On the Stage, On the Screen: Austin's Theatres Embrace a Virtual Future

Ahead of Austin Playfest and the All Together Now! Revue, directors and producers discuss the challenges and potential they've found online

Image by Zeke Barbaro / Getty Images

The rumors of the death of virtual theatre have been greatly exaggerated.

For thousands of years, audiences have craved the immediacy, the intimacy, the very there-ness of the stage. It's survived the advent of radio, television, cinema, those technological interlocutors on performance. It's even survived the pandemic, as the limelight is rekindled in the gloom of stages that have remained shuttered and shadowed for the last year and a half. In that time, many Austin theatre companies, and troupes globally, have moved their work online, with the simplistic expectation that this was just another brief blip before the return to packed houses and oration from the boards.

But this week the Austin virtual theatre experience will be streaming in your homes with not one but two special events. Firstly, starting Nov. 11, the locally developed Austin Playfest brings together a dozen stalwart institutions of the stage for a continuation and celebration of the possibilities of the online theatrical experience. For a second act, running Nov. 12-15 is the hybrid in-person/online Austin version of All Together Now!, a global fundraiser revue organized by Music Theatre International, in which 2,500 companies in 40 countries, including all 50 states, will perform a selection of Broadway favorites.

Somehow, Austin Playhouse Co-Producing Artistic Director Lara Toner Haddock has managed to get herself and her company involved in both, "because I'm a glutton for punishment," she said. She and her company have been the main drivers behind Playfest, which she described as vital "in this time period where people are connected to the online world, but not maybe quite fully out of their house."

Shut Down, Boot Up

Experimental theatre has not been shy about being an adopter of technology to enhance the audience experience. Yet in the wake of the pandemic and even as most Austin companies are returning to the stage with live audiences, Toner Haddock said, "I'm firmly of the belief that all theatre companies are now multimedia companies. We need to accept that that's where the industry is moving, but for me that doesn't mean at all that we are getting away from the immediacy, and connection, and that being-in-the-room-together power that theatre has."

When the pandemic reached Austin in March 2020, all plans were off. Austin Playhouse was a week into rehearsals for their production of Paula Vogel's Indecent, and the cancellation left the theatre dark and directionless. The idea of virtual theatre was alien to Toner Haddock, who admitted she grew up thinking that theatre was theatre, and that it couldn't exist on the screen. "Then I watched the National Theatre's production of Jane Eyre [and] it was one of the most moving theatrical experiences I've ever had."

In contrast, the Vortex Managing Director Melissa Vogt had been experimenting with streaming productions since 2015, "so I had a baseline for dealing with virtual interface and theatre." Having recorded all those shows also meant they had a "deep vault" of original shows ready to stream during lockdown. Vogt said, "I went, 'You know, even if it's not of the best quality, people will still enjoy digging deep into our history." However, archive trawling don't pay the bills, nor did it placate the urge to create, so she quickly pivoted to providing new content, "doing live performance on Zoom, streaming it out to multiple platforms, doing readings, and improv, and talk-show-type stuff." This meant rapidly coming up to speed on the tech. "I wasn't a Zoom user when I started this thing, so Zoom theatre was its own learning curve. Using a streaming service where I could stream to multiple platforms at the same time, all of this was steps of discovery of finding problems and going, 'How do I fix this?'"

Ghost in the Machine

But there's an underlying question: What even is virtual theatre? Right now, no one really quite knows. Vogt described it as "ephemeral. It's not like a film. It might be happening live and in the moment. It's there and it's gone, and it's not something you can go back to – although maybe you did record it, and people can access it video-on-demand style. But there's some kind of impermanence to it." She laughed knowingly at the suggestion that there may only be clear lines drawn when there are grants on the line but, she added, "For the purposes of the pandemic, it doesn't matter. Artists gotta art."

“Everyone’s seen a picture of the Mona Lisa, but no one skips going to see the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. ... I’m really interested in how we remain connected to an audience within this new virtual world.” – Austin Playhouse Co-Producing Artistic Director Lara Toner Haddock

The only workable definition may well be that if a theatre company does it, then it's virtual theatre. Maybe it's flexible, in the same way that no one raised an eyebrow when a TV series called itself Masterpiece Theatre. Toner Haddock said, "There was a lot of rough Zoom theatre right out the gate, and so people got used to, 'Oh, this is what online theatre means.' And then pretty quickly people started to innovate within that form. ... Some theatres did audio plays, some did animated/live-action hybrids, Deaf Austin Festival did a short festival where every play had to be set in an elevator." Watching what the Austin community was doing became the inspiration behind Playfest as "a benefit, and a showcase, and an awareness campaign for the diversity of Austin theatre."

That innovation and variation will be shown across the two events. All Together Now! will provide a live stream of three nights of performances from the Trinity Street Theatre, while Austin Playfest's titles will stretch from edited performances like Summer Stock Austin's backyard-shot Scout, to Carlo Lorenzo Garcia's one-actor, one-location, one-take three-camera show A Portrait of My Mother, to an animated interpretation of the myth of Baba Yaga (a sort of work-in-progress for Vogt's planned stage play about the Russian witch). There's even a new take on the promenade production, rolling through East Austin for Vortex's 2020 drive-through interpretation of The Odyssey.

Vogt’s Baba Yaga (Courtesy of Austin Playfest)

Playfest isn't any company's entrée to virtual theatre, but instead a way to jointly showcase what they've already learned. TILT Performance Group, for example, is now on its fifth streaming show, and jumped to the medium quickly. In fact, the troupe was wrapping interviews for what co-founder and Producing Artistic Director Adam Roberts called "our first docudrama" when the pandemic shutdown hit "and very quickly it became apparent that we were not going to be doing this production in June. And I said, 'I think it's time for us to move this online, somehow.'" The project became a Zoom-recorded show, and at the same time Roberts started considering what else could happen online. The company had begun as a way for people graduating from institution like Texas School for the Blind to remain involved in the arts, "so I started doing a class online one or two times a week, just to keep everyone together." Those classes have become an ongoing education program called TILT-U, and has students from Austin and beyond. Roberts said, "We have programming every day of the week, for an hour, where people can do everything from dramaturgy to voice class to movement."

Page to Stage, Page to Screen

The medium expands possibilities, but in turn sets new limits. Like seemingly every other group, the writer-driven Scriptworks was forced to cancel its planned 2020 annual anthology of original 10-minute plays, Out of Ink, but came back in an online incarnation in May 2021. Executive Artistic Director Christina J. Moore said, "Originally, I'd be thinking of the standard fare of people in boxes, but by the time we'd got to the fall I was like, 'Eh, there's got to be another way to do this.'" That's why the organizers actively encouraged participating writers to think completely outside of the box, so that technology was more than a plot device. "The multi-platform structure was a necessary part of the writing," she said. "We ended up with text messaging, podcasts, mail, video, Zoom, telephone calls, all kinds of ways that stories can be told." While some of the productions were recorded, others were live shows that she described as synchronous, meaning there could be second and third screens involved, creating new interactivity and immediacy – that spark that is so specific to theatre.

Scriptworks’ virtual show (Courtesy of Austin Playfest)

However, there was also a learning curve for writers on what was plausible online. Moore recalled that an early version of a script involved a massively successful TikTok account, "and there's no way we can fake them having millions of followers. So the idea of dealing with the realities of social media and integrating them in a way that was manageable for a small organization like Scriptworks, was a challenge." The fact that Playfest is all prerecorded and available on VOD via the Eventive platform meant that the writers had to rewrite their scripts to remove those synchronous components. "For some of them, it means text messages has been inserted into video, so instead of people getting texts messages on their phone they're going to read it on the screen. For one that was completely audio and the audience had been mailed a little booklet to interact with while they listened to the piece, that has been made into a short film."

Everyone's been picking up skills as they learned what virtual theatre audiences need. Roberts said he'd become "pretty great" at closed captioning, Vogt learned the challenges of mic'ing up a performance space ("People are willing to watch something that the visual quality isn't great as long as the sound is good," she observed), while Toner Haddock's learned editing software. However, it's not just producers and techs, but actors too. Toner Haddock said, "Everyone had to learn not to stare at themselves in Zoom, but to actually learn how to use that camera for communicating."

There’s a Great Bright Virtual Tomorrow

But the pandemic isn't over, there is still an immediate need for virtual theatre, and those skills won't be going to waste any time soon. Moreover, companies are increasingly accepting there will always be a role for virtual theatre. Firstly, it opens up new revenue streams. True, virtual theatre barely kept the lights glowing during the pandemic, creating a fraction of the revenue of regular ticket prices (Toner Haddock explained bluntly that the economics of the pandemic had been "pretty devastating") and the tentative return to live performances hasn't exactly been a rebound. However, virtual projects, even if they are just livestreams, could allow for new supplemental revenue – that extra online ticket that could make all the difference in the often hand-to-mouth world of local nonprofit performance, especially as people begin to reconsider our lopsided economic system. Toner Haddock said, "Theatre has always been, 'Oh, you can't make a living doing it, and you're just going to do it for the art,' [and] throughout society we've been questioning it. So I'm interested in diversifying revenue, of making this artform that is central to so many people's lives sustainable."

The second big argument is accessibility. Online performances have opened up what would have been small local performances to people who may not have gone to the theatre, or don't even live in Austin. Through streaming, Vogt said, "Now they have an access point for our work."

The accessibility issue is vital for audiences with disabilities, for whom brick-and-mortar theatres can be a challenging environment. While retaining a virtual component will be important, Roberts suggested that the information companies have gathered about virtual attendees will feed into IRL shows. He said, "When we go back in-person, we're going to know a lot more. Little cracks that we hadn't been filling in the past that we can continue to look to be more and more accessible."

Having in-person and virtual theatres complement each other is exactly the future Toner Haddock envisions. She said, "Everyone's seen a picture of the Mona Lisa, but no one skips going to see the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. We listen to music on a CD or Spotify, but I still want to see my favorite band in concert. ... So there's an opportunity here for this industry to reach people in a different way. I'm really interested in how we remain connected to an audience within this new virtual world."

Austin Playfest 2021 featuring Austin Playhouse, Jarrott Productions, Ground Floor Theatre, Salvage Vanguard, Summer Stock Austin, The Vortex, Glass Half Full Theatre. TILT Performance Group, New Manifest Theatre Company, Deaf Austin Theatre Short Play Festival, and Scriptworks. All feature plays available 5pm, Nov. 11 to 11:59pm, Nov. 15. Online passes and tickets at austinplayfest21.eventive.org.

All Together Now! Musical revue and fundraiser Austin edition featuring Austin Playhouse, City Theatre Company, Summer Stock Austin, Trinity Street Players, and Zilker Theatre Productions, 7:30pm, Nov. 12, 13 & 15. In-person: Trinity Playhouse, 901 Trinity, $35, vaccination record or negative COVID test required. Online: livestream via private link, $20. Tickets at austinplayhouse.ticketleap.com.

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Virtual Theatre, Austin Playfest, All Together Now!, The Vortex, Austin Playhouse, Scriptworks, TILT Performance Group, Lara Toner Haddock, Melissa Vogt, Adam Roberts, Christina Moore

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