'The Present'...and the fuzzy future of L.A. theater

the_present_photo.jpgPhoto of "The Present."

"There is no theater in Los Angeles."

This line, or some variation of it, has been around for decades -- sometimes spoken by real people, sometimes ascribed to fictional characters. It's normally a snarky wisecrack, completely unrelated to the truth.

Right now, however, this line is much more accurate than usual. Like theaters in most of the rest of the world, L.A. stages -- in the sense of physical spaces where actors and audiences gather -- are dormant.

Most years, I see at least a hundred plays and musicals in greater Los Angeles -- some years, more than 200. In 2020, I had already seen 30 theatrical productions here, when suddenly it all stopped. The last production I saw in a theater was A Noise Within's "Alice in Wonderland" on March 8.

Like Alice, Angelenos are grappling with an adventure, but unlike Alice's, most of our COVID-era adventure is within familiar domestic surroundings -- not necessarily a theater-friendly terrain.

The essence of theater is that we leave home and enter that intersection between live performers and live spectators -- in a public, physical locale. How exactly is that going to happen until most audience members, as well as artists, are vaccinated against this virus?

In a recent national survey of 401 people who see at least two professional theatrical productions a year, almost two-thirds (63%) said that they would probably wait at least a few months before returning to the theaters after they re-open, while a similarly sized proportion (64%) said a vaccine would be the single factor that would most encourage them to return.

Of those aged 55 and above -- a key theatrical demographic and the age group that is at most risk of the virus -- only 21% said they would be likely to return in the next season after theaters re-open.

Sure, theater companies could require masks and then separate audience members -- or at least household groups -- from each other by six feet. The productions would have to be written and staged so that none of the masked cast members or backstage crew members is within six feet of the others.

In South Salt Lake, Utah, the Parker Theatre recently re-opened using those techniques. Here is more information about its arrangements for a 35-minute comedy revue, "The Corona Conundrum," inside its regular venue. The company's website includes a video tour which explains the venue's distancing precautions and offers brief views of the production, in which the performers appear to occupy solo positions on the stage.

I haven't seen "Corona Conundrum." But while sheltering at home, I've already seen a lot of free online comedy about sheltering at home -- for example, two music-video parodies, from different creators, that play on the rhyme of "quarantine" and "Billie Jean." If I were in Utah, I doubt that I would want to pay $17 to see still more COVID-era humor, while wearing a mask.

In L.A., there is some talk about possible "drive-in theater." Anyone up for adapting "A Chorus Line" so that the chorus never forms a line? (Actually, something that suggests this is on video, here).

Of course, distancing on the recommended scale would reduce the seating capacity of most theaters, and their potential box-office revenue, to small fractions of the previous numbers. With many L.A. theaters already operating as small-scale nonprofits, this sounds unworkable.

Even after most of us are vaccinated and distancing isn't required, will theatergoers eagerly return to seats with shared armrests -- or with no armrests (as in some of the smaller theaters) -- or during the season when audience coughs often punctuate or even muffle some of the spoken lines?

Movie theaters might be even more vulnerable, because so many of us have spent so much of our shelter-at-home time streaming movies and TV. I'm certainly streaming more often than ever, and I'm wondering if I'll ever return to a cinema.

But theater artists should remember that their art is different from movies and TV, or at least it should be.

At most theater productions, lurking in the background is the possibility that this particular performance could be at least slightly different from the previous night's or the next matinee's. For me, that adds an element of excitement -- even though I almost never hear that there were any significant variations -- because it means that these artists are performing for us in particular, not for the unseen masses who might watch a frozen-in-time movie or TV series or YouTube video.

When theater spectators laugh or cry (or, unfortunately, snore or heckle), the actors often hear us. The communication is much more of a two-way channel than it is at any screening.

During the last two months, most L.A. theater companies have increased online activities with a vengeance, reminding us that they're still here, that they need the support of their fans. Some of them are charging for filmed online versions of their previous work.

The remarkable blossoming of Zoom has made some of the digital encounters interactive, somewhat closer to that sense of a theatrical communion between performers and audience. But most of the online content that employs Zoom is on the level of the real-life audience talkbacks that often follow performances in theaters, instead of serving as the main event itself.

The big exception so far is "The Present," a Geffen Playhouse production that's taking place only online. It's a live, close-up magic show, which is the one theatrical genre that might be better-suited for Zoom than it is for production inside a theater. At some previous cards-intensive shows inside even small theaters, including those of the late Ricky Jay, I've had a slight sensation that I was too far away to adequately see what was going on.

But "The Present" casts that problem into the past. Only 25 households join "The Present" at any single performance. On Zoom, we not only glimpse our fellow audience members, but we can hear their louder reactions. We can even read their names appearing on the screen as we virtually assemble.

Assuming we use "speaker mode" on Zoom, we get a large image of the unassuming Portuguese-born Helder Guimarães, who performed his legerdemain inside the Geffen itself a year ago, during "Invisible Tango." We see his cards in close-up, as he astonishes us with his sleight of hand.

He also intertwines, among the card tricks, an affecting story about his own childhood experience when he was more or less quarantined after an accident, and how it changed his relationship with the grandfather who monitored his activities when his parents were at work.

The title refers not only to the present moment of COVID-caused quarantine, but also to a package that arrives in the regular US mail at each guest's address, several days before the reserved performance. Without revealing too much, I can say that the contents of this mailed "present" enable us to participate more fully in the onscreen events.

The production also is enabled by the fact that Guimarães is not in Actors' Equity, so the usual union contracts that regulate the use of professional actors at the Geffen aren't a factor. Tickets, now at $125 per household, are selling out almost as soon as they become available, including the most recent batch through August 16.

While the Geffen's previous relationship with Guimarães is paying off big-time right now, "The Present" is hardly a model for how to return the Geffen or any theater company to its regular fare -- actors in plays and musicals.

Theater managers and artists are considering all the options but are stymied by the absence of a clear-cut schedule. At what point do they decide that the next batch of in-theater shows must also be canceled? Perhaps what they need right now isn't a sleight-of-hand artist but a seer.

I must briefly note that the pondering of such questions must unfortunately continue without the expert services and easy affability of two pillars of the LA theater community who died (but not from coronavirus) since the theaters closed in March.

Diane Rodriguez was a vital and endearing administrator and artist. My most vivid recent memory of her was when we walked together from the Music Center to the starting point, near Olvera Street, of "Remote L.A.," a remarkable Center Theatre Group production that used headsets and guides to consider philosophical questions, as the audience strolled (and rode a subway) through downtown LA, in 2017. Rodriguez had discovered the German company that would create "Remote L.A." when she was at a theater event in Santiago - a mark of her combination of an international vision with the determination and ability to employ it for LA-specific art.

Kerry English was a pediatrician by day, but during much of the rest of his time he was attending theater, where we often chatted in lobbies. He not only seemed to see as many productions as I do, but he also served on some of the theaters' boards, helping them navigate through their endemic financial straits. He was an exemplar of the kind of theater devotee that the present moment requires if L.A. theater is to again become "the fabulous invalid" that not only survives but thrives in the post-pandemic world.

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