it on YouTube.

“Putting it on YouTube would give access to everyone for free,” Schroeder said. “We went with Vimeo after looking at other options. You can give access to it with a unique link. You could provide the access to an audience member to view it, and they could only watch it once within a certain time period. You could only have the video up on the site for two weeks. And that agreement fit our needs. It was a good solution for us.”

While Schroeder didn’t offer any information about the size of the viewership for the Vimeo experiment, he said other new online ventures have been surprisingly successful. (Among SCR’s new fare is a regular at-home video chat with Ivers that includes homey touches such as a fake-bearded imitation of Ivers by his son.)

The SCR spokesperson noted that SCR was far from alone in its attempts to keep its art form going by recording productions. “What we heard anecdotally from our sister theaters is that nearly every level of video, from a single camera archival-type shoot to two or three cameras, was utilized by those able to film.”

Seeking Spiritual Places

The idea of watching theater on the small screen, of course, is nothing new. Indeed, during the golden years of television, programs such as the CBS series “Playhouse 90,” which featured full-length scripts broadcast live during its first two years, were some of the most popular evening fare on TV.

In the movie theater, London’s National Theatre has set a gold standard. For more than a decade, it has produced high-quality broadcast versions of its productions, and they’re available at movie theaters worldwide.

Modeled after the successful live broadcasts of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, “NT Live” is a fascinating hybrid: a broadcast director collaborates with the stage production’s director, devising a coherent plan for presenting the play on the big screen. All the usual cinematic considerations come into play regarding close-ups, reaction shots, panoramic sweeps and action sequences. Sometimes the camera will cut to the audience and show its reaction, crucial to reminding us that we’re sharing in an experience that’s taking place in real time.

At least eight or nine cameras are employed, stationed at different points in the theater. Two rehearsals are conducted especially for the cameras and the broadcast director.

The show is recorded in a single take in front of an audience and broadcast live to movie theaters, with delays necessary for audiences in certain time zones.

“Live viewing is an important part of the concept,” the National’s executive director, Lisa Burger, said in an interview with The Atlantic. “The idea is that you in the cinema are joining the theater audience. This isn’t a film being made in a studio; you’re seeing a filmed version of a theatrical performance.”

With the arrival of the coronavirus, the National has begun to offer online distribution of its broadcasts, starting a new service called NT at Home. It’s available on YouTube every Thursday evening (U.K. time), and the National allows it to stream free of charge for one week. Success was instant: 200,000 people watched “One Man, Two Guvnors” on the first Thursday in April, and 2.5 million viewers streamed it over the next seven days.

While many theater lovers are applauding these attempts to make their art form available during the coronavirus crisis, some have pointed out that theater can lose something in the translation. Performance scholar Sarah Bay-Cheng contends that “mediated theatre” — a play or musical that has been edited for the big or small screen — presents the viewer with a profoundly different sense of space, movement, and time than a live performance does. The sense of being “in the moment” can’t be duplicated remotely, and editing a show turns it into a different experience since our attention and focus are now being manipulated by a third party. We are being directed, in other words.

Then there’s the matter of money. The National’s highly polished broadcasts are well beyond the financial abilities of most theaters. Though the National’s broadcast budget isn’t known, similar projects come with seven-figure price tags. The founders of BroadwayHD, a theater-on-demand site, figure that filming a National-style version of an average Broadway show would cost between $2 million and $4 million. The expenses skyrocket because of distribution rights and union compensation requirements.

Even SCR’s modestly videotaped version of “Outside Mullingar” wasn’t cheap, Schroeder said, although he wouldn’t reveal what it cost.

The larger question, of course, is whether trying to experience a live performance in anything other than its intended mode and form is ultimately futile and even self-defeating. Theater artist and writer Nicholas Berger makes some tough and poignant observations on the dangers of virtual performance.

“I find there to be a great sadness to these kinds of endeavors,” Berger says of online theater in its many forms. “At their best these projects may serve as a momentary distraction from the mounting, unimaginable destruction outside our windows, but at their all too often worst, they serve as a constant reminder of the superiority and the irreplaceability of the very art form they are so desperately trying to recreate.

“There’s a reason theater-makers weren’t staging readings of plays over Zoom two months ago, it’s the same reason we continue to turn to theater, even when Hulu programs a bigger season than any off-Broadway theater possibly could. The singular transcendence of human congregation is irreplaceable. So why are we trying so hard to make theater without it?”

Others counter that striving for excellence or faithfulness to an artistic ideal is not the point right now. Instead, making theater, music or art of any kind under trying circumstances is a valuable way of coping with the crisis and finding a path to greater well being.

“I believe this time (is encouraging) people to tap their own and one another’s creativity,” said John Forsyte, president of Orange County’s Pacific Symphony. “I’ve talked to people who are picking up instruments again, painting and writing. I sense that the art-maker culture could experience a real renaissance.”

The power of the arts can reinforce our most profound values and beliefs during times of crisis, Forsyte said. “I think that this is a moment where we’re being scrubbed of some of our lesser needs. Many people are seeking spiritual places. When people get in touch with their spiritual side, they can learn amazing things. All of that tends to manifest itself in a desire to engage in big ideas. And who (wrestles with) these big ideas? Visionary artists, composers, playwrights and authors.

“People will come up with some unbelievably interesting new ways of looking at the world. I think that’s really a powerful byproduct of engaging with the arts right now.”

Paul Hodgins is the senior editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at phodgins@voiceofoc.org.