Brigid Bergin: Back with you now on The Takeaway, I'm Brigid Bergin in for Tanzina Vega.
That was from a rehearsal for a new production of Godspell that's currently being staged outdoors by the Berkshire Theater Group in Western Massachusetts. It's one of the first union approved theatrical productions since the pandemic began. Although the performance might sound normal, for audience members going to the show in person, there are plenty of reminders that we're still in a pandemic. Cast members wear masks when passing each other on the stage and sing behind vinyl partitions and seats for different groups of attendees are spaced out by at least six feet.
Meanwhile, in New York City, Broadway theaters remain closed at least through the end of this year and a sign of how much the pandemic has altered the theater landscape, producers for the musical Diana announced last week that a filmed version of the show will premiere on Netflix before its Broadway opening planned for next year. For more, I'm joined by Maya Phillips, arts critic fellow for the New York Times. Welcome to The Takeaway, Maya.
Maya Phillips: Hi, thanks for having me.
Brigid: Also with us as Helen Shaw, theater critic for New York Magazine. Thanks for joining us, Hellen.
Helen Shaw: Hi, good to be here.
Brigid: Helen, unlike Godspell, most theater productions have actually been happening online during the pandemic, which virtual shows have you been most impressed by?
Helen: I think of been most impressed by the shows that have worked out some measure of interactivity. There are productions that have managed to make the audience into a jury. We have to vote on the outcome of the production or a magic show in which [unintelligible 00:02:03] use for the physical mail, a box of cards so that you can participate in the magic show yourself and that of contact in a time when contact is almost a special effect has, for me, had the biggest effect.
Brigid: Maya, what do you think has worked well when it comes to virtual theater?
Maya: I totally agree with Helen. I think that has been an exciting part of the online productions that you haven't been able to see in live productions. It's definitely a new way to interact with the forum. I think that people playing around with the technology using different backgrounds, using Zoom to the advantage. Early on in the pandemic, people were still getting used to the form and there were some glitches and there were some problems. I think now, at this point, people are really taking advantage of it and being really creative with that.
Brigid: Maya, what do you think hasn't worked as well when it comes to bringing the theater online?
Maya: I'm a little bit disappointed in some productions that might be a little bit safe. I think this is a great opportunity for companies to really try to take risks and consider what theater is now and what theater can be in the future.
Brigid: Helen, are there any outdoor shows happening in New York City?
Helen: There are a few that are coming up. There's a piece that's going to be in a garden in Bushwick called quince, on the 21st and 22nd. Then there are a few shows which are programmed so that you experienced them yourself as you walk through some urban environment. There's a show called Cairns, which is actually an album that you download and then you listen to it as you walk through Green-Wood Cemetery.
You make the production yourself, you cast yourself and they do the sound. That, for me, has been very rich. The shows where you go to a community garden and only 13 people can be admitted per day, I think is more-- I'm almost more delighted that it's happening then that I'll be able to get there because I actually don't know how I can get to some of the places that they're they want us to go.
Brigid: For you both, theater tickets tend to be very expensive especially here in New York. I'm wondering, how has this move into online spaces affected the accessibility of theater?
Maya: I think it's an amazing opportunity for a new model. If we're able to sustain this, that it's another way for people to get access to theater at a better cost. If I would love to see a model where when things get back to normal, whatever that is, that we have the live performances and they also have an option for people who may not be able to afford the live performance rates to have a cheaper rate and just access it from their homes or wherever they are. I think that's amazing. Just Hamilton obviously is a great example of that, so many people who weren't able to get Hamilton tickets suddenly can watch it on Disney+.
Brigid: Exactly, amazing. Helen, what do you think?
Helen: Well, I also teach theater, and this past spring, I had a class where every other class we would do a normal virtual class, meaning that we would meet in community and discuss. Then on the off weeks, we would have an asynchronous class in which I would videotape something and they would react to it and they would write their own material, which means that they could interact with the class material at midnight on a Wednesday, whenever they wanted.
For me, that has been the great thing about what we're seeing with the theater as well, which is that these two modes complement each other, that going to a space and sitting together is incredibly precious and we all miss it very much. The country is very large and art is very concentrated and that being able to access it asynchronously, being able to watch, in my case yesterday, a bootleg video of the dance of the vampires from 2002 whatever your choice might be is that it is still engagement, it's still art response. It still does things to your mind that you want art to do.
I'm hoping that we will move into a phase where we do both things where we're on parallel tracks.
Brigid: Maya, as in many industries, there's been a renewed attention this summer on addressing racism and issues of representation in the theater world. Are there signs yet that the theater industry is listening?
Maya: It's hard to tell at this point, just because a lot of institutions have made statements so far, but in general, this doesn't even apply to just theater, institutions across the board have made statements about their commitment to making change. We're not going to see whether or not they'll actually follow through on that until things get back to normal. I fear that institutions will go back into their old patterns because it's a hard task because this means that the people in charge have to hold themselves accountable. It means that a lot of these places have to totally restructure, have to totally rethink the way they work their organizations and that's not an easy task.
Brigid: Helen, as we mentioned, Diana is going to Netflix before a planned Broadway run. In our last minute, do you think more shows are going to follow suit?
Helen: They would be insane not to. This is the way we feed appetite now and we need to drive appetite for our fans that will be in real distress. I think that if somebody sees Diana and loves it on Netflix, that they will absolutely come to the city to see it for real.
Brigid: I want to thank you both so much for joining us. Helen Shaw is the theater critic for New York Magazine and Maya Phillips is an art critic fellow for the New York Times. Thanks so much to you both.
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