When COVID-19 shut Broadway down, digital theater filled the gap
  • COVID-19 shut Broadway down for more than a year. Many theaters faced similar situations.
  • Digital productions thus filled the gap — even if they were new territory for a lot of people.
  • While many actors and industry professionals are returning to theaters, some told us they think digital is here to stay.

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After all of his professional projects went up in smoke in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Jonathan Cerullo, a veteran director-choreographer and executive producer, ventured into an area he could never imagine in his 40-year career: He accepted a virtual directing gig of a play called “Hard on Love” with the Los Angeles-based Blank Theatre.

Cerullo’s career included Broadway acting appearances in productions like “Cats” and “Sweet Charity,” but he was initially reluctant because virtual theater was unexplored territory for him. But after a reassuring call from the playwright, Scott Barry, Cerullo was on board. He described the process as being akin to directing a small film. 

“We storyboarded the project,” Cerullo said. “We had camera rehearsals. We captured it live and then the editors edited it together. I was in New York, one actor was in LA, another in Hawaii and the playwright was in Sacramento. We pivoted to work it out.” 

The show, done on a union-approved remote-work contract, streamed on January 25, 2021. It was part of a reading series that the theater was doing, and viewers could watch with a suggested donation of $15. 

Cerullo found the experience to be both rewarding and challenging, but it wasn’t the same as live theater. 

“I’m grateful we had this platform,” he said. “But I don’t necessarily want to live there and stay there.” 

Yet digital theater may not be going away anytime soon. As the latest and more contagious strain of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Delta variant, continues to spread and sales for Broadway shows slump, streaming live performances could become a key tool in every producer’s arsenal. 

It’s a strategy that runs counter to an old attitude. 

“Decades ago, no one would dare make a movie or live TV performance of a Broadway show for fear of drying up potential customers,” said David Lefkowitz, a playwright, theater critic and podcast host. “Why would they schlep to Broadway and pay those prices, the thinking went, if they could see the show for free from their couch?”‘

With Broadway and live theater being closed for a year and a half, that mindset shifted, and much of that is due to financial necessity tempered with brutal reality. In this vein, digital theater could be the next best option for theatergoers fearful of sitting in an audience again while being co-opted by producers as an additional stream of revenue. 

For Lefkowitz, who recently had a one-act play, “Restoration Playhouse,” virtually staged by off-Broadway troupe Red Bull Theater, the possibilities are huge with this fledgling genre.

“Long past , digital will likely be a component of theatrical production,” he said. “Maybe in a benefit for a theater company that a patron 2,000 miles away can’t attend in person but can watch [and donate to] and still feel connected. 

“Maybe a theater company wants to take a chance on a new play in development but can’t commit thousands of dollars and dozens of hours to a workshop or black-box staging, so they do a Zoom reading first.”

Salisha Thomas, an actor who appeared in the Broadway production of “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” and will be in the new Broadway-bound “Once Upon a One More Time,” featuring the music of Britney Spears, feels the future of theater will be a hybrid. 

“If live theater and being back in person are options and they’re safe, I absolutely would opt for them nine out of 10 times,” she said, noting that she has “lost count” at how many times she performed on Zoom during the pandemic. “However, sometimes certain opportunities are truly more convenient online. And for those times, I’m more than happy to get ready from the waist up and keep my pajama bottoms on.” 

Case in point: Thomas recently launched a podcast, “Black Hair in the Big Leagues.” Produced by the Broadway Podcast Network, the program gave Thomas the opportunity “to connect with people I would have never gotten to interview … In fact, [had it not been for the pandemic], I don’t think I would have even started a podcast.” 

There is one big drawback, though.

“Nothing in the world can ever replace a real-life hug or feeling the energy in a room that humans offer,” she said. 

Dan Tracy, an actor who appeared in “Waitress” on Broadway, echoed the sentiment. Like Thomas, he also launched his own podcast, “Guys Who Like Musicals,” during the shutdown. He finds digital theater appealing because it provides access to people who would not be able to attend a live show for myriad reasons.  

But as convenient as digital can be, Tracy said he’s personally felt like “something is missing” with the shift to digital.

“The heartbeat of the theater is the audience-to-performer feedback loop,” Tracy said. “The sharing of a collective experience with hundreds of relative strangers is what makes theater so impactful, and I’m not sure that digital theater ever has the potential to make that impact.”

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