When Broadway announced New York's theatre would not open again until at least January 3, 2021 many were taken aback.
Already operating on a tight budget, how could the city's theaters and stars wait so long without making box office?
If you want to know how long this pandemic will last, don't look to the politicians, look to the theaters. With the public unable to safely gather now, how can New York's many theaters fulfill their basic mission to build community and share communal events?
Answering that question isn't as easy as you might think. Well-known apps like Zoom meetings have allowed us to see and talk to each other anywhere in the world, so it makes sense that the same technology is now being harnessed to bring theatre to audiences who can not otherwise meet.
“I can't say it that it's easy,” the Irish Rep's producing director Ciaran O'Reilly tells IrishCentral. “Mostly because we can't see or interact with the audience right now. So we want to bring the show to the apartment and to their homes. Because everybody's in the same boat, you know?”
The Rep has undertaken the ambitious project of putting their entire summer season online (becoming the first major theatre company in America to do so).
With their actors performing in front of cameras and even iPhones in different buildings and sometimes even different states, they have taken weeks to set up their critically acclaimed revival of Conor McPherson's "The Weir" to the exacting professional standards they insist on.
“They sent me a green screen, professional lighting, microphone, costume, blocking details, and everything I needed to get my performance onscreen,” says frequent Rep actor John Keating. “I could not believe the attention to detail. They even sent the shot glasses and the pint glasses I was using in the production! Everything. Even the little bag I use at the end of the play to put a little naggin of whiskey in.”
But even with the best direction in the world and all the production help you could ever wish for, it was still a real challenge to know where to look, or how to assess your own performance mid-flight, when you're standing in your own living room rather than on the Rep's stage surrounded by your cast members, Keating admits.
“For each of the five actors, we had several tech days to set up the green screen set and get all angles right. And then when we actually came to doing the show together we were still wondering how it was going to happen? But Ciaran has a very clear idea of what he wants to do. And for me in my case my wife Laura shot me on our smartphone, which was up on a tripod.”
It was a brave decision to mount the show Keating believes, because to say that they've never done anything quite like it before it doesn't even begin to cover it. “The Weir is a play where each character has a story and to do that and then intersperse it with a lot of dialogue was really quite demanding,” he says.
To its fans and supporters, The Rep is a major part of New York life. It's shows often herald the start of each new season and even its holiday shows among the most memorable you will ever attend.
“They mean so much to so many people,” Keating agrees. “And I think the fact that they managed to put this summer season together, it's just an amazing way of them saying, well we're gone for now, but we're not gone at all.”
George Heslin, the artistic director of Origin Theatre and the annual 1st Irish Theatre Festival, has also made the decision to move productions online for the duration. And when he says the duration he means it in the original World War Two sense, because who really knows when this pandemic will finally lift?
“At Origin, we have moved our programming online where possible,” he tells the IrishCentral. “However, we are a theatre company, and live programming is very much our mission, so while on one hand, we are awaiting union approval to restart in-person events, we are very aware the theatre sector requires consumer confidence.”
Creating that confidence in a time when all confidence has fled will be the challenge, he continues. “We have to create trust with audiences that we can provide safe social distancing theatre. Our recent successful Bloomsday event was a hybrid of live and recorded which brought in new global audiences.”
The two hour and sixteen-minute online production brought Irish actors, musicians and writers to the screen in June in celebration of the greatest Irish novelist of the 20 century. It was also an innovative answer to the many restrictions of the pandemic and a reminder that when it comes to a generational challenge, the Irish are often on the front lines of a creative response.
“The other major challenge is encouraging box office income, how do we invite the public to pay for events in this time where there is much free programming?” That's a trickier question than it might first appear, working within the budgets of a live off-Broadway production.
“We are already planning our 1st Irish festival in January and our aim is to have boutique events with small audiences at venues across the city,” he adds.
Restricting the number of performers and audience members will ensure social distancing and make these boutique events safer. It's all part of a creative response to an unimaginable challenge. “Sometimes difficult times can open the door to new forms of expression that require creative ways of planning,” Heslin concludes.
Meanwhile, O'Reilly says he picked The Rep for this unique summer season because of what it says about the power of stories and community to get you through even the worst challenges.
"The Weir" tells the story of Valerie, a young woman who moves to the Irish countryside and finds herself invited to the local pub for a bit of a get-together. The people she meets on this particular night turn to be some lonely bachelors who compete for her attention by telling stories to get her attention and fend off their own loneliness.
“I mean it's a weird affirmation of life in a lot of ways, because this poor girl finds fellowships in the most unlikely place, she finally gets to really tell her story straight out from beginning to end about what happened to her, which has to be cathartic,” says O'Reilly.
This is what the theatre does after all, it allows us to confront the challenges we all face and to say the unsayable. For that reason. no matter how long the pandemic lasts, there will be a waiting audience for The Rep and Origin when the time finally arrives.
"The Weir" premiers on July 21 as part of the Rep's Performance on Screen summer season. To book your tickets visit HERE.