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Theater in the Time of COVID
The last time I saw live theater before the pandemic struck was on March 7, a production of Will Eno’s Gnit at Theater for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn. It was the first preview, and I recall the distinct hum of anxiety in the audience—everyone being careful to slather their hands with the hand sanitizer the theater provided, to sit with their elbows tucked in, and most especially never to sneeze or cough. Even the laughter was tentative, a problem for a show that fancied itself a comedy. We all could feel the end was nigh, that, in a reversal of the usual way of things, the packed house augured that the show would never open, as indeed it did not.
In retrospect, that foreboding may have affected my response to the play, a retelling of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. It’s the story of a notably aimless and self-involved hero who wanders the earth, falling into and out of scrapes and relationships, in quest of a true self that he ultimately fails to create precisely because he thought he had to discover it. Instead of investing in those relationships with people and places that might have nourished a proper self into being, he wandered on in search of a mythical inner grail he imagined he would find somewhere out there. The whole thing was delivered in Eno’s typical mode of detached irony, something I normally appreciate, but I remember feeling irritated that this play was exemplifying what it claimed to be critiquing. What drove this man to flee and abandon people? Why couldn’t he share a space and time with them? These should have been the play’s key questions, but instead they were simply givens. I felt I was observing him from the outside, critiquing him rather than communing with him. I didn’t need to be in a theater with him to do that.
I didn’t know how precious that opportunity would be. More than half a year later, the theaters are still illumined only by ghost lights. If I had known then that here, upon this unprepossessing bank and shoal of time, would be my last encounter for who knows how long, would I have tried harder to reach for that communion?
The last several months have given me a lot of opportunities to think about that question, about what makes that communion possible, and about whether anything like it can survive in the mediated form that is all we’ve been left with in this COVID-19 era. If theater happens in a shared and defined space, what happens when sharing space is forbidden and the virtual replacements have no boundaries? If theater happens in the evanescent and shared moment in time, what happens when time stops and the moment smears out like the Scottish tyrant’s toll of creeping tomorrows?
Lost in Space
I suspect I was not the only person whose instinct, upon entering the relative isolation of the early spring, was to grasp at any chance to people my world. I had never been fond of video calls, but suddenly I was FaceTiming and Zooming daily, not because I had to (why would a writer have to?) but simply to bring other faces into the room with me. For much the same reason, I jumped at the first opportunities to see live performance of any kind.
With actors isolated in their homes, the only obvious way to perform a play was to do a reading on Zoom. So I saw a lot of them, some of my favorites organized by Red Bull Theater, a classical company on whose board I serve (where I advocated strongly that we do as much of this kind of work as we possibly could). ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, Coriolanus, The Witch of Edmonton, The Government Inspector—it was a joy to revisit these texts and hear the words spoken by such talented casts. But we had to struggle with the medium at every turn to create the illusion of shared presence. It’s not just that you can’t give someone a kiss, or engage someone in a duel, without sharing a space. On Zoom, you can’t even look at one another, can’t even interrupt each other. Dialogues too readily devolve into a ping-pong of reciprocal soliloquies, jokes are framed by awkward pauses, and no matter how good we got at the game—and we got quite good indeed—it never quite approached what actors could achieve when they got to play on the same side of the net.
One way to try to solve this problem was by turning theater into a kind of film. New York’s Irish Rep went that route, reviving their production of Conor McPherson’s The Weir in a streamed production that utilized digital backgrounds to create the illusion of a shared space with a coherent geography (a pub in Ireland). The actors didn’t face the camera, as in a Zoom reading, but performed their parts observed by the camera, as in a film. And while they could never be in a two-shot, and we’d never see a wide shot of the whole pub, they could act as if they were in a space. The problem is that this was no longer theater—the performances weren’t even live but were edited together after the fact. Yet it made for a rather poor excuse for a movie, with static camera angles and frequent cutting to whoever happened to be speaking at the moment, an editing choice that seemed to mimic one of the worst aspects of Zoom. I could appreciate the experience only once the characters had stopped interacting and started telling their individual ghost stories—a series of monologues addressed to a pub-like void. Shared presence this was not.
The most crucial absence for all these efforts, though, was mine. I was sitting on my couch, so that when my attention wandered (as it might do in the theater as well), there were too many options outside myself to snag it (a general problem with the age of streaming and at home “consumption” of narrative art rather than communal presence in theaters, even movie theaters). The readings at least were live, which lent them a different quality from something filmed and edited. Even if I watched them a day or two after they were recorded, the missed cue, the dropped audio, the moment that the actor broke, all of that was preserved and could remind me of the live human presence. But I wasn’t present with them in their space. There wasn’t even a live audience with which I could vicariously commune as I might in watching Saturday Night Live or old episodes of The Carol Burnett Show. Even at their best, these pieces often made me feel like I was watching a party to which I hadn’t been invited.
So it’s perhaps not surprising that, of the attempts at distanced, digital theater that I took in during this period, two of the most successful made a virtue of necessity, and both used and were substantially about isolation.
One of the first theater pieces I watched during the pandemic was a production of the one-man show Buyer and Cellar by Jonathan Tolins, written for and starring Michael Urie. The show is about an out-of-work gay actor who gets a job as a sales clerk in Barbra Streisand’s basement. A sales clerk in her basement? Yes—you see, the Streisand of the show had built an entire mall down there, stocked with various knickknacks and tchotchkes that she already owned, along with an ice cream parlor and other amenities, and she needed a sales clerk to complete the illusion.
The show was written to be performed by a single actor who plays both the protagonist and all the other characters—his boyfriend, Streisand’s staff, and of course the diva herself—as he tells his tale. That story has a familiar arc: he starts off professionally stuck and largely immune to Barbra-fever; after a strange interview, he gets the job and is plunged into the tedium of waiting for the only possible customer to arrive (days would go by between appearances, and he would have to sit there, prepared to receive). There’s the thrill of finally meeting her, the greater thrill of successfully connecting through the mutually improvised role-play that his absurd position requires. A relationship develops that might be friendship, might be cult worship, might be raw exploitation—might be all these—and his other, more substantive relationships begin to suffer from his absence and from the changes the star has born in him. And then of course it all falls apart, and he has to pick up the pieces and recall to himself who he is.
The director, Nic Cory, filmed the show in a corner of Urie’s home made up as a blank white cube, using two cameras with ring lights, which allowed him to cut to a different perspective for surprisingly dramatic effect (and Urie very effectively worked the camera as well, leaning in to confide in us and pulling back to do a larger scene). It was a master class in how much you can do with so little.
The material, meanwhile, was ideally suited to a moment and a medium for which it was never intended. This is a story about multiple layers of isolation: the protagonist is trapped in a basement, and increasingly trapped in the relationship with Streisand, a woman he cannot ever really know; Streisand herself is trapped by her fame and wealth and by a deep distrust bred of long experience. His predicament is ours: needing to people his island, like a castaway his only way to do it is to conjure them of himself. The one-man-show format didn’t feel like a gimmicky star turn, as it too often does, but something integral to the work. It was extremely funny as well as extremely sad, but it lost none of its humor or pathos from the screen that circumstances placed between the audience and it. On the contrary: I suspect it benefited. Like Dostoevsky’s underground man or Gogol’s mad diarist, the protagonist of Buyer and Cellar doesn’t really need us, and arguably doesn’t benefit from knowing we are there, from being able to feed on the energy of our presence. He has no audience down there in Streisand’s basement, after all, and we are not really there for him to talk to.
Meanwhile I, in my living room, needed to feel his desperation, but neither relieve it as I might have in a theater nor lose myself in it as I might have in a film. I needed to feel the unreachability of the performer’s presence as a pain for both of us, as if we were both poltergeists unable to break through to the other side of the screen. I think it had to be recorded live—but with no live audience—to fully achieve that effect. Though not written for this moment, the piece became a perfect companion to share our isolation.
Theater in Quarantine
I discovered another “theater of isolation” piece more recently—or, rather, a series of pieces, Closet Works, all released under the aegis of Theater in Quarantine. The series is the brainchild of performer Joshua William Gelb, who partway through the pandemic decided he could no longer live without a space in which to create. So he built one, in his home. He took a closet, emptied and stripped it, took off the door, painted it white on the inside, and voilà: a tiny theater.
Of course, nobody could come to see his shows, so he had to learn how to film and broadcast them. The limitations of the space itself were obvious, and even with the addition of props, costumes, and the occasional door or window added to the set, the most consequential limitation was the isolation of the performer. How much theater could one make with one man standing in a white box? The answer to all these questions turned out to be to break the boundaries between theater and film, and use animation and digital manipulation of the image to expand the world beyond the confines of the box, and, most thrillingly, to duplicate Gelb in his performance so that he can, in his time, play many parts and even interact with himself.
Once again, this is a technique that has often been used successfully in film, generally to comic effect, but in terms of sheer bravura Gelb takes things to new heights because his pieces are filmed live (which is why he still calls them theater), with all the digital manipulations pre-programmed. Thus, when he doubles back and interacts with himself, he’s executing a dance of extraordinary intricacy of timing and position. The tiniest slip and a moment will make no sense, and there’s no opportunity to fix it in post-production. His shows are basically continuous shots of the sort that won Sam Mendes accolades for his film 1917 (which I discussed in the Spring 2020 issue of this journal), executed by the most skeletal of crews.
The stories he tells, meanwhile, are tailored to suit the medium and the messenger. The first one I sampled, 52 Hertz, tells the story of the world’s loneliest whale, possibly a mutant or deaf blue whale or fin whale that migrates alone and sings in a register that no known whale species uses. Gelb, a bulbous gas-mask-like headpiece hiding his face, moves around his white box—sometimes fluidly like an octopus, sometimes more thuddingly like a caged hominid, never very like a whale—as a woman narrates the whale’s story. Meanwhile, the box itself revolves in digital space, obliterating our earth-bound sense of orientation. The effect is deeply melancholy, with its suggestion of aimless motion, a wanderer who once imagined himself the companionless king of infinite space only to discover that he is bounded in this nutshell of a closet.
His most recent piece as of this writing, Footnote for the End of Time, is based on a Jorge Luis Borges short story about the execution of Jaromir Hladik, a Jewish writer taken by the Gestapo, who in a frozen moment before death is granted a miracle of sorts: the opportunity to complete his unfinished play in his mind. This time the white box largely fades away, and Jesse Gelaznik’s charcoal illustrations fill out both Hladik’s central European world and the contents of his mind, particularly the play he is trying to write. Gelb himself fills out the cast of that play, running through a series of motions that, when duplicated to populate the screen, take on new constructions as ostensibly different characters in an increasingly crowded space. But the effect is less to people that world than to reflect the reality of the writer’s vocation—that all these people are ultimately and inescapably just ourselves—and the writer’s tragedy, that they die with him as they did with Hladik.
That process of duplication reached its comic apex in the most technically astounding piece in Gelb’s catalog, The 7th Voyage of Egon Tichy, based on a story by Stanisław Lem. Gelb plays an astronaut whose ship is damaged and driven off course by a collision with an interstellar pebble the size of a lima bean. He tries to repair his ship, but the repairs require two people, and he is a solitary voyager. So he steers the ship into a gravitational vortex, allowing him to go back in time and thereby duplicate himself. Convincing his earlier, sleeping self to wake up and fix the ship proves difficult, though; and so, unrepaired, the ship wanders back into the vortex, duplicating and reduplicating until there is an entire city of clones in his closet, a polis that proves completely ungovernable. Reminiscent of the stateroom scene in the Marx brothers film A Night at the Opera, the piece nonetheless landed for me with real force in an era when we seem far more engaged in battling each other than righting the ship, and it was instructive to imagine—and thereby realize—that perhaps we’re all just battling with shadows of ourselves.
I don’t know if these pieces actually peopled my island, but they made me feel a little less alone in my solitude. They have deeper roots than our present predicament because that predicament has, in an existential sense, always been with us. Hamlet, Macbeth, and Prospero all betook of a powerful feeling of isolation, each for distinct psychological, social, and moral reasons, and that diversity just shows how broadly shared the feeling is, even when we’re not in quarantine.
Unmoored in Time
In addition to their isolation, there’s a Beckett-like stasis to the worlds depicted in these works, a sense of being unmoored in time as well as isolated in space. That’s also an artifact of our moment, and it makes it very difficult to tell a story of any kind, because time is the medium in which narrative unfolds.
I’ve experienced this problem myself as a storyteller. When the pandemic started, I was working on a drama set in a bar in Brooklyn. (I was on the fence about whether it would ultimately be a play or a film.) Suddenly, as I sat down to revise it, theaters, film production, and bars all vanished from our lives. In the absence of theaters, or the ability to make a film, I could turn the script into a podcast, or perhaps a cartoon—but what did bars mean anymore? I missed them, yes, along with the whole social world they were a part of; I hoped I’d be able to go back to one before too long, and wondered both how long that would be and what they would feel like, what social role they’d play in the near and more distant future. But the piece I was writing wasn’t about nostalgia, nor was it a satire of what people considered problems in a simpler age. Now it would inevitably be one or the other—or, if neither, it would imply a blithe and probably unwelcome confidence in a rapid return to normalcy.
The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that anything I wrote at this moment would inevitably be either a period piece or science fiction. But even that wasn’t quite right. Period pieces are generally about the present; we turn to the past to draw a contrast with or trace the origins of our current concerns. Science fiction, similarly, is about the present and the futures we imagine (or fear) we are aiming toward. The quicksand nature of our present, though, simultaneously static and unmoving but fraught with the possibility of sudden radical change, provided no stable ground to connect to either the past or the future. I couldn’t write about the present because of its impoverishment; I couldn’t write about the past or future because the unstable present wouldn’t let me know what either might mean.
This combination of stasis and instability doesn’t just inhibit new work; it infects the freeze-dried theater that has been the primary sustenance for most lovers of the medium during this period. The UK’s National Theater, the Metropolitan Opera, and a host of other theaters have opened their vaults and given culture vultures the opportunity to pick over a collection of carcasses, to catch up on productions that they never saw or could never have seen, fill holes in personal canons without fear of missing out on anything new. I’ve watched several of these, including some that I’ve found powerfully affecting. A standout in that class: the film of the Stratford Festival of Canada’s 2016 production of Shakespeare’s Pericles, which I had already seen on stage and was deeply moved to revisit. Director Scott Went-worth gave this timeless tale of wandering, loss, and recovery a Dickensian makeover, reminding the audience that Dickens was a weaver of fairy tales rather than any kind of realist, and that fairy tales connect to us on a Jungian level deeper than realism ever could. It was a marvelous corrective, in a way, to the irritations occasioned by Eno’s navel-gazing Gnit, and gave me hope for healing from our current literal and metaphoric sickness.
But not all fairy tales are so timeless. Watching the Disney+ film of Hamilton was a very different experience, a reemersion in time that left me disoriented and lonelier than I was before. It still reminded me why I loved the show so much when it premiered, why its songs became part of my mental soundtrack years ago. But it also showed me how distant the recent past now seemed, and how watching a film of a stage show is so far from being in the theater. Indeed, in this case it amounted to an outright betrayal.
The problem with the Hamilton film isn’t just that time has not been kind to the political conceits that underpin it. The Obama-era faith in incremental progress toward all-but-unquestionable goals, and the notion that this progress was bound up with meritocracy, personal ambition, and the glory of building financial systems out of thin air—these all came into question well before the pandemic, before the Trump era, even before the show itself premiered. Black Lives Matter, to which Hamilton served as a kind of patriotic progressive response, started in 2013, and Occupy Wall Street, to which it served as an elite liberal response, started even earlier, in 2011. Nor is the fundamental problem the translation to film, though I found the camerawork both distracting and diminishing to performances that I remember being electric onstage.
No, the problem is that the show requires for its effectiveness an engagement with the present—and with the person present—that the current moment does not afford. Hamilton is a deeply anti-nostalgic piece of work, about a hungry and impatient man who wants to build something that is going to outlive him. Never mind how we feel about the national bank or the imperial presidency that are Hamilton the man’s primary legacies; what matters is our engagement with ambition itself. The not-so-implicit point of its casting is to suggest that today’s America is really no different from the founding era, that they were not Solons—indeed, we have the same capacities to refound, to re-create, what they did—and that we should feel emboldened to do just that. For it to become a piece of nostalgia is to betray its very essence. But it cannot avoid being precisely that for viewers now. If audiences today could be in the room where that show happened, the performers would respond to the audience’s own impatience, and the show would change, interestingly and unpredictably—or they would absorb the audience’s nostalgia and adoration, and the show would curdle. On the couch, though, no such exchange of energy is possible. The audience that we hear on the film doesn’t know what we know, and our only choice as spectators is to be trapped with them like bugs in amber, or to marvel at their fossilized remains.
A theater that could speak to our moment would have to live in the peculiarity of our moment, a time unmoored from time and a space displaced from space. As it turns out, such a theater exists.
Holding Up a Mirror to Nature
Over the past decade, the playwright Richard Nelson has written a series of plays—actually, more than one series—governed by an almost comically exaggerated version of Aristotle’s unities. Each play takes place in something close to real time, in a single space, typically around a family dinner table, and is set at the very instant of opening night. The plays are engaged with current events, but in the way that ordinary people are also engaged: the characters listen to and read the news, some of them are involved in politics in one form or another, and they understand their lives in the context of those events as well as the reverse. But the relationship to events is heightened by Nelson’s decision to set many of the plays at the moment of an event in the outside world. The first play of the “Apple Family” series, for example, takes place on the evening of the 2010 midterm elections; the second takes place on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Most dramatically, the last play of the “Gabriel Family” series takes place on election eve 2016.
This conceit necessitates continuous revision right up to opening night, in order to properly capture the feeling of these characters at precisely the moment on which they take place. There is no glance backward to reedit one’s impressions in light of later events, nor is there any attempt to predict the future. We are simply here, now.
I didn’t see any of these plays before the pandemic, but I decided to catch up on a couple (the first two Apple family plays) during the month of April by streaming recordings of them. They didn’t grab me, to be honest. In addition to his emphatic presentism, Nelson strove for a kind of absolute naturalism that aimed to exceed Chekhov, but without the Russian’s commitment to revelatory (if futile) action; though Nelson’s plays are not without structure, they are almost without drama. They are very much like actual dinner table conversations among people who know each other very well. But I was committed to watching them because I wanted the background before I watched something truly novel: a new addition to the Apple family series, What Do We Need to Talk About?, written to be performed on Zoom. And that turned out to be a true revelation.
Once again we were invited to gather with these people, this time in the virtual space that had become the only place any of us could meet. But now every mundane detail of their lives is charged with feeling, and with meaning. Sometimes those details really are momentous: one of the characters had been hospitalized with COVID-19 some weeks before, and it takes to the end of the Zoom call for her, and for the other characters, to speak about that explicitly, though of course it’s something they all knew about at the time. But momentousness is not drama, and most of the moments are completely mundane yet unaccountably powerful. I quite honestly found myself close to tears, but I couldn’t put my finger on why.
In early July, Nelson launched another Zoom play about the same family, and different issues reared their heads, notably an element of intergenerational friction. The characters we see are all middle age, but they are reacting to the agitations of the young. One is a teacher frustrated by her students’ simultaneous demands that she speak out and keep silent in the wake of the George Floyd protests; another is a divorced father whose teenage daughter chafes against COVID-era confinement with her mother in the city. But again, there’s little sense of drama here; these conflicts don’t come to a head and are largely taking place in the background anyway. They’re just what people actually talk about when they are home with their family. And Zoom now is the only place they can be together.
That fragility is, I think, what accounts for my strong emotional reaction. The extreme topicality of the works suggest a kinship to documentary theater, but Nelson’s plays are emphatically social, whereas documentary theater tends to be testimonial. He’s not presenting individuals who narrate their experience to build up a picture of an event kaleidoscopically. He’s created a family, and that is the organism we’re watching live and breathe, in real time, in this moment. That’s what I think gives the Zoom plays a weight the original Apple family plays lacked for me: the urgency of being together is that organism’s yearning for life. Their presentism, meanwhile, is simply what makes the plays possible at all: Nelson’s method feels like the only one left, as well as the only thing that captures the evanescent nature of theater itself in a digital age.
These Zoom plays truly hold a mirror up to nature. They remind us of our essentially social nature, and perhaps that’s enough for now, enough to be aware that we still exist and are still connected, even if we haven’t graduated to narrative. Eventually, though, we’re going to want something other than a mirror to look at. We’re going to want windows and doors. The second Zoom-based Apple family play of the series was titled And So We Come Forth, but we haven’t quite come forth yet, or if we have, we’ve done so haltingly. And so I looked forward with some trepidation to the final installment, Incidental Moments of the Day, which premiered live September 10 at TheAppleFamilyPlays.com, where a recording will stream through November 5. What will those incidental moments add up to in the end?
My trepidation was sadly warranted. The family that came together so powerfully in April in the midst of isolation seems to be coming apart, not out of any deep conflict but as though life is now elsewhere, no longer where we can see it on this frozen screen. Two characters are dating, one is moving house; the family is scattered geographically. Members arrive late, leave early, and seem to be avoiding talking openly. The woman who, in July, complained about the impossibility of satisfying the angry younger generation has retreated from frustration to sadness. She talks about the world shrinking, even though she’s out and about more than she has been in months. It’s not the physical world she’s referring to. Another woman asks of her boyfriend, when he describes himself as such, “Is that what you are?” They’ve been together since 2010, but since the beginning of the pandemic we’ve never seen them in the same square on Zoom, an exigency imposed upon the actors by the pandemic that has infected the characters’ story.
It’s not an accident, I think, that the one moment that brings this family fully together is when a young friend Zooms in from Paris, to perform an antic dance to a Scott Joplin tune, a number originally choreographed by the long-deceased mother of the four siblings that form the family’s heart. This is what theater has been for the past six months: a solitary dancer performing for an audience across a digital void, and thereby keeping alive their shared past. It was a vital lifeline, but it’s not enough to live on. This was Richard Nelson’s last Zoom play about the Apple family. Let’s hope that’s a good augury and that we’ll be back in physical theaters together before the anniversary of our exile.
Noah Millman is theater and film critic for Modern Age and a columnist for The Week.
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