I have never lived in either London or New York, so I have virtually no experience of English theater homes. Although I travel to these cities frequently and my friends’ social media posts with their Broadway Playbills exhilarate me, I live with an illness that makes it difficult to stand. This makes the theater a difficult experience: the first time I saw “Hamilton,” after I left the Richard Rodgers Theater, I was too sick to remember most of what had happened. It was only luck that I was well enough to see the musical a second time on a book tour, as well as Andrew Scott’s award-winning London performance in “Present Laughter”. Everyone was exhilarating, but I was still painfully aware of my body. On other occasions, a sudden flare of symptoms might force me to leave or forgo an expensive ticket the week of a show.
When the pandemic forced the theater world into survival mode last spring, theaters had to find a way to produce shows for audiences at home. The Old Vic, where I saw “Present Laughter” the year before, featured Covid-friendly plays in which one actor, or two socially distant actors, performed for the cameras. I watched “Three Kings” and “Lungs” in bed – a disabled-friendly arrangement – and was able to see the scene from different angles thanks to these cameras. Although “Three Kings” and “Present Laughter” each star Andrew Scott, close-ups from the cameras showed his face in a way I couldn’t see from the cheap seats. I saw the dangerous curl of his smirk as he went from an innocent child to his drunk and miserable father, without adjusting his makeup or costume. I was able to admire it all the more by spotting the details that the streaming theater lit up.
Driven by the Playbill newsletter, I became obsessed with watching as much theater as possible in these new, more accessible conditions. I have seen plays and readings in which the actors recorded themselves at home, using Zoom and Skype, a technology often associated with work and distance learning. Many people have become allergic to Zoom as a result of overuse, but as a tool Zoom and its ilk are able to control what the viewer sees in a different way from typical set design. While streaming Will Arbery’s play on conservative Catholicism, “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” Pulitzer finalist, I am allowed to have a character intimacy that even valid premiere ticket holders. line would not normally be able to attend, as the performers enter and exit the dark Zoom squares of their apartments. When Justin says, “I just think being close to LGBT people is a threat to Christian children and families,” his face is partly lit by a dangerous light that isn’t just the glow of my computer screen. portable. Every microexpression and every ounce of restless mistrust that her friend Kevin in turn expresses (“But why can’t we meet her, engage with her -“) is also close. They are not in each other’s spaces, but on Zoom they are in mine. The unique lighting of each square hides their apartments, highlighting the actors; I might as well be with them in the wooded darkness.
Zoom and his ilk are able to control what the viewer sees in a different way from typical scenography.
Acting “at” a screen exposes the peculiarities involved in the home performance: Oscar Isaac and Marisa Tomei argue by readjusting their AirPods to “Beirut”; Jesse Eisenberg drinking from a glass of green juice, his character annoying everyone around him in “The Spoils,” which he wrote. These moments remind me that the actors involved, who may otherwise feel like larger-than-life Hollywoodians, are not exempt from becoming entangled in our international tragedy. Some of my favorite moments from these performances were immediately before and after the actual readings, when the actors were so clearly themselves. Eisenberg gave an unobtrusive description of the play at the start – which makes it all the more exhilarating to see him enter his first scene shouting explosive blasphemies.
Not all streaming cinemas have been on Zoom or Skype. The National Theater in London used its archival recordings to create the National Theater at Home, where, for an additional fee, viewers can broadcast “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”, “The Cherry Orchard” and other plays by renowned theater on demand. I was captivated by the professionally shot recording of “Angels in America”, which I have watched over and over – a story of the plague, seen during another plague. “Proshot recordings,” which are filmed during the standard broadcast of a play, mimic the typical theatrical experience. While I am grateful to have the chance to see performances in their own right, with sets and all, the pieces seen this way seem less immediate to me than the readings which, out of necessity, have taken hold of a new medium. .
Before 2020, I had never thought of exploring the theater beyond one or two rooms, considering it a luxury for the able-bodied or in certain cities. Watching plays on a computer screen isn’t a traditional experience, but it does provide access to a type of storytelling for thousands of people who may never be able to enjoy it otherwise. Our theaters will reopen and I have vowed to take the opportunity to visit them when the time comes. I admit, however, that I will miss the versions I got to see at home – versions that will most likely be lost when the world reopens and the desire to be side by side sends viewers back to Broadway.
Esmé Weijun Wang is a novelist and essayist whose books include the New York Times bestselling essay collection “The Collected Schizophrenias”.