Digital Theatre Is Here To Stay: Paula Vogel’s Bard at the Gate

Vogel admits to being idealistic. She doesn’t dispute the many obstacles to her vision, among them money, union rules, complicated rights to negotiate, theatre community skepticism, and outright resistance. But Vogel is not alone, asserting: “All of us who have been doing this are believers.” In one way, though, Vogel stands out even among other digital evangelists now. She continues to use the Zoom platform. “It’s not just four heads in boxes any longer,” she says. “The visuals are increasingly more sophisticated.”

Bard at the Gate’s productions were actually always more sophisticated than the average Zoom play. Bulrusher was the first one I saw in September 2020, at a time (six months into the shutdown) when there was already talk of “Zoom fatigue.” But I enjoyed it—mostly because of the superb cast conveying great warmth and humor, but also in part because the action in the script was staged—the fistfight, the kiss, the love scene—even though everybody was in their separate Zoom cell. This stage business was half artful, half awkward, but preferable to having a stage manager simply read the stage directions.

In the productions so far in the third season, the Zoom cells seem to have disappeared. The actors appear side by side as if in the same space (although, in reality, they are miles apart). More often they are shown one at a time, in close-up, as each speaks. Laura Schellhardt’s Shapeshifter also features dramatically drawn backdrops of mountains and seas and sunsets, and in between the spoken scenes, there are animated landscapes involving shadow puppetry. Still, these productions retain an unmistakable Zoom-ness, sometimes to their obvious detriment. Majkin Holmquist’s Tent Revival tells the story of a man who loses his farm and becomes a preacher— initially a hilariously inept one—until one day his wife, who has used a wheelchair for ten years, suddenly stands up in the middle of the service, which the congregants see as a miracle. Her standing up is a pivotal moment in the play, but the audience doesn’t see it. We see only a close-up of her head and upper torso.

She doesn’t dispute the many obstacles to her vision, among them money, union rules, complicated rights to negotiate, theatre community skepticism, and outright resistance. But Vogel is not alone, asserting: “All of us who have been doing this are believers.”

Still, in her introductory remarks to the first play of the season, Vogel offers boosterish notes of gratitude “for this new medium developed out of necessity, and now honed to a unique and brilliant high art form by our collaborators at ViDCo.” Virtual Design Collective or ViDCo has designed all of Bard at the Gate productions and was founded during the outset of the pandemic by Jared Mezzocchi, an Obie winning multimedia designer who has become one of the foremost pioneers in digital theatre. Acclaimed during the peak of the pandemic for designing the online play Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy and more than fifty other shows, he has kept going post-shutdown.

Like Vogel, Mezzocchi has become a passionate advocate for digital theatre. But he is clear-eyed about the challenges: “We don’t know what this thing is yet, so can we just accept that what we’re producing is imperfect?” He was speaking as the guest at a recent Stellar Salon, an online conversation series named after the ticketing and streaming platform founded by Jim McCarthy. Like Broadway on Demand, Stellar began during the pandemic shutdown and has now formed a partnership with them.

Broadway on Demand and Stellar are among the companies that now offer to do the heavy lifting for theatre companies and theatre artists that want to go online but don’t want to master the technology. They are part of an emerging infrastructure—evidence that some people believe digital theatre has a promising future, even though its present is uncertain. “I call what I produce an ‘experiment’ rather than a product or a production,” Mezzocchi says. “If you say it’s an experiment, people can say, ‘oh, cool, I wonder if it’ll work,’ and that’s exciting. But if you say it’s a production, people will say, ‘I hope it’s good.’”

On this, the third anniversary of the shutdown of all in-person theatre in New York, it’s unclear where these experiments will lead, and how much of the theatre community and the theatregoing public will embrace them. Nobody knows which of the current digital platforms will have staying power, or what new ones will emerge. What does seem increasingly clear is that there is more to come.