Writer and theatermaker Nicholas Berger’s recent polemic, "The Forgotten Art of Assembly: Or, Why Theatre Makers Should Stop Making," touched a whole plexus of nerves, by positing that the frantic rush to approximate live performance in isolation, using non-broadcast quality home equipment and a live-streaming platform, is an imitation so poor it should cease and desist.
Acknowledging the scary economic reality that drives many of these hastily assembled online readings, solo shows, brand new 24-hour plays, monologues, and inexpertly shot Off-Off-Broadway footage did not get Berger a pass from the theater community.
Nor did attempting to head ‘em off at the pass by fretting that his “cynicism for this emergency style of digital performance will be labeled as pessimism or defeatism” and insisting that it’s his “love for theatre that cringes when (he sees) it inch closer and closer to becoming a TikTok.”
We acknowledge the likelihood that the general public has as much appetite for this sort of theater community infighting as it does for the burgeoning Covid-19 era virtual theater scene, especially if the players are unfamiliar from film or TV.
Here, the excellent production values, famous names, and brand name tunes add up to a genuine television event, especially since each offering sticks around just 48 hours before turning back into a pumpkin.
You’ve already missed comedian Tim Minchin's unforgettable street punk turn as Judas in 2012’s Jesus Christ Superstar, expertly filmed at London’s cavernous concert venue The O2. (Have a look at the above clip for a taste of what you missed—in addition to the Victoria’s Secret-style angels and mega church-style lighting displays, this production featured pole dancing, Anonymous masks, a former Spice Girl, and a close enough Shepard Fairey tribute poster for a Jesus who won the coveted role in a TV talent show.
Regret to inform, you’ve also missed former teen idol Donny Osmond as the titular character in the 1999 remount of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. (Or not, if Lloyd-Weber takes mercy on hoards of devastated viewers flocking to the YouTube comments section to beg him to air it again, having just discovered that they missed it the first time.)
What’s next? You’ll have to ask the Magic 8 ball, or wait for an announcement, though in the video below, Lloyd Webber pledges that his failed adaptation of author P.G. Wodehouse’s beloved series, By Jeeves, will for sure be a feature of the line up. Other titles in his oeuvre include Cats, Starlight Express, Sunset Boulevard, The Phantom of the Opera, and Evita (the latter with lyrics by Tim Rice, Lloyd Webber’s collaborator on Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and several other shows).
Each week’s feature-length show streams free on YouTube for 48 hours, beginning at 2 PM EST.
As with much of the thrown-together programming Berger decries in "The Forgotten Art of Assembly," viewers of these not-quite-live performances are encouraged to cap things off with a donation to a theater charity, with suggested links for giving in the US, the UK, and Australia.
For those who’ve never caught an episode of Great Performances and thus find the concept of watching taped theater “a bit of a headfuck,” to quote Minchin, the advice he gave to Time Out (temporarily rebranded as Time In) is:
You’ve just got to get through the first ten minutes, and then it’s an extraordinary experience – because you’re actually watching people in real time.
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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Her unprompted contribution to the Off-Off-Broadway in Isolation scene is a hastily assembled tribute to the classic 60s social line dance, The Madison. Follow her @AyunHalliday.