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Friday Briefing: How to make the most of theatre online during lockdown

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

Theatre, by its nature, is something that happens live and in person. One of my favourite things about it is its utter uniqueness: it's a combustible sort of magic that only happens in a particular room at a particular time. No two performances are ever the same. It's a shared experience between actors and audience -- and you literally have to be there to be a part of it. 

But during this time of lockdown, we are being forced to be more resourceful, and find other ways to keep enjoying it. And what's been thrilling to find is that there is a palpable sense of community around it, on both sides of the footlights.  

Fortunately, lots of theatres and theatre artists are rising to the challenge of keeping us engaged and entertained with their past, present and future work. Here are just a few of those ways.
 

Theatre from the archives

Until now people have had to curate their own trawls through theatre history, stumbling upon or searching out old footage on places like YouTube. Clips from past Olivier and Tony awards shows have always been a good place to start. But now plenty of theatre companies have posted new historical content during this lockdown; one of my favourites is New York's Encores!, which is posting videos from their archive here, as they say, "We want to make sure you still get your musical theatre fix even if our theatre is temporarily closed. "

But in the last 11 years - since the launch of NT Live in 2009 when a live performance of Phèdre starring Helen Mirren was streamed from the National's Lyttelton Theatre to 70 cinemas around the country - many more theatres have come in on the act, and recorded live performances of their shows, from the Donmar to the RSC and Shakespeare's Globe. 

And now, continuing the public service missions of some of those theatres, they are now making that content available online to audiences for free at this time of crisis. The NT is releasing a different title from the NT Live archive every week that's made available to view for the week ahead. Last Thursday, I watched live as its riotous production of Richard Bean's One Man Two Guvnors was broadcast, with its star-making performance from James Corden (it was as a result of his Tony Award-winning run in the show's Broadway transfer that he was snapped up to host a nightly US chat show). 

Of course, it's never going to replicate the theatrical experience of being part of a live audience (or even a cinema audience), sharing their collective delight and expressing it in loud bursts of laughter. But it was still very, very funny, even watching it on my own (my husband was working in the next room). And I'm most especially thrilled that this early Corden performance is preserved forever. So many theatrical performances are forever lost to subsequent generations; at least thanks to this, it'll be there, available to watch forever instead. Next up and now available on YouTube is Sally Cookson's version of Jane Eyre, co-produced with Bristol Old Vic, available to view on YouTube until 9 April. Also on the NT's YouTube channel are past interviews with actors, playwrights and directors who've worked there. 

Chichester Festival Theatre are currently offering their production of the musical Flowers for Mrs Harris online, which will be available there for 30 days (until May 8). I was enchanted by their British musical, with a score by Richard Taylor, when I saw it at Chichester in 2016: when I reviewed it then, I called it "a poignant, winning portrait of friendship and trying to fulfill your seemingly unreachable dreams", and said of its star Clare Burt, playing a charwoman who dreams to own a designer dress, that she burns "with an inner radiance and goodness beneath a dowdy exterior." I can't wait to revisit it now in this recording of its 2018 revival there. Maybe this showing can finally propel it to the West End where it most assuredly belongs. 

Andrew Lloyd Webber is also making full-length recordings of some of his shows available on a dedicated YouTube channel every Friday night that will be available from 7pm for 48 hours: it was launched with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat last weekend, and from tonight (coinciding neatly with Easter) its time for Jesus Christ Superstar.  

You can find many more theatre productions on a free new website Culture Stream that has aggregated links to available shows, including British musicals Eugenius! (that was seen at The Other Palace), and Only the Brave (originally premiered at Cardiff's Welsh Millennium Centre), and the Off-Broadway production of Dave Malloy's Ghost Stories (that received its British premiere at the Boulevard last year). 
 
 

#LockDownTheatreClub 

 

Of course, what's lacking in streaming video to your own computer or television screen is the communal experience of watching something live with others. To offer a more approximate opportunity in these times of enforced social distancing, theatre critic David Jays set up the Lockdown Theatre Club, in which a weekly online audience is invited every Tuesday evening to join in watching a "stage-adjacent movie", who then tweet along at #LockdownTheatreClub. Next week's movie is Christopher Guest's Waiting for Gufman, one of the most hilarious films about amateur theatre I've ever seen: to join, you find the movie on a streaming service, and at 8pm all press play together. Then start tweeting! 

 

Charity fundraisers

 

One of the more astonishing initiatives from New York is Seth Rudetsky and James Wesley's twice-daily live-streamed chat and music show Stars in the House, at 2pm and 8pm Eastern Time (7pm and 1am BST), in which they are joined live in their home by a galaxy of Broadway stars by Zoom link. Past shows can be viewed on YouTube here. Audiences are invited to donate to the Actors Fund in return. 

Also online and in support of The Actors Fund, TodayTix in New York have launched an Intermission Mission video series, showcasing exclusive videos of at-home performances from members of the Broadway community, and streamed via TodayTix's Instagram page.  Brian Fenty - CEO and Co-Founder of TodayTix - said of the initiative: "As a company, we believe theater is a healing force that everyone should have access to, and that the magic of theatre can be felt even now. By supporting The Actors Fund, we want to give back to the members of our theatre community that are more affected. We hope you will join us for a laugh and a song and bring a part of the light this industry is made of."

 

Online Festivals

 

Two festivals I'm personally involved in (as a member of the boards that run them) have both been forced to migrate online this year. The 38th National Student Drama Festival, that should have been running in public in Leicester until today, has moved workshops and performances online, Last weekend's BEAM 2020 - a biennial two-day event dedicated to showcasing and developing new musicals which was to have been held at Northampton's Royal and Derngate Theatre, co-produced by Mercury Musical Developments and Musical Theatre Network - also saw those shows being promoted online, so a lot of visibility was given to them, and let's hope that when they theatres do re-open they'll be flooded with new shows ready to be put on.  

 

Support videos

 

I've also been delighted by the flood of support videos that have been posted by West End and Broadway companies, in which they've come together to make a collective video of a song from their show to keep our spirits up. Earlier this week there was a fantastic 21st-anniversary video some members of the original cast of Mamma Mia! , singing "Thank You for the Music", after one of their number Neal Wright was hospitalised with coronavirus. (I was much relieved when, after posting this to Twitter, Neil messaged me himself from hospital, saying he was on the road to recovery). Meanwhile, Paul Clarkson - who played Harry Bright in that original company - his wife Julia Hills and daughter Abi, lip-synched to "Voulez-Vous" from the original cast recording here.

Another delightful family effort is watching Cheryl Baker - an original member of Eurovision winners Bucks Fizz, who was also in the 2008 West End premiere of Footloose - and her family performing "Making Your Mind Up".

Original cast members of Broadway's Hamilton also reunited to perform a song from their show for a young fan who couldn't attend it because of the pandemic. And members of casts who have performed Carole King's Beautiful worldwide joined together for this gorgeous version of "You've Got a Friend".

Also wonderful: English National Opera's Andrew Smith and Chris Hopkins performed the overture to The Marriage of Figaro as an isolation duet (https://twitter.com/E_N_O/status/1246861904213168135?s=20). 

But my absolute discovery -- and ultimate joy -- of this lockdown has been Joe Tracini and his outrageous dance tutorials. He launched it with his version of "The Music and the Mirror" from A Chorus Line; I loved it so much I shared it with Donna McKechnie, who created the role on Broadway back in 1975 -- and she was delighted, replying "Ha ha ha! too funny! Just sent it to Bob Avian!" (who was the original co-choreographer with the late Michael Bennett). His latest is a hip-hop tutorial. I can't wait for him to start teaching these classes live at Pineapple when this is all over -- I may even go myself...

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