James Corden and Fred Ridgeway in “One Man, Two Guvnors,” the first of the filmed productions that are being streamed weekly by London-based NT Live. Johan Persson/National Theatre Live

I zoomed through a piece of theater the other day, by which I mean I sat through a live performance on Zoom – the app that curates two-way, three-way, 17-way and 66-way video conference calls. And it was one of the weirder experiences I’ve had as I’ve tried to keep track of an art form shifting temporarily to the internet.

The strangeness couldn’t be attributed to the performer, Peter Michael Marino, or to his jaunty account of a musical he’d worked on, adapted from the movie “Desperately Seeking Susan,” that never made it to Broadway. The oddness was that on this Zoom channel, next to the tile containing Marino’s face, was a palette with the faces of every audience member who paid $10 to watch Marino. I spent almost as much time watching them in close-up as I did watching the person I’d come to see perform.

With playhouses shuttered, subscription seasons canceled and ticket buyers largely staying home amid coronavirus concerns, the theater world is stampeding to streaming. The good news is, you can now access plays and musicals of every style online, from every part of the country and many other places around the globe, a lot of it free.

The bad news is, you can access plays and musicals of every style online.

That’s because theater online isn’t theater, really – not in the way we who thrive on it understand it.

Some aspects feel familiar: the action confined (in most cases) to a single, indoor space; the emphasis on character and language; the performances directed at the rows of spectators breathing the same air as the actors. Now that even breath is a potential health hazard, we crave some other method of connecting to a beloved performing art. But theater reduced to three or four camera angles and beamed into a laptop is something other.

As margarine is to butter, theater online comes across as an artificial substitute, with less flavor. It’s not the way these productions were meant to be seen and heard and felt. Too often, watching them as inferior adaptations on film or video only confirms this impression.

Theaters’ desire to stream their content under these emergency conditions makes sense, though. The unprecedented nature of this moment is nearly unfathomable: no live-and-in-person performance happening, almost anywhere. Theaters offering their wares via URLs fulfill an existential mandate, projecting viability and a dedication to public service, declaring their intention to survive. (Sometimes the offer can even generate ancillary revenue.) Organizations posting their shows range from bedrock institutions such as London’s National Theatre and New York’s Public Theater to local companies whose reach extends no further than the next county.

Still, in sampling a cross-section of what’s available, I’m compelled to ask: How much good for the cause of education and enrichment is achieved when the technical quality is deficient? The skills of videographers and cinematographers and film editors have led consumers of all ages to expect a certain level of sophistication in the electronic visual arts. What I’m seeing is often of rudimentary quality, including unintentionally shaky camera work, stagings that look wooden and dialogue that sounds as if it emanates from the bottom of an empty fishbowl.

I’m not going to single out any production for shaming – it becomes apparent to a viewer in the first moments whether the technical shortcomings will be endurable – but just the modulations in audibility, from one actor to another, from upstage to downstage, act like a can of spectator repellent. I’ve dropped out of some video versions of plays after the first rickety scene.

The fact is, great productions are merely OK online, and mediocre ones frequently look dreadful. Exceptions exist, and good musicals – by virtue of well-produced song sequences – transfer better than straight plays. For example, a revival of “The Sound of Music” that was filmed in the United Kingdom in 2015 and is now being streamed on pbs.org, is served beautifully by a studio production with richly adorned sets and expertly amplified performances. Some plays translate well, too, especially under the auspices of NT Live, the gold standard outfit for drama on film.

London-based NT Live has an archive of 80 productions it has filmed over the past decade and shown in short runs in movie theaters; now it’s streaming a production a week free on the web. The first one, last week, was the celebrated 2012 “One Man, Two Guvnors,” a raucous farce set in the swinging ’60s and based on an 18th-century play by Carlo Goldoni. It features a crowning clowning turn by James Corden.

The organization uses up to eight cameras to film a play and holds two rehearsals just to frame the shots, according to Lisa Burger, National Theatre executive director and joint chief executive of the affiliated NT Live. “We want audiences to get as close as we can (to a play) in the cinema,” she explained. “It means we have to invest a lot of money in the initiative.”

When the filming is on the cheap or haphazardly organized, a viewer knows it. I watched another production the other day in which the stage lighting cues repeatedly seemed to startle the camera operators; the camerawork only sporadically captured the entirety of a scene.

Perhaps as the shutdown drags on, the benefit of trial and error will begin to assert itself and vital new ways of mounting theater on the web will evolve. Some ideas are already moving beyond germination. Danielle Mohlman, a Seattle-based playwright, is producing a two-character, 90-minute play of hers, “Nexus,” that is running on Zoom through May 2. Each performance is staged in the actors’ own living rooms in cities across the country.

“It’s truly going to be a different experience each night,” Mohlman said, adding that one couple may film with a selfie stick, another actor will gather housemates to create a live studio audience and a third performer is asking a roommate to manipulate the camera and lights.

Zoom may be blooming as a theater tool, as I discovered watching Marino’s comic piece, “Desperately Seeking the Exit.” Eighty of us signed up for a Saturday matinee viewing. I switched off my laptop camera for much of the show for fear the visible reactions of a theater critic might throw off the performer. (Your name appears in the tile, under your image.) Still, I was distracted by the beehive quality of a Zoom audience. In each little video square, some manner of solo performance was happening, whether the spectator was stoic or in stitches.

A paradox worthy of Samuel Beckett came, then, with admission. Each audience member was a face in a crowd and, at the same time, completely alone.


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