Virtual theater was a byproduct of the COVID pandemic but it’s here to stay

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Pablo, played by Anthony Diaz, left, and Rey, played by Christopher David Roche, right, listen as Daphne, played by Jessy Gruver, talks about her bar for the South Camden Theatre Company's drama, "Daphne's Dive" in Camden, NJ on Friday, August 27, 2021. The theatre is among those in New Jersey looking to continue providing virtual productions in the future.

Brian Neal rushed over to an audition this past week for a short film he had booked just hours prior.

The COVID pandemic has made it difficult for some actors to find work as venues slowly reopen for limited live productions. So the Philadelphia-based performer had no time to waste.

“It’s funny. It’s like a flip got switched and everyone’s getting back to work, giving it a try again. I’m excited about that,” Neal said.

The 27-year-old actor was recently in another — albeit less conventional — moving picture with the South Camden Theatre Company’s virtual production of the drama, “Pipeline.”

It was one of a handful of the Camden theater’s first forays into virtual theater, which board president Bob Bingaman said was a practical decision.

When the pandemic first hit, gathering in person was not sanctioned by the state, so many theaters around New Jersey turned to virtual shows.

Live table reads, wherein actors each read from home via Zoom, were released. When limited indoor capacities were allowed, some theaters live streamed small productions on stages to keep audiences entertained. These also provided an outlet for residents to support local actors.

Virtual productions entailed local companies recording live shows in empty theaters and selling tickets so viewers could watch them on the venue’s website live or at a later time.

And although the red carpet has now been laid out for the return of live-in person shows, several theater venues plan to keep virtual productions going.

Chris O’Connor, founder and artistic director of the Mile Square Theatre, said in Hoboken he saw success last year with “virtual stage” offerings.

Among them was the online one-man show, “Virtual Impossibilities” with Eric Walton, which was a mix of mentalism and magic.

“The virtual theater performances we would do in the future would complement the in-person shows,” O’Connor said. “For instance, a world premiere for a show can be made available online for someone to see in California or Mississippi. Or even if someone is disabled and can’t come to the theater, this would give them access to the stage.”

John McEwen, executive director of theNew Jersey Theatre Alliance — which includes 40 member theaters — said most venues will find a way to have virtual programming going forward.

“It may not be to the full extent that they did last year, but I think they are going to have some virtual component,” McEwen said. “The silver lining of virtual programming was that it broke down geographic and accessibility barriers.”

McEwen explained that in addition to people from outside the state being able to tune in to shows, people with hearing loss or other disabilities were able to participate with captions and other resources — which are impossible or more difficult to accommodate in person.

Moreover, theaters often charged less for watching virtual shows compared to coming to theaters in person. Sometimes they made the videos free, giving the option for a suggested donation.

Director Joel Guerrero leads his cast through their roles for the South Camden Theatre Company's drama, "Daphne's Dive" in Camden, NJ on Friday, August 27, 2021. The theatre is among those in New Jersey looking to continue providing virtual productions in the future.

What to keep in mind

For the South Camden Theatre Company, the size of their venue made social distancing difficult to accomplish last year even when gathering restrictions were lifted. The small theatre instead debuted online performances and took a cue from the filming of “Hamilton” on Broadway — with engaging shots aiming to immerse audiences at home.

Bingaman said the theater planned to begin in-person shows again this past Friday but the return in person won’t mean the end of virtual offerings.

“We’ve gotten really good at it and believe it will help us expand our audience,” he said.

Ray Croce, an actor and the Camden theater’s former artistic director, said it’s also important to note how COVID restrictions meant many publishing houses expanded rights to allow smaller theaters to film and stream shows in 2020.

But the availability of many of those rights have since been pulled — not allowing virtual performances for some titles, he said.

“With the increase due to Delta and possibility of closures, the theater will continue to explore filming. But of course, it must be allowed to first with rights and that’s not as easy now,” said Croce.

It will also be vital, Neal said, for theaters to understand that many actors may need time transitioning to performing in front of cameras instead of people.

“That was one of the main things that separated this from a normal show … the energy you get from people being there in-person,” Neal said.

“I would also be concerned with making it easier for the older or non-tech savvy viewers to have access as well,” he said.

Virtual theater, and education too

The New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark created a virtual version of its popular “Hip Hop Nutcracker” show last year.

The virtual tour drew over 100,000 viewers, according to David Rodriguez, executive vice president and producer.

Rodriguez said while live performances will continue to be the theater’s focus, virtual shows and online programs aren’t going anywhere.

“We had people from various countries coming for master classes, teacher trainings and other arts programs that otherwise wouldn’t have been available in their markets,” Rodriguez said. “We feel that while everything won’t be presented virtually as well as live, there are things that certainly lend themselves to that.”

The Princeton-based McCarter Theatre Center also changed the format of an upcoming show so people could see it safely from home.

“The Manic Monologues” was especially poignant as it tackled the topic of mental health.

“We really learned from both the excitement around our online classes and the response to our virtual offerings, that it’s something that we are going to keep in the mix. It will not replace in-person programming, but it is additive to us,” said artistic director, Sarah Rasmussen.

The theater’s reading program is free to access and has been a boon for teachers helping student actors consider future roles, she said.

“Teachers really utilize those for students that are asking, ‘What are those new plays out there?’ ‘What are those voices that I don’t know yet?’” Rasmussen said.