How off-Broadway's Irish Repertory Theatre changed its model and pivoted to the digital world.
On March 12, all the theaters in New York City shut down, and we haven't heard a peep from many of them since.
Not so for the venerable Irish Repertory Theatre in Chelsea, which had a full spring and summer of in-person productions canceled and swiftly pivoted to entirely online content. After two smaller initiatives featuring their pool of actors, writers, and designers, the Irish Rep, run by founders Charlotte Moore and Ciarán O'Reilly, jumped into the deep end of the pool, presenting weeklong runs of several plays newly filmed via Zoom, with all parties in quarantine.
The resulting works — Brian Friel's Molly Sweeney, Conor McPherson's The Weir, and Aedín Maloney's Yes! Reflections of Molly Bloom, among them — are the most truly theater-feeling productions that many of us have experienced this entire period of time. And the Irish Rep, which premieres the K.T. Sullivan and Steve Ross-led Love, Nöel on August 11, is not stopping there.
I mean no offense when I say this, but I wasn't expecting Irish Rep to be the first off-Broadway theater out of the gate to really pivot and change your entire model to digital.
Charlotte Moore: I know. We're kind of surprised ourselves. It's our staff. They just jumped on it. They went full-speed ahead and we were kind of saying, "Huh? What? OK, fine, go!" We've done at least five online productions already, and we're working full-time, six days a week.
Ciarán O'Reilly: We don't really want to take credit, because we have a great staff. They were all moving out of the office, everybody was at home, and it was basically, "What do we do now for these next two months that we're going to be out?" We started with The Show Must Go Online, with actors doing things, poems, songs, and we had one on every day for the first three or four weeks. Then we started doing Meet the Makers, which was interviews with stage managers, designers, authors.
As the weeks became months and we realized we were going into the summer, we decided to announce a digital summer season. Charlotte directed Brian Friel's Molly Sweeney via Zoom from St. Louis. It was an easy choice because it's just three people in different places.
Charlotte: Actually, it was terrifying, but it was OK.
Ciarán: After that was Aedín Maloney's show, Yes! Reflections of Molly Bloom, which we were supposed to be doing live in our studio space in June around Bloomsday. Aedín is down in Miami, so she's very much like the character Molly Bloom, isolated in her bed, waiting for Leopold to show up. It was fun to think that instead of a backdrop of Dublin, she had a backdrop of Miami.
The Weir was the most technically ambitious online theater show I've seen this whole period of time.
Ciarán: We tried to move the needle a little bit. We sent green screens to all of the actors, who were all over the country. Dan Butler was up in Vermont, John Keating was in North Carolina, Amanda Quaid was in Connecticut, Tim Ruddy was in New Jersey, and Sean Gormley was in Brooklyn. We had to make sure everybody had the same common props, so if somebody fills a pint of beer and hands it over across the stage, the other actor would pick up the same pint or mug.
We have a wonderful house manager named Sarah Nichols. When we closed down, it was one of those jobs that basically became redundant. We don't have a house, so there's no need for a house manager. Sarah had mentioned that she had done audio editing for podcasts, and she picked this up and ran with it. We're in awe of her. She did an amazing job editing.
Did it feel like directing theater? Did it feel like the real thing?
Charlotte: There were aspects that did. Giving personal notes to the actors. "Tone it down, bring it up." But it also was just really, completely different.
Ciarán: My astute direction was more like, "Dan, look to your diagonal right. No, he's standing up now," because they couldn't see anybody. They could hear them via Zoom, so they just had to imagine who's up, who's standing by the bar now, who's sitting downstage left. We did five-six hour sessions straight through and I was utterly exhausted at the end. The actors were too.
On a business level, how are your financials? I'm sure you must be hurting like everyone.
Ciarán: We've done all of these shows on a SAG-AFTRA [Screen Actors Guild - American Federation of Television and Radio Artists] union contract, because it's a video, technically, not a theater show. So all the actors are getting paid, and so are the designers.
Charlotte: And our theater staff.
Ciarán: We've managed to keep nearly all of our staff on, working full-time so far. We were helped enormously by the PPP loan, but that's gone now. We're very lucky that we own our building, that we bought it 10 or 15 years ago. But we have a mortgage like everyone. People have been extremely generous to us in donating for these productions. People seem to be inspired by us doing them, and they give us a lot more than the $25 we suggest. Charlotte sent me something today where a woman said, "I loved it so much that I put a 0 at the end of the $25."
Charlotte: She made it $250.
Ciarán: It's been so gratifying. So many people have signed in to watch. More people saw The Weir this time than they did for our entire live run. The same for Molly Sweeney and it will be the same for Love, Noël. That show was in our W. Scott McLucas Studio Theater before, so it may end up that three times as many people will see it in one week of running online than in the entire eight-week live run.
Are you planning for more as we go into the fall and winter?
Charlotte: We're going full-speed ahead, and hoping to do full productions. The smaller the cast, the better, but not necessarily. I am certainly going to do a Christmas show. I'll get it together, by god, and get the most wonderful people, and have John Bell, my musical director, work with each of them, however we put it together and do it. Because gosh, we need it, don't we?
I imagine the theater building itself is stuck in time like every other performance space in New York City.
Charlotte: We've actually had a lot of work done since we closed down. All kinds of repairs.
Ciarán: We've had this job that was leftover from the time we were doing the renovation, of putting in soundproof doors all over the place. We could never fit it into a schedule because we were always producing theater. The contractor called us and said, "Any chance you guys might be free now?" And we were like, "It's all yours, baby." It was great, actually.