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Reopening: Live theater during a pandemic — Some turning to live-stream, others on pause

1984 at 18th and Union (Image: 18th and Union Theater)

When the pandemic shuttered Seattle’s theaters and playhouses in March, the Central District’s 18th & Union was in the middle of an adaption of George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984.” By the third week of production, it became clear the venue had to close.

“I think we were lucky that we at least got three solid weekends in before closing,” actor K. Brian Neel said. “I know a lot of theater artists who had to close shows right before opening or right towards the end of the rehearsal process and that would’ve been frustrating.”

According to state reopening guidelines, live entertainment falls under Phase 4 — the final stage — and King County has lingered in Phase 2 for over a month now. As cases rise across the county and Washington rolls back phased reopening, theater companies and accompanying venues are tasked with adapting live theater to an online format or staying closed indefinitely.

And for those planning to reopen in some capacity with live actors, performances will look markedly different.

Theaters reopening or not?
18th & Union is planning to live stream shows out of its space this fall with up to two cast members six feet apart. Producing director David Gassner says the venue has multiple shows — yet to be announced — lined up for September, and the studio is setting up with cameras and other necessary equipment.

“There won’t be any stage combat, there won’t be any kissing, there won’t be any touching — so we’re having to choose the kind of shows that we present knowing that those are the constraints,” Gassner said.

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What he doesn’t know yet is whether 18th & Union will be able to have a very limited capacity live audience for these shows, depending on where the county and state are in terms of reopening for the fall. 18th & Union is already a smaller, storefront theater, seating 48 patrons during pre-COVID times.

“The reason we would love to have some audience in the space is because of vocal reaction,” he said. “Audience reaction is a part of the theater experience and if you’re watching something on a live stream and it’s clearly a finished theater production and there’s even a few people in the audience and you’re hearing that vocal feedback, it’s a very different experience than watching a performer in a performance vacuum.”

Certain Capitol Hill theaters have already begun versions of live-streamed shows, just not with live performers.

Beginning in April, Pike and 11th’s Annex Theatre transformed its “One Horse Town” production into an audio live stream, releasing the production in chapters with interactive virtual audience pre and post-show live streams.

Other theater groups, like Strawberry Theatre Workshop, are taking an indefinite pause.

When the coronavirus hit, Strawberry Theatre had just finished a show and was gearing up to start operations for a spring production of “Gross Indecency,” a play about the life of Oscar Wilde.

Greg Carter, artistic director of Strawberry Theatre, said COVID-19 closures came at a relatively good time since the company was in-between shows — but live-streaming is not in its future.

“I think live theater is absolutely unique and the experience of being in a room with people and hearing them react and talk to people is the only reason I do theater,” he said, “so I think that I understand why people are shifting that way because it’s sort of the only thing they can do, but it’s not live theater.”

Staying in business over live-stream
A concern among venue owners is the economic viability of live streams, as many artists and companies trend toward releasing live stream performances for free and keeping them up on social media for an extended period of time.

“I know there’s a lot of things going on live, but I don’t know that many people that are paying for them,” said Carter, who also serves as venue manager at 12th Ave Arts.

To keep 18th & Union afloat, Gassner says the venue will be selling tickets for its fall live-streamed performances and not recording the shows in order to sustain the live feeling and value.

“Audiences will decide and that’s true of all theater right — you decide to do a play and you hope for the best but nobody knows what play is going to be a hit and what play is going to be a dud,” he said.

While the theater soldiers on, it’s not clear when scenes like this with actors gathering face to face will play out again at 18th and Union Image: 18th and Union Theater)

Although theoretically able to sell an unlimited number of tickets, Gassner says the theater will be capping performances at a manageable level in case of any technical difficulties.

Venue owners are also grappling with marketing the value of rented venue spaces in a world where live streams can happen practically anywhere. Gassner sees potential in 18th & Union taking care of the logistics of live streamed shows, so renters don’t have to worry about COVID-19 precautions or selling tickets beforehand.

“We’re going to find out whether live streaming from within an actual theater space is better than people’s living rooms or backyards,” Gassner said. “I believe it will be but I can’t say for sure because we haven’t done it yet.”

Future of live theater
Some believe that when live theater returns with a live audience, there will be a groundswell of interest. Others remain a bit less certain.

“I think in the future, there will be less live performance, it will probably be a more niche thing,” Carter said. “I know plenty of people who think the opposite. A lot of people think that being deprived of something will make you want it more, and so in like 2021 when it becomes safe and legal again, it could give people this flood.”

Brian Neel, who does graphic design alongside performing professionally for over 15 years, says both industries have stifled since March as work opportunities fall through. Making matters difficult, freelance actors and artists have been largely ineligible for regular Washington state unemployment benefits during this time, although some benefits may be available through the federal CARES Act.

“Being a freelancer, I’ve sort of always been feast or famine,” Neel said, “so I think I’d usually have a lot more coming in — or not a lot of work coming in — and so this just feels like an extended famine period.”

In the interim, Neel has taught classes online through Village Theatre, auditioned for COVID-era commercials and put on live streamed shows, including a home concert of Jesus Christ Superstar on the ukulele. Neel remains hopeful for the future of live theater.

“I do believe that when this is over it’ll probably be a little bit slower than a floodgate but it will explode eventually and people will just be itching to watch live theater and live entertainment,” he said.

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