When the stage shuts down, is all the world a screen?
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When the stage shuts down, is all the world a screen?

Performers bemoan the lack of live art in the age of the coronavirus, and wonder if audiences will be there when they return

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Theater artists protesting in Tel Aviv, April 12, 2020, demanding the government address their needs during the coronavirus pandemic(Courtesy EVE)
Theater artists protesting in Tel Aviv, April 12, 2020, demanding the government address their needs during the coronavirus pandemic(Courtesy EVE)

Efrat Steinlauf didn’t plan on staging her play “Show of Hands” via Zoom.

But the popular videoconferencing app is where the work is currently being performed ever since the coronavirus crisis hit Israel in early March.

Steinlauf’s play, which usually places audience members in an elementary school classroom, comprises eight abbreviated classes and offers a critical look at the education system.

In the current age of unexpected and extended online learning, Steinlauf’s play couldn’t have come at a better time.

Like so many parents right now, Steinlauf is personally familiar with digital education, as her two children, ages 11 and 14, learn online every day.

Efrat Steinlauf, an independent director whose current play was easily adapted to Zoom during the 2020 coronavirus (Courtesy)

“If the teachers are teaching online and that’s our current reality, then the show connects between politics and the education system,” said Steinlauf, who in normal times teaches theater, stages plays in fringe theaters and festivals throughout Israel, and sometimes creates virtual reality productions for the high-tech industry. “It really demanded to be staged online.”

Steinlauf and her six actors — socially distanced at their homes in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Rehovot, Nazareth, among other locations — rehearsed for two weeks on Zoom. They cut the number of classes from eight to six and shortened the production from an hour and a half that’s been staged in classrooms for the past three years to some 40 minutes.

Zoom audience members, who are asked to pay what they can for the show, tend to stick around afterwards and chat with the actors, taking the opportunity to explore the limits of this unusual production.

“There’s a side of me that says theater has to be live, but I see that the technological platform allows me to do something different,” said Steinlauf. “It calms me to know that if it will be hard to return to live performance, I can still explore theater through this.”

Steinlauf is one of the few theater professionals who has continued working during COVID-19. With theaters shuttered and large gatherings still not permitted in Israel, local performers and directors wonder whether they’ll ever return to the stage.

And while Zoom offers a solution for some stage artists, it doesn’t work for most.

Theater was never made to be produced online, said Natan Skop, a theater artist and master’s student working as a technical adviser and web developer for independent art projects and creators. He’s also been earning extra money during the pandemic, running errands for a small group of customers.

“It’s a conundrum for theater people,” said Skop. “Theater is based on the liveness and fleetingness of it. If you can’t be there, the whole point of theater is gone.”

Some productions can move the audience online and experiment with new forms, but others can’t or don’t have the resources to find a creative solution to the problem, said Skop.

There’s also the matter of the audience. A play just isn’t the same without the audience sitting there, hopefully rapt and engaged.

“Some people are saying, ‘If there’s no stage and no audience, there’s no theater,'” said Anat Radnay, a theater director and producer who heads EVE, a local organization uniting independent Israeli artists. “There’s a lot of different opinions out there.”

Radnay works closely with about 50 independent artists, which currently includes organizing a weekly Zoom meeting that acts as a support group.

“Interesting and lovely things come out of the meeting,” said Radnay. “I hear that some directors like digital and are running with it, and it’s an important tool right now, keeping them from getting depressed and keeping the fires burning.”

יוצרי אי"ב מצטרפים למחאת הענק של מוסדות התרבות בישראל "אסור להשאיר את הבמה הזאת ריקה". אנחנו מצטרפים ליוצרי התיאטרון,…

פורסם על ידי ‏אי״ב – ארגון יוצרים עצמאים בתיאטרון‏ ב- יום ראשון, 10 במאי 2020

There are currently some opportunities available for these fringe theater professionals, such as digital platforms on several local television channels operated by the Culture Ministry, and Einav, a local arts center in Tel Aviv, that’s offering its studio to artists to provide professional livestreaming capabilities during the pandemic.

But not every opportunity works for every artist, cautioned Radnay.

“You can’t just take a play and put it online, because audiences aren’t going to be able to follow that,” she said. “It’s a worthy initiative, and we understand their desire to help, but it’s limited in how many artists can be helped that way.”

Anat Radnay, an independent director who heads EVE, an organization of independent theater professionals (Courtesy Anat Radnay)

Radnay is concerned that the eventual return to live productions will be gradual, and even when that does happen, the audiences will be limited. There could be 50 people seated with two meters between them at a fringe theater, translating into “very empty theaters,” said Radnay.

Small audiences that won’t fill the auditorium are even more significant for the larger, traditional theaters such as the Cameri and Habima, which lost money during March and April, and will continue to lose if they open while not allowed to sell tickets for all the seats.

“Will the public even go back to a closed, indoor theater?” asked Radnay, wondering if health concerns will trump a desire for culture.

This isn’t the first time that Israeli performers have been through tough times, said Maya Buenos, a Jerusalem-based actor and director whose work brings her to both fringe and more traditional stages.

Buenos has been able to keep some of her international projects moving through Zoom, and said she is surviving financially because of a spate of projects last year that helped pad out her bank account. She also tends to be an optimistic person, she said.

Maya Buenos, another independent theater artist who prefers to view the coronavirus situation as an opportunity for finding new opportunities (Courtesy Maya Buenos)

“God help us if our cultural world is destroyed because of two months of the coronavirus,” said Buenos. “There’s no reason why we can’t survive this as well.”

She’s been trying to utilize the extra time on her hands to figure out what could be the next steps for the performing arts.

“You have to make use of what you have,” she said.

It’s an optimistic approach, but it doesn’t work for everyone.

One general idea being proposed for the summer months is staging shows outside.

Outdoor performances have long been embraced by Catamon, an independent Jerusalem dance troupe that has staged its performances for eight years in the narrow, colorful aisles of the Mahane Yehuda market, in a show called “From Yaffo to Agrippas” usually held in September.

Their outdoor performances are intimate shows despite the public sphere, and that’s a vital part of their allure and choreography, said founder and choreographer Elad Shechter. They’re also about integrating their urban setting and population, performing for the mix of people who live in Jerusalem.

“We don’t create one-dimensional experiences,” said Shechter. “They’re an experience of meeting, sharing, of participation, a live show.”

That may mean smaller events during the coronavirus period, and they’re hoping to be able to produce their usual event in September, said Shechter, who continues to receive a portion of his salary, which stems from public grants.

Going online, however, isn’t an option.

“That goes against all our values,” he said. “We want to find a way to be active, and to find a way back to our events.”

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