Live Theater Is Back. But a New Broadway Play Will Stream, Too.
The coronavirus closures prompted many theaters around the country to experiment with online offerings. Now, even though theaters have reopened, a new Broadway play is planning to try streaming some performances.
Second Stage Theater, a nonprofit that operates a small Broadway house, plans to sell a limited number of real-time, virtual viewings in January for the final 16 performances of “Clyde’s,” a dramedy about a group of ex-cons working at a sandwich shop. The show, by the two-time Pulitzer winner Lynn Nottage, opens Tuesday.
The decision to stream some performances, which Second Stage views as an experiment, suggests that some of the survival strategies theaters embraced during the pandemic could have a lasting effect on the art form.
“Over the 18 months when we had to pivot, and shift a lot of storytelling to Zoom, that opened up a new door of opportunity for many of us who make theater,” Nottage said. “What we’re hoping is that folks who are reluctant to come out because of the virus, or for whom theater is not accessible, will have access because of this streaming.”
They are not aiming for a mass audience. The streams will cost $59, which is the same price as the least expensive ticket at the box office, so as not to undercut in-person sales. (There will also be a $30 ticket for people aged 30 and under, as with in-person performances.)
The virtual tickets will be limited in number — probably to around 200 to 300 a performance — because as part of an agreement with labor unions, the theater will cap the number of streaming tickets sold so as not to exceed the total capacity of the theater over the course of the play’s run.
The move is significant because, even though the Metropolitan Opera has been streaming performances to cinemas for years, and a number of leading symphony orchestras have long been streaming their concerts, Broadway has been resistant to such a step, in part because of quality concerns, in part because of the cost of compensating artists, and in part because of a fear of eroding the appetite for in-person attendance.
In 2016, when BroadwayHD live-streamed a single performance of the Roundabout Theater Company’s revival of “She Loves Me,” the event was so unusual that it was recognized by Guinness World Records; a few months later, the same company also live-streamed a performance of Roundabout’s “Holiday Inn.”
The pandemic prompted theaters to take digital work more seriously: with their buildings closed, many Off Broadway and regional theaters, as well as some prominent theaters in Britain, embraced streaming as one way to continue connecting to audiences. There were complications both mundane (which labor unions represent theater artists onscreen?) and existential (what is theater, anyway?), but one upside was increased access for people unlikely to attend in-person performances because of disability, geography or finances.
For Broadway shows, there were some limited pandemic experiments with filmed performances, but not livestreaming. A “Hamilton” movie, using footage shot and edited in 2016, was released during the pandemic by a streaming platform, as was a filmed version of David Byrne’s “American Utopia”; the musicals “Come From Away” and “Diana” filmed invitation-only run-throughs during the pandemic, and those filmed performances were also released on streaming platforms.
Now, as theaters reopen, some are discussing the pros and cons, as well as the feasibility, of a so-called hybrid model, in which stage shows can be seen either in-person or at home. Second Stage, working with the company Assemble Stream, earlier this fall offered its subscribers an opportunity to livestream some performances of an epistolary Off Broadway play, “Letters of Suresh”; encouraged by that experience, the nonprofit decided to try the hybrid approach for “Clyde’s,” which is its first post-shutdown Broadway show.
“In-person activity is our priority, but we’ve learned a lot from the pandemic, as far as finding other ways of engaging with audiences,” said Khady Kamara, the executive director of Second Stage. There are a number of potential audiences — those still leery of public gatherings, those who live outside the New York area, those with a variety of accessibility concerns — and Nottage said she also hopes at some point that the play could be streamed in prisons.
Kamara said the theater would livestream “Clyde’s,” which stars Uzo Aduba and Ron Cephas Jones, in real time during performances from Jan. 4 to Jan. 16 — it can’t be watched on demand.
Is there a risk that the project will dissuade people from coming to see the show at the theater? “I really believe that the magic of being inside the theater, and being so close to the stage, is not something that goes away,” Kamara said. “I think that most people are still going to want to go with the in-person experience.”
The performances will be captured by five to seven cameras mounted by Assemble Stream inside the Helen Hayes Theater; the footage will be edited, remotely, in real time, as with a live television broadcast, according to Katie McKenna, the company’s vice president of marketing and business development.
Kamara and McKenna said the theater would not need to remove any seats to accommodate the cameras, and that the cameras would not obstruct any patron’s sightlines; the cameras will be operated remotely. “Our goal is to be as nondisruptive as possible,” McKenna said.
Neither party would detail the financing arrangement, but Kamara said, “To begin with, we’re not looking at this as a revenue stream, as much as we’re looking at it as an additional avenue for us to provide access to the work that we put on our stages.”
And will Second Stage seek to stream other Broadway shows in the future? Kamara described the “Clyde’s” streaming as a pilot project. “We are learning, and will continue to learn, and we’ll see what the future holds,” she said. “Certainly, if there is a market for it, hopefully we’re able to continue to offer it.”