On March 12, Broadway announced a shutdown that was initially supposed to last four weeks. On March 26, a new live-streaming theater initiative, Play-PerView, launched. As we approach the one-year anniversary of the shutdown, it is still uncertain when live theater can return, but Play-PerView continues to produce weekly events.
Jeremy Wein, Play-PerView's co-founder and artistic director, saw Clubbed Thumb's Tumacho on March 12, one of the few shows still performing that night. "The audience was just dynamic — applauding between every scene, cheering when the villain got defeated. You could sense you were sitting in a room of people who knew they weren't going to be sitting in a room like that again for a while, and they were just cherishing what they had," he recalls. "I remember walking out the door that night and I just knew this was not coming back. I was convinced this was going to be at least through the summer and I started to hear this clock ticking."
He and his co-founder, who left to work on her own company about two months in, immediately started thinking about ways to fill the void and took to social media to gauge interest. Some of the first people to respond were Maria Dizzia and Marin Ireland. "I had no idea how we were going to keep those muscles working at all, so I was open to anything," Ireland says. "I was excited that somebody had some proactive ideas right away and I was glad that some people could move at all in light of all of this turmoil."
Since he was friendly with playwright Lucas Hnath, Wein brought him on board, and they decided to do A Dolls House, Part 2 starring Dizzia. The initial idea was to have the actors in a room together reading the play and stream it out, but the CDC guidelines kept changing and it soon became clear that everybody would have to be in their own homes. The cast, which also included Linda Powell, Stuart Zagnit, and Mirirai Sithole, never even had a full rehearsal, just a technical rehearsal with stand-ins. But somehow it came together, and 140 people were in virtual attendance. The proceeds went to Actors Theatre of Louisville and Vineyard Theatre.
Since then, Play-PerView has produced over 40 Zoom events and counting. Wein thinks of these as "readings plus," something in between theater and film. For The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, by Kristoffer Diaz, the fight choreographer figured out how to have the actors swing their computers in a way that looked like they were being picked up and thrown around in order to convey wrestling. Dutchman by Amiri Baraka was like a homage to the 1966 movie with virtual backgrounds and someone adding film grain live over the imagery in real time.
There are different ticket tiers, usually starting at $5. Each play benefits a different charity, often chosen by the playwright, though sometimes, everyone involved will collectively pick the charity, such as the cast of the Blue Ridge reading, which benefited the National Black Trans Advocacy Coalition. Artists are also offered an honorarium.
This approach seems to be appreciated by actors and directors, who often come back for multiple readings. Wein estimates that 40 percent of the projects have resulted from relationships from prior readings. "I like the way Jeremy has been treating this as what would people like to see. What would they like to get the chance to do again," says Ireland, who has done reunion readings of Ironbound and Blue Ridge. "It feels really artist-centered and that's a great focus in this moment when we're all really struggling with ourselves and how do we continue to be artists in these times."
"A lot of times, folks overlook the fact that a majority of actors are people who are working class who have second jobs and third jobs and are doing theater out of passion and so it gets lost that these folks are out of jobs because of the people who are famous and who are successful overshadowing them. I think this has been a good way to provide an outlet for that as well as a resource," says Malcolm Barrett, who was involved in two play readings (Four Woke Baes as an actor and Brain Problems as an actor and playwright) and two TV reunions (Better Off Ted and Timeless).
During the pandemic, many organizations have caught on to the fact that reuniting casts of beloved television shows is a surefire way to raise money, but Play-PerView didn't have its first TV reunion until December. Wein was resistant at first because he really wanted Play-PerView to be a hub for theatrical projects. But when Wein joked to Barrett about a Better Off Ted reunion, Barrett got series creator Victor Fresco on board. Wein realized the angle to do TV reunions would be to focus on shows that ran for a few seasons that have very passionate followings, such as Timeless and You're the Worst. He's not interested in doing huge '80s or '90s sitcoms that would probably draw in bigger crowds. He'd rather have a smaller, passionate audience that would show their appreciation in donations (all of the TV reunions benefit Feeding America). And these TV reunions are not completely removed from theater as they are presented as staged readings of an episode followed by a Q&A, and many of the actors are theater veterans.
For now, Play-PerView will keep producing play and TV readings via Zoom. Upcoming events include The Typists by Murray Schisgal starring Michael McKean and Annette O'Toole on February 26 and two more TV reunions — Enlisted on March 6 and Playing House on March 13. Wein has some ideas for when theater is back in a physical space, including a travel residency with work across the country. But even if that happens, he emphasizes the importance of the accessibility that digital productions have provided to people with disabilities. "We cannot go backwards. This cannot disappear. You can't hold the apple out. You can't open the gate. You can't give people the key and then say everything's better now," Wein says. To that end, he is trying to put together an advisory committee of writers, directors, and performers to present something to the unions about digital theater continuing when theaters reopen (currently, Play-PerView has a blanket agreement to be able to do readings until Actors' Equity deems it safe for actors to return to work).
Wein admits that whatever form the company takes in the future, "the last thing we need is another white guy running a new theater company," but he is committed to breaking the idea of what a theater company can be. "I'm very proud of the fact that we've done like 35 plays and a majority of them have been written by non-white, straight writers or directed by women or been majority non-white cast. I can point to my series and go it's not that hard."