Women’s Theatre Festival Virtual Playreading Book Club: Natural Shocks

Thursday, Mar. 26, 8 p.m. 


Snow and ice might cross out the occasional weekend of local theater, dance, and music. A rare natural disaster, such as Hurricane Fran in 1996, could turn out the lights for a little longer. But the region’s performing artists have never seen anything like the coronavirus.

As government measures to contain the threat of COVID-19 escalated during the second week of March—including the unprecedented closure of Broadway on March 12—the Triangle’s largest arts presenters, dance and theater companies, and music venues began postponing or scratching dozens of shows slated over the coming weeks and months. Duke Performances and Carolina Performing Arts canceled the rest of their seasons outright. By the time the governor banned gatherings over 100 people on March 14, only a handful of independent theater and dance productions were still playing to live audiences. 

But even in the darkest hour in decades, a group of innovative artists and technicians were busy engineering a means of placing their art in front of paying audiences, even if they could no longer reach them face-to-face, by taking it online, live. 

Between March 14 and 16, four independent local groups streamed five live events to hundreds of viewers on the internet. Local artists across genres finally capitalized on a technology that others had found too daunting in the past—and opened the doors for others to follow. 

ShaLeigh Dance WorksThe In-Between was scheduled to premiere at The Fruit on the same day that the gathering ban came down. Based on recent years, choreographer ShaLeigh Comerford could have anticipated selling out the alternative performance venue, but in the current climate, she was facing dwindling audiences and major financial losses as her one-weekend run progressed. 

After Comerford decided to livestream the show, webmaster Majid Bastani and technician Joe Bell worked Friday and Saturday to overcome a number of obstacles before switching out computers mere moments before Saturday night’s successful broadcast. 

Now Comerford is planning to livestream all future works, but with an online production schedule longer than two days. 

“I think I’m going to always do it,” she says. “It helped us reach more people, not only locally but outside our town and state, all over the country.”

Singer, songwriter, and music ethnographer Kamara Thomas recalls the doubts she had about livestreaming the latest in her series of country and Americana showcases, Country Soul Songbook, at NorthStar Church of the Arts on March 15. 

“I was thinking, is this going to be fun? There’s going to be nobody here to interact with,” Thomas says. 

But by the end of the show, which reached more than 400 viewers—an audience larger than NorthStar could accommodate—those misgivings were erased. 

Thomas compares the mix of interviews and electric and acoustic performances, occasionally interrupted by pitches for merch like custom-designed coffee mugs, to “those old days of TV when everyone was off-guard enough to let the intimacy come through.” She found the experience “more off-the-cuff, less precious—a more authentic presentation of what’s going on.”

Given her ultimate goals for Country Soul Songbook as a web-based documentary platform and artist-driven archive, Thomas had a “eureka moment” in the days leading up to the show. Perhaps her most exciting discovery from the streaming showcase is that she can produce them a lot more often than the live concerts she’s been producing.

“This is what the long-term vision of the program was anyway. We were just getting dragged into the future a little early,” she says. “There’s a rainbow of possibilities that’s really flexible, exciting, and calling me toward it now.” 

For Curtis Eller, who leads Curtis Eller’s American Circus, a month-long tour of Australia, Holland, and England he’d been planning for a year vaporized in a moment. Pre-tour dates closer to home were canceled as well.  

“Fortunately, in times of distress, people turn to the banjo,” Eller wryly observes. Joking aside, the band’s March 16 concert on Facebook Live was as much about “figuring out how to be a performer in this world we’re in” as overcoming the financial devastation of a sacrificed tour. 

“At the least, I wanted to put a little bit of joy out in an otherwise really bleak time,” Eller says. “We didn’t do much in terms of promoting it; we didn’t have time.” 

He made a Facebook page for the band’s “Quarantine Live Stream” the day before the show. Even so, more than 300 viewers caught the live broadcast and generously supported the band via online tip jars and Bandcamp purchases. Still, the seat-of-the-pants approach nearly ran aground when they couldn’t get the band’s studio gear to interface with the livestream before the show. 

“We unplugged everything and went totally acoustic into the camera’s microphone,” Eller says. “It worked fine.” 

Traditionally, local theater companies have never been able to legally stream productions online; publishing houses controlling the production rights would never license a livestream performance. But in the face of canceled premieres and lost royalties, publishers and playwrights have become increasingly interested in seeing new and developmental works performed online. 

That’s how the Women’s Theatre Festival landed a 2019 Pulitzer finalist and an Obie Award-winning playwright for their nascent series of virtual staged reading, which began March 15 on the festival’s Twitch.tv channel. This Thursday, March 26, Lauren Gunderson—currently the most-produced living American playwright—will participate in a talkback after a locally produced staged reading of her 2018 one-woman show, Natural Shocks.

Indeed, throughout the past week, we have seen comedy, concerts, and theatrical readings (at least one drunk—that would be TwiLIT, in which Lauren Knott and other actors drink their way through the purple prose of Twilight on Facebook Live) that could not have otherwise been publicly performed. 

Jim Haverkamp at Shadowbox Studio likens the sudden diversity, innovation, and chaos of online offerings to the days of live radio. He and partner Alex Maness are giving Shadowbox a technical upgrade to place the venue at the center of it. Last weekend, the studio hosted live online performances from improvisational theater artists Ian Bowater and Paul Deblinger and a concert by Charles Latham and the Borrowed Band.  

“It’s an ongoing experiment, and we all have to jump in and start swimming,” Haverkamp says. He thinks the tech is now at the tipping point; myriad creative programming opportunities can arise when independent artists can afford access to professional online production equipment, and that’s happening in our region. 

“Live television used to be what now we’re seeing on Facebook Live,” Haverkamp says. “We’re now heading into our golden age of livestreaming. A variety show, a fireside chat, or a concert: The sky’s now the limit—well, actually, the bandwidth’s the limit.” 

Comment on this story at arts@indyweek.com. 

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