by Adam Cohen . . .
Making Theater During the Pandemic was a featured session at the 2021 BroadwayCon. Hosted graciously by Melissa Errico (Meet Me in St. Louis) the panel included Drew Gehling (Waitress, Amour), Ann Harada (Avenue Q), Jason Michael Webb (The Last Five years), Christine Toy Johnson (The Music Man) and Blair Russell (producer Slave Play, The Last FiveYears). The panel discussed the challenges of producing art from home amid WiFI challenges and cramped spaces.
Errico opened the event discussing performing in Sondheim’s 90th birthday, while her husband had COVID, kids were waiting for dinner and she was “touched to be part of presentation of children and art…and the struggle of art” with a book about Irish erotic art behind her. – viral mystery. The hardest thing was creating and transferring her performance files from a “green screen musical complete which inspired an anxiety attack from the technology challenges.
Blair Russell felt his productions, referred to as his children, “were equally special but the response to The Last 5 Years is overwhelming … doing new things, virtual reality, performance not as expected or technology that doesn’t cooperate is not a low point. But doing stuff in real life with things that don’t go right” is challenging.
While Christine Toy Johnson has spent a lot of time writing, her work Empress Mei Li Lotus Blossom found its way to three virtual performances with two different casts and a short film about the making of it. When her tour of Come From Away was interrupted by Covid, and how crazy it was, but before every performance she holds her heart, listens to the audience and centers herself by “thanking the universe for letting me tell my story.”
Jason found that “life is making sure we are doing what we can to take care of our people and help those who need it.” His pandemic highlights was directing the critically acclaimed The Last Five Years virtually and was “. . . unmatched. I enjoyed directing it and bringing it to life. All in one apartment during covid – reliving argument as if in shower, reimagining from your perspective manifest in this apartment they share space but not time in.”
The panelists have all found new ways to perform and deal with the challenges of doing it from home. For Ann, she got over her self-tape challenges to get “a TV job in Vancouver with insurance but lost a TV job because the tech is hard.”
Drew,as an actor, spent a “ton of time learning to wear different hats – reading and nailing a scene, as my own PA, producer, sound mixer…” doing” voice overs in closet. “Before the pandemic I spent time saying if only I could just audition from home and mail tapes on my own, be able to do a better job directing myself…be careful what you wish for.” At the same time, he starred in a recent virtual production of Amour doing the entire show from home with a green screen and his “daughter would hand him stuff in a green suit.”
Professional routines have largely stayed the same for the panelists. Jason found himself going through “all emotions and landing in routines of being creative when it comes and be available to others who want to create. It forced all of us to find a way to reconnect and be creative and productive.”
The panel discussed the ability of the pandemic to extend theater beyond Broadway or even regional theaters catering to set donors and subscribers. That includes Jason’s mission “to identify and tell people that this isn’t the same old story being told and making theater accessible, so the audience grows.”
The panel was a bit over-stuffed with too many presenters and a lack of time. But overall, it was a credible look at the recent challenges of creating art from home, struggling with technology and audio but also entertaining an audience. Ericco and the team who put the panel together did a great job of having a variety of voices able to convey the humanity of artists amid a pandemic.
(BroadwayCon 2021 occurred Virtually April 16 thru 18)