Editor’s Note: This article was produced in collaboration with the Arts & Culture MA concentration at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
“Every single moment of every single day, I am victimized by people who don’t want to admit the validity of digital theatre,” Michael Breslin told Hyperallergic in an interview. Breslin is the cocreator of the Off-Broadway show Circle Jerk, which aired in a part-live-streamed, part-on-stage design in June and became a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Like the recent production _jeanne_dark_ by the French writer-director Marion Siéfert, which premiered this September in the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF) Crossing the Line Festival, Circle Jerk is a hybrid form of tech theater grounded in the crossdisciplinary present. Yet the future prospects of the form could be bogged down by production rules and restrictions stuck in the past.
The current contracts that US theatre unions like the Actors’ Equity Association (AEA) utilize fail to accommodate the nontraditional nature of digital theatre, posing funding challenges for producers. For instance, the 2021–2024 Off-Broadway agreement of AEA is scaled on the basis of seating capacity, which is predictable with in-person theater due to the finite number of seats. However, for live-streamed performances, the audience size is highly volatile and sometimes unknowable, owing to the viral effects of digital forums such as Twitter. “The industry is still trying to figure out the cleanest and most efficient way to broadcast the work to as many audiences as possible,” said Breslin.
Some traditional sources of institutional funding also have rules focused on brick-and-mortar productions. American playwright and director Edward Einhorn — whose on-demand live-streamed play Performance for One is delivered on a pre-arranged Skype call between the actor and a single audience member — criticizes location-specific grants and fellowships which require producers of the work to have a physical site in New York City.
The artist grants and fellowships offered by various local arts councils — Bronx Council on the Arts, Brooklyn Arts Council, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Queens Council on the Arts, and Staten Island Arts — supported by the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs exemplify Einhorn’s predicament. To qualify for the funding opportunities, the artists must gear their work toward the benefit of the specific borough where they are based, a condition that limits the potential of live-streamed theater to engage audiences beyond the borders of the municipal map.
In 2021, Bloomberg Philanthropies’s Digital Accelerator Program granted the NYC-based Off-Off-Broadway arts center HERE with $200,000 for its upcoming virtual platform URHERE (a hub for its digital and nontraditional experiences). But HERE’s Associate Artistic Director and Marketing Director Amanda Szeglowski admits that the future is uncertain, asking “Where is the funding going to come for the next phase?” In charge of URHERE, Szeglowski has to regularly defend to sponsors why this type of theatre needs to exist.
Meanwhile, with the return of in-person hybrid and live-streamed shows, theaters are double dipping staff members without adding salary, as Obie-award-winning multimedia designer, playwright, actor, and director Jared Mezzochi reveals. “Organizations are asking one person to serve a position that looks at in-person duties and digital duties — a production manager is now strapped with two jobs at the rate of one,” says Mezzochi, who’s developing an upcoming live-streamed production Section 230, commissioned by URHERE. For one of his previous live-streamed shows, Someone Else’s House, Mezzochi said, “It felt like it was just a human on Zoom telling stories. But there were five stage managers on that and a full design team, synced up through seven different computers in seven different states all over the country.”