TOM GJELTEN, HOST:
When states and municipalities across the country began banning large gatherings, theaters from Broadway to regional stages shut down. But in a creative solution to a difficult problem, some theaters made videos of the closed productions available online for the cost of a ticket. Jeff Lunden reports.
JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: In March, the American Conservatory Theater, or ACT, in San Francisco, had a new play on its mainstage called "Toni Stone." It was about a woman ballplayer in the Negro Leagues.
JENNIFER BIELSTEIN: It opened on a Wednesday night, March 11. And we had to close performances for the rest of the run the very next day.
LUNDEN: Jennifer Bielstein is the ACT's executive director. Like many theaters, her company had recorded a video of the production for its archives. And Bielstein wondered if it could be made available to audiences online. But that requires permission from Actors' Equity and other theatrical unions whose rules strictly prohibit archival footage to be shown to the general public. Bielstein gave it a try.
BIELSTEIN: They responded, immediately, and supported this effort so that we are able to share the work that we have created to make sure that this work gets seen.
LUNDEN: Actors' Equity was actually ahead of the curve in recommending that theaters close. The union's president, Kate Shindle, says it knew the show couldn't go on and not just because of audiences in close proximity.
KATE SHINDLE: There's no such thing as social distancing in theatre. You've got dancers who are doing lifts, people who are standing across from an actor, giving a passionate monologue and there's spit coming out of their mouth or they're kissing.
LUNDEN: When countrywide shutdowns hit, many shows were still in rehearsal, like "American Mariachi" at the Dallas Theater Center.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARIACHI MUSIC)
LUNDEN: Kevin Moriarty, the theater's artistic director, had to tell the cast the show was closing the day before dress rehearsal.
KEVIN MORIARTY: We decided to continue on in the final hours that we were all rehearsing to do the final dress rehearsal of the play, and we were able to film that dress rehearsal using four cameras that we brought in at the very, very last minute and a very, very small audience of friends and family.
LUNDEN: Like ACT, Dallas Theater Center made arrangements with the unions to sell tickets to watch the show online.
MORIARTY: The video has a link that you can only watch once, and then it expires. Very much like a live performance, it exists in the moment that you are experiencing it as an audience member.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARIACHI MUSIC)
LUNDEN: "American Mariachi" is streaming through April 19 for those who've already bought tickets. Other shows have completed their limited video runs, like Ren Dara Santiago's "The Siblings Play." She was about to make her professional debut at the tiny Rattlestick Playwrights Theater off-Broadway. Her play had only given seven previews when it closed, but Rattlestick made it available online. And Santiago says people from around the world bought tickets to see it for $15.
REN DARA SANTIAGO: This is an opportunity for people who don't think of theatre as the first medium, the first art form that they want to go to. This makes it really accessible.
LUNDEN: All three theaters, like their counterparts across the country, are looking at ways to keep going online while the COVID-19 crisis continues, says Dallas Theater Center's artistic director, Kevin Moriarty.
MORIARTY: We are now putting our creative energies toward thinking about - how can we create content that we can share with our audience between now and when we're all able to come back together in a theater, in person again?
LUNDEN: Because even if there's no such thing as social distancing in theatre, there is no shortage of online platforms to get virtual theatre to audiences.
For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "AMERICAN MARIACHI")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (Singing in Spanish).
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