The Good, the Bad, and the Glitchy: Streaming Theater During Shelter-in-Place

Anthony Fusco, Stacy Ross, and Sarah Mitchell in 'They Promised Her the Moon' at TheatreWorks. (Kevin Berne)

Normally, you wouldn't be allowed to eat a bowl of caramel corn while watching a play. Even the most accommodating and hip theater companies don't offer snacks that are so notably audible—at least not to be eaten during the show. But that's one of the secret silver linings of watching theater during the coronavirus crisis: kicking one's snack game up a notch.

In fact, more often than not, my online theater watching coincides with my full dinner hour, an enjoyable combination that’s far less possible to pull off when a show is in situ. Nor do I have to worry about an unpredictable BART delay making me late for curtain, since curtain can be whenever I decide, and perhaps most amazingly of all, intermission and bathroom breaks are whenever I want them.

Anna Ishida in 2011's 'Beardo,' part of Shotgun Players' Art in the Time of Corona screening series. (Pak Han)

Since the last show I was able to review live, Toni Stone at A.C.T. (which closed the morning after its March 11 opening night), I haven’t been able to attend any shows in person. But thanks to modern technology, recorded shows from the archives of notable companies from around the globe are now available to anyone with an internet connection. Being able to binge-watch my way around the world—from The National Theatre of London to Schaubühne Berlin to the Wooster Group from NYC—has been an instructive crash course in shows that, in some cases, haven’t been seen onstage in decades, and never in the Bay Area.

But catching up with the many works offered by local theaters online has been a wonderful way to fill in some recent gaps, as well as revisit old favorites. Theaters that are challenging for a non-driver such as myself to visit, such as Marin Theatre Company and TheatreWorks, are suddenly accessible, and closed-captioning options offer another important accommodation not generally available in a live setting. With a few exceptions, such as TheatreWorks live-streamed Pride and Prejudice—which had a proscribed, universal “curtain time”—videos can be viewed when convenient for the viewer. This removes some of the ritual of live performance, to be sure, but increases access for people on unconventional timelines (quarantine-induced or otherwise).

A scene from Marin Theatre Company's 'Love,' the first show presented as part of their ongoing virtual programming. With Rebecca Schweitzer, Clea Alsip, and Bobak Cyrus Bakhtiari. (Alessandra Mello/mellophoto)

A known hotbed of new works, the Bay Area premieres many shows that tend to be one-and-done, rarely performed again elsewhere. So what a rare joy it’s been to dive into Shotgun Players’ Art in the Time of Corona series online, where they’ve been posting two shows a week from their archives. Through May 8, you can check out the 2008 Glickman award-winning, Banana Bag & Bodice collaboration, Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage, as well as last year’s triumphal Three Sisters-remix Kill the Debbie Downers! Kill Them! Kill Them! Kill Them Off!, both of which defied conventional structures at their inception, and neither of which are likely to see another full production this side of the continent any time soon.

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Enough time has passed for some companies to pivot to creating new made-for-digital content while sheltered-in-place, such as the San Francisco Neo-Futurists and Queer Cat Productions. Queer Cat’s quarantine-specific web series Felix B. Love is Not Alone, available through April 30, stars Nic A. Sommerfeld as the somewhat bemused Felix, who deals with isolation by dropping in on exes and struggles with the quest for “closure”—all while in the company of Zoomed-in friends. I discover, in a group-chat breakout room, that the audience is watching from at least five different states. It's one of my favorite revelations about the experience: here is an instance where not being under the same roof is actually connecting audience members for a ritual far better than would a conventional, location-specific production.

The Cast of 'They Promised Her the Moon,' by Lauren Ollstein, at TheatreWorks. (Kevin Berne)

Of course, even pre-recorded theater-in-place has had its challenges. A streamed version of A.C.T.’s Gloria, which had opened on Feb. 13, kept pausing to rebuffer, derailing its fierce momentum and therefore its emotional impact. I couldn’t get the livestream of TheatreWorks’ Pride and Prejudice to work at all, so I watched their curtailed production of They Promised Her the Moon, by Laurel Ollstein instead. Sound and lighting issues plagued almost all of the videos. Because they were filmed for archival purposes rather than polished production values, certain effects simply didn’t translate to video the way they did onstage.

Overall, though, I’m grateful that in this moment, theater-lovers still have ways to satiate our craving for whatever part of the experience we can access safely. In the long term, theaters large and small will likely undergo a huge restructuring in order to accommodate the new normal—a formidable task. Which makes these archives of past productions seem especially valuable, even historic. Don’t miss your opportunity to check some of them out while you have the chance.

For more details, dates, and costs of online theater streams, see the National Theatre, Schaubühne Berlin, The Wooster Group, Marin Theatre Company, TheatreWorks, A.C.T., Shotgun Players, San Francisco Neo-Futurists, or Queer Cat Productions—and don’t forget to check out your favorite local theater companies to see what online productions they may have available.