With plays canceled around the country, the Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis has stepped in with virtual readings so writers can hear their words and artists can work. The online performances this month may be more than a stopgap; they could be part of the future of theater.
Each Friday afternoon in April on the Zoom video-chat platform, the center holds a new play reading with professional actors, most from the Twin Cities (including Christina Baldwin and Ansa Akyea). Some of the plays, like last Friday's "The Violet Sisters," are brand-new pieces that playwrights revise throughout the week of online rehearsals preceding the readings.
Others are more polished, like Stacey Rose's "Legacy Land," which will be performed April 24. The world-premiere drama made it to its March 14 opening night at Kansas City Repertory Theatre, which also was its closing. The rest of the run was canceled because of the global pandemic.
According to Hayley Finn, associate artistic director of Playwrights', it all came down to the center's mission: "How can we support playwrights at this time? How can we pay them? And, also, we employ a lot of actors in this community, so how can we pay them?"
The answer, as part of the center's other activities, was this series of online readings, which seems likely to be expanded in the future. Last week's "The Violet Sisters" was judged a success, even as everyone figured things out on the fly.
"I've directed probably 900 readings at the Playwrights' Center but I've never directed any online before this," said Finn, who helmed "Violet Sisters" and will use what she learned to direct the April 17 performance of Erin Courtney's play "Begin, Begin, Begin Again."
Both of those had been planned as live events at the center, which had to pivot quickly when it became apparent it wouldn't be possible to fly in actors and playwrights. The acting union, Actors' Equity, quickly approved an online plan and other technical aspects fell into place.
For her part, Finn reached out to actors she knew possessed a sense of adventure.
"I was honestly surprised and excited that so many people wanted to do this," said Finn. "So many productions have been canceled and actors and others are out of work and writers have lost productions. There's greater sadness in the world, obviously, but there has been sadness around this, too, and this allowed [writers] to say, 'I can move this work forward. I can hear it with actors. I can collaborate in this virtual way.' "
The two main requirements of the actors? Talent and an internet connection.
"Computers die. My iPad falls over. There's technical [stuff] like that," said Brooklyn-based actor and Minnesota native Cat Brindisi, who had to achieve a sister relationship with Baldwin from halfway across the country in "The Violet Sisters." "But it has been weirdly intimate. Christina and I both use headphones and I don't know if that's why, because we're literally in each other's ears. And she's so close to me, screen to screen."
One finding from "The Violet Sisters" will not surprise anyone who has watched the staged readings of "The Heidi Chronicles" and "Tale of the Allergist's Wife" on the YouTube channel "Stars in the House": It makes a big difference if the actors look up from their scripts.
"A funny thing we found out on the second day was that the best way to portray looking at each other is by looking at the camera on our computers, instead of actually looking at the other person," said Brindisi. "So, basically, Christina and I act to the little green dots on our Macs. That part is weird. I don't see her eyes and I want a human eyeball to connect to, so that took a little getting used to."
Finn said matching the sound quality and backdrops also required finessing. Otherwise, Brindisi said the "Violet Sisters" rehearsal "room" felt surprisingly similar to an in-person one.
Rose is looking forward to getting back into the rehearsal room with her "Legacy Land" cast, even by computer. Although she is "devastated" her play closed after one performance, Rose knows she was luckier than Candrice Jones, whose "Flex" will be the April 10 reading. Set to debut at the Humana Festival on March 18, "Flex" was canceled outright.
Unexpectedly, the "Legacy Land" online reading will bring Rose's play back to the city where she wrote it as a Playwrights' Center Many Voices fellow.
"Letting that audience see what this baby has grown into is meaningful to me," said Rose, who is based in Charlotte, N.C., but whose time here taught her that Twin Cities audiences value new work. "I want to give these actors another chance to live in these characters they love and also give more people a chance to see the beautiful work they did."
Future of theater
Initially, the virtual audiences have been limited to 100 per reading, mostly theatermakers; a key part of the Playwrights' Center plan is to get artistic directors from around the country to see plays they may want to program. But, due to increased interest, more "seats" now are available.
"I love the center for what they're doing, not just for my play but for other playwrights," said Rose.
She's also contemplating what the virtual realm could mean for theater's future. Inspired by Charlotte, where she says there isn't much live theater, and by the fact that she's a trained health care worker, Rose is deeply interested in how computers could make theater accessible to folks who don't care about it or who think it's out of reach. She talks about how burning up ground can lead to "a new beginning," a metaphor that pops up in "Legacy Land."
"What happens when you scorch the earth is you then get to decide what you plant next," said Rose, who dreams of bringing work into audiences' homes and Zooming in artists for post-show chats. Her thought is that, with limited production costs, budgets and ticket prices could stay low.
"These things aren't new, but I do think they will become more the thing. They will make theater accessible to people it normally wasn't available for. They will make it possible for theater companies to think more broadly," Rose said. "This has disrupted the way we do theater and it could very well be for the best. It could allow us to revolutionize theater, put more of the power in the hands of the artist."
Of course, Rose isn't saying online drama can replace the live experience. Playwright Lynn Nottage, whose "Floyd's" was staged last season by the Guthrie Theater and whose "Sweat" was to have appeared there this summer, has tweeted that virtual theater "feels a little like eating food without being able to fully taste it."
Rose offers a slightly more generous metaphor: "Would you rather listen to Miles Davis live if you could or on an album? I think people would say live and, right now, streaming is the closest thing to that."
The "Legacy Land" writer thinks efforts like the Playwrights' Center readings are just the beginning of the innovations theater will see.
"Theater people, we are used to making something out of nothing," said Rose. "Much like black folks: It's what we do."
In the meantime, Rose's prescription is simple: nurture each other, love ourselves and persevere until we figure out what will grow next.
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367