Though the pandemic continues, theatre is alive and has a future, according to the playwrights who took part in Olney Theatre Center’s Streaming Saturdays, a video series that investigates how the pandemic is affecting the industry. The panel included playwrights Lauren Gunderson (“Peter Pan and Wendy”), Michael R. Jackson (“A Strange Loop”), and Dani Stoller (“Easy Women Smoking Loose Cigarettes”), and was moderated by Washington Post Chief Theatre Critic, Peter Marks.
The conversation began on a high, with congratulations for Jackson for his historic win of the Pulitzer Prize in Drama for “A Strange Loop.” It is only the tenth musical to gain the award; other winners include “A Chorus Line,” “Hamilton,” and “Rent.” Expanding on his win, Jackson said the award was affirming for his art. “There’s a global legitimacy to what I do … it gives me even further permission to push the form of musical theatre.”
Making theatre accessible
Pushing the form of theatre was a central topic of discussion, especially with regards the success of digitizing and streaming theatre. Dani Stoller, whose play, “Easy Women Smoking Loose Cigarettes” had to close its debut run early due to COVID-19, talked about the experience of having Signature Theatre, the play’s venue, film the production for a streaming release. “In the future, what does this mean for accessibility?” she said. Stoller is also a contributor to Round House Theatre’s new webseries, Homebound, which pairs local actors and playwrights towards the purpose of creating short videos that are filmed by the actor in their home.
In discussing the digital transformation of theatre, Marks questioned the panel regarding the translation of live theatre to a video recording. “I think they’re not the same things,” said Gunderson, who herself has experimented with digital media—she adapted her play “The Half-Life of Marie Curie” as an audio-performance for Audible. “Live theatre is a thing and it is amazing and unforgettable, and streaming theatre is a different thing. And if we think of them separately then they can be the best of what they are,” she said.
Jackson cited the potential issue of pirating as a reason to be cautious about recording all live theatre, but was open to the possibility of adapting theatre as radio plays. “There used to be radio plays all the time, and [the audience] had to use their imaginations … it could create a gateway to going to see live theatre.”
Theatre in the era of social distancing
Marks also asked about the practicalities of staging theatre in a theater, given that social distancing is likely to be a requirement for the foreseeable future. All of the writers agreed that, like the rest of the world, theatre will be transformed post-pandemic. “We need to take this time to be dreaming into existence the things we need to see,” said Jackson. “I don’t think we can go back to before. We have to dream something bigger, and better and different.”
Imagining a world post-pandemic, Gunderson posited the potential realities for both actors and facilities. Actors may be able to touch and interact if they can both show immunity, said Gunderson, and moving performance spaces outside, allowing the audience to wear masks and socially distance could be another solution to the limitations of an indoor space.
Gunderson also brought up the potential reality that populations, and audiences, will have to transition in and out of quarantine and self-isolation, depending on the rise of infection rates. “We’ll probably have seasons of this [pandemic], when we can have theatre, and seasons when we can’t,” she said.
Writing a “virus play”
Beyond the pandemic’s effect on the performance of theatre, Marks also questioned the panelists about the pandemic as grist for plays themselves.
“I haven’t written a virus play, because who wants to be in a closed theatre talking about germs and illness and disease,” said Gunderson. The playwright, whose partner is Nathan Wolfe, a pandemic scientist, said she’s still interested in the experience of the pandemic as material.
“Theatre’s always about truth, and it’s always about authenticity, and it’s always about character revealing actions and decisions and that’s what we’re seeing,” she said. “[In the past] I would have written a play and my hero would have been a scientist, and now my hero is the guy who brings my groceries so my kids and I can eat, and I don’t have to put them in danger by going to the grocery store.”
Jackson agreed that he is not interested in writing about the virus itself, but about its ramifications. “Someone will try to make their magnum opus out of his event. That will not be me,” he said. “There were things I was thinking about before the pandemic, that I’m now thinking about because of the pandemic.”
In other parts of the conversation, Jackson emphasized the importance of recognizing how the coronavirus has revealed social inequities, and the importance of placing theatre as part of society, instead of conceiving of it outside those realities. “We should be reminded of what theatre is—it’s not an $800 ticket to something, it’s an actual practice, an experience, and a way of communing.”
Viewers can find past recordings of Olney Theatre Center’s “Streaming Saturdays” on its website, as well as information about upcoming events. The next installment in the series, “Actors & Stage Managers,” will stream Saturday, May 23 at 5 p.m.