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Streaming plays give big-name actors a chance to give back
From left, Lindsay Mendez, Carra Patterson, Sas Goldberg and Gideon Glick in "Significant Other" at the Laura Pels Theater in New York, May 28, 2015. Jeffrey Richards, who has been working on Broadway for 47 years, is planning to stream a series of starry play readings to keep making art and to raise money for charity during the coronavirus pandemic. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Michael Paulson

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- It doesn’t look like Broadway is going to reopen any time soon. So one producer has decided to start making shows online.

Jeffrey Richards, who has been working on Broadway for 47 years, is planning to stream a series of starry play readings, starting Thursday, to keep making art and to raise money for charity.

The “Spotlight on Plays” project is similar to some being undertaken by nonprofits while theaters around the country are shuttered, but it stands out as a venture by a commercial producer active on Broadway.

The one-night events, benefiting the Actors Fund, are to start at 8 p.m. Eastern time on Thursday with “November,” a 2008 David Mamet comedy about an unpopular president seeking reelection, starring John Malkovich and Patti LuPone and directed by Mamet.

It will be followed, May 14, by “Significant Other,” Joshua Harmon’s play about a gay man increasingly uncomfortable with his singleness as his straight friends pair off; the 2017 Broadway cast for that play, led by Gideon Glick, will reunite for the reading, directed again by Trip Cullman.

The third production, on May 21, will be a reading of A.R. Gurney’s “Love Letters,” starring Bryan Cranston and Sally Field and directed by Jerry Zaks.

“This seemed to be something that would keep theater alive in me and, I hope, the many people who watch it,” said Richards, who was the lead producer of two plays — Mamet’s “American Buffalo” and “The Minutes” by Tracy Letts — that were halted before their openings this spring. “I miss Broadway very much, and I hope this will whet people’s appetite to come and see live theater when we return.”

The productions, like much of the streamed theater being offered during the pandemic, will be a hybrid of stage and screen. The shows are not live, but are being rehearsed (once), recorded (with the actors isolated from one another, of course) and edited.

The shows will be free, but only available at the time they stream, on the Actors Fund YouTube channel as well as the Broadway’s Best Shows YouTube and Facebook channels. Viewers will be asked to contribute to the Actors Fund, a nonprofit that helps performing arts professionals, many of whom are now unemployed because of the shutdown not only of theater but also of film and television production.

The Actors Fund, which provides financial assistance, health care, housing and career planning, is facing surging requests for its services at the same time that it had to cancel its annual fundraising gala and a planned “Ragtime” concert fundraiser. The organization has become dependent on virtual fundraising — it has been the beneficiary of an online talk show hosted by Rosie O’Donnell and of a daily interview show, “Stars in the House,” hosted by Seth Rudetsky and James Wesley.

“The demand has increased so dramatically because people are not working,” Joseph Benincasa, the organization’s president, said. “We’re doing everything we can to try to figure out how to support our organization when we can’t do in-person fundraising.”

The artists involved — none of whom are being paid — said they were happy to have a way to contribute. “It’s essential, right?” Cranston said. “We see these restrictions in place, and so how do we continue to be creative within these restrictions? Hopefully this will provide a little distraction, a little comfort, and make some money for the Actors Fund.”

LuPone and Malkovich said they had seen the Broadway production of “November” and were intrigued by the opportunity to read the material. “I always love to do a Mamet play,” said LuPone, who has done three on Broadway. But both wondered about the long-term effect of the pandemic on the appetite for live performance. “If people say, ‘I really want to hear Schumann, but I’m too nervous to go sit in a theater with 1,200 people coughing their brains out,’ all bets are off,” Malkovich said.

For Glick and Cullman this is a third crack at “Significant Other,” which they also did off-Broadway. “It’s a project that’s very close to my heart,” Glick said, “and I’m interested in the message of the show, which is somewhat about isolation and alienation. And I was curious about what the process would be like. It’s had so many lives, and here we are, five years later, all together on our computers, doing it again.”

This is Cullman’s third such pandemic project — he also directed benefit readings of Terrence McNally’s “Lips Together, Teeth Apart” and Bess Wohl’s “Barcelona.”

“Everyone that I know who is in the theater is in the same boat,” Cullman said. “What do we do with ourselves in this indeterminate amount of time when we are barred from doing what we do? This is an interesting experiment, and there’s something I appreciate about its rough-hewn nature.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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