Almost immediately upon learning of the temporary theater closures across the United States due to coronavirus, it seemed as though every critic in America began filing stories detailing the ways audiences could stream plays and musicals online.
Want to see the Tony-Award winning Indecent, Patrick Stewart in Macbeth or Brokeback Mountain: The Opera? There’s a subscription site you can stream it on. In fact, there are quite a few theater streaming sites to choose from, each offering their own brand of performance options.
Without question these are welcome harbors in this dark-stage storm we find ourselves. But their presence immediately put pressure on shuttered theaters to do the same. Surely, they could stream the shows they’ve now had to cancel so we, stuck at home and desperate for the art form we love, could enjoy the efforts of our local companies and talents.
Surely, they could honor the artists that worked so hard on these productions and at least allow their work to be seen?
Surely, they could recoup a small part of ticket sales lost by charging a fee to watch the performance online?
In Houston, we were excited to learn that The Alley heeded the call when they announced they would be streaming their production of 1984, which coronavirus worries closed down just one-day post opening. But the Alley is the Alley. An organization with artistic and financial resources that eclipse all other companies in the city.
Would streaming a show even be an option for smaller companies?
Rec Room Arts Artistic Director, Matt Hune certainly tried. “We were about to hit go and stream our upcoming production of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' Appropriate,” says Hune. “We’d gone through all the channels with the playwright and the licensing of the play and with Equity as well. Our director wasn’t a member of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society so we didn’t have to deal with that union.”
What Hune is describing could not even have happened even a month ago. Previously it was impossible for a company to simply film a production and throw it up online, for-profit or for any other reason, without strict and often onerous guidelines from the various theater artist/playwright unions and licensing organizations.
But coronavirus and the financial toll it's exacting on companies and artists alike has changed the rules of engagement.
“All of the organizations/unions have now loosened restrictions on allowing shows to be recorded and streamed,” says Hune who notes that while he was expecting more of a battle from Equity, they were most gracious.
For the most part, he was told he wouldn’t have to pay any extra to stream his production online. The one strict stipulation, however, was how the content could be shown. “The platform had to be password protected, it had to be given out to ticket holders exclusively and available to them for only two weeks."
All fine with Hune. The trouble came with the filming and concerns over actor safety.
“We were reaching out a guy who does the filming for the HGO,” says Hune. “But that would have been a significant cost and the stipulation was, if we have to record it, it’s not going to be done because if this is going to happen, we have to put our best foot forward.”
But the main reason Hune decided to pull the show was that the production hadn’t yet gone into technical rehearsal, meaning the actors would need to spend more time together working on the show before any filming could begin. And working in the case of this production meant nine actors in a room rehearsing intense and at times intimate moments, a potential health and safety situation neither the cast nor Hune were ultimately comfortable with.
While Rec Room decided not to proceed with an approved streamed show, Mildred's Umbrella is struggling to find out if they can get the go-ahead.
The company's Voices of Asia event, comprised of three readings of plays by Asian and Asian American women, is still potentially on the books for May. Or it might be if Mildred’s can stream the event.
Presently, one Equity actress is attached to the project, so Mildred's Artistic Director, Jennifer Decker. called the union to explore options.
"They said they have these packages you can buy and it's going to cost more money but they won't tell me the amount until I tell them all the specifics," says Decker. "And I don't know those yet."
Because the readings are being presented with the Asia Society Texas Center, Decker can’t provide information re ticketing or prices or even what platform the series might be shown on, so, for now, her hands are tied.
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When it comes to the royalties/play licensing services and producing an online event, Decker is also hitting a roadblock. "They wouldn't give me information except to say that it's a case by case basis," says Decker. But she does feel that as things move forward, the unknowns and roadblocks will lessen. "As things start evolving, I think they are trying to come up with new rules about things based on what's going on. I got the feeling when I called that I was asking questions that they just didn't know yet. So, it might get better.”
Mildred’s season also includes Houston playwright, Elizabeth Keel’s new play, Tooth & Tail in late May, which has not yet been canceled. Decker has thought about the idea of streaming it if things don't improve, but it seems like an impossibility for the small company.
"It's not the same watching a show on video unless you have a bunch of people filming," says Decker. "The Alley said it's going to take them two weeks to film 1984 and get it edited. That's like a whole filmmaking team…..the kind of video production we can afford is not that."
Decker feels that a low tech, nothing fancy approach can work for the company's reading series but she'd need to produce something far more polished for a full production. A prospect she's unsure of financially. "If I had a production running already, maybe. But to pay for materials and space and talent for what we'd be able to recover online, it's probably not worth it for me,” says Decker.