Can you autograph a playbill through your screen?

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Can you autograph a playbill through your screen?
Can you autograph a playbill through your screen? When Broadway shut, stage doors found a new way to open — on digital platforms that offer private lessons, birthday videos and meet and greets with stars. Amanda Berglund/The New York Times.

by Alexis Soloski

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- When Alex Brightman was 8 his parents took him to see “The Who’s Tommy” on Broadway. He still remembers every minute of the show and every minute of what happened just after: At the stage door, the musical’s star, Michael Cerveris, knelt down, shook his hand and thanked him for coming.

Brightman went on to become a Broadway star himself, leading musicals like “Beetlejuice” and “School of Rock.” Situated on the other side of the stage door, he rarely missed a chance to interact with fans. “It is our opportunity to thank people for spending exorbitant amounts of money — that they could be using on food, mortgages and car payments — on entertainment,” he said.

Last March, with the novel coronavirus already circulating in New York, stage doors closed. Perks that Brightman was glad to offer — taking fans backstage, meeting their kids, grabbing their phones and leaning in for a selfie — were suddenly discouraged. Then Broadway shuttered entirely and Brightman, sheltering in Oklahoma with his in-laws, did what hundreds of theater actors have done. He took the stage door online.

Old platforms have pivoted, new ones have emerged. And now any fan, with just a few smartphone taps, can arrange a video message, a live chat or even a private coaching session with a favorite star. “The fans, what they’re missing the most, it’s connection,” said Melissa Anelli, a founder of BroadwayCon, an annual convention for theater obsessives, which has moved online during the pandemic.

If it’s potentially weird for apps and websites to commodify fan interactions that actors used to provide without cost, they offer a much needed financial lifeline for the performers and a chance for fans to cozy up, virtually, to the actors they love.

Bryce Zippi, a medical receptionist from Michigan, has booked about a dozen experiences with Broadway Plus, so many that he has lost count. “Broadway isn’t gone at all,” he recalled thinking after his first meet-and-greet, with Yesenia Ayala, from the recent “West Side Story” revival. “It’s right in my living room.”

Some of these apps launched when live connection was possible, then swerved. Broadway Plus began in 2016, with the aim of folding VIP extras, like backstage tours and photo ops, into Broadway ticket costs. BroadwayCon began that same year, offering in-person meet-and-greets to convention ticket holders. Cameo, a site that specializes in prerecorded videos, went live a year later with a roster of mostly sports stars.

In 2018, it began to add Broadway performers. The site has more than 500 now, including 22 from “Hamilton” alone. (Yelp-style reviews of its talent all seem to be five-star. Here’s one for the Tony-nominated actress Orfeh: “I AM DECEASED.”)

In 2019, Spencer Howard, a former Broadway actor, founded Broadway Booker, which he described as “the Airbnb of booking Broadway stars for private events.” Now those events are even more private.

And then there are the new platforms, like Stage Door, a spinoff of the website Broadway World, which went live in May following a brainstorming session when its creators asked what they could do to help the community and keep their own lights on. Still other sites have emerged, specializing in online master classes and coaching.

Some sites let artists choose their own rates, others set flat fees. A site may take a percentage of an artist’s fee, rarely more than 25%, or it may tack on a service charge, typically low. Many platforms allow artists to easily donate their fees to the charity of their choice. No site demands exclusivity, so you can find the same names on multiple platforms. Performers decide which experiences they want to provide, which range from 2-minute prerecorded videos, retailing for as little $30 or so, up to nearly $100,000 for deluxe private concerts.

Performers determine their availability and set their own hours. Laura Osnes, a Broadway lead (“Cinderella,” “Grease”) and one of the first theater actresses to join Cameo, likes to let her requests accrue for a few days. “Then I’ll sit down and do them all in one chunk, take half an hour and make my videos,” she said on a recent video call. Liz Callaway, another Broadway veteran, also does hers in a single day, mostly so she doesn’t have to keep putting on makeup.

Fans hire performers to brighten birthdays and anniversaries. One man hired Osnes to help him propose. “I was so honored,” she said. “Like, ‘This is how you want this to go? You want me to be a part of that?’” Apparently one of her “Cinderella” songs was their song, too.

Parents have bought videos for kids unable to perform in their school musicals. “My favorites are the ones where they say, ‘Can you just give them a pep talk? Can you just let them know it’s going to be OK?’” said James Monroe Iglehart (“Aladdin,” “Hamilton”).

Kids have come out to their parents with an actor on hand. Actors and actresses have entertained at virtual weddings. Alan Henry, one of Stage Door’s founders, was married this past August. Henry, who uses they/them pronouns, now wishes they had hired Orfeh to perform.

Some artists do the minimum, but most provide extra in terms of time and care. Cameo reports that its Broadway videos run about 33% longer than a typical Cameo. Callaway likes to rewrite lyrics, usually to songs from “Anastasia,” to make them special for each client.

Patti Murin has entertained a child’s birthday party in costume as Princess Anna from “Frozen.” (Other times, she sticks to soft pants.) Clients will come in costume, too. Brightman is often greeted by customers dressed as his Beetlejuice or the musical’s Lydia. He understands their enthusiasm. If sites like these had been available when he was a teenager, he figures he would have gone broke using them.

These sites aren’t necessarily expensive. Many offer lower tier options, like Broadway Plus’ PlusPass, which for $19 per month promises an event or two each week — usually reunions, group Q&As and concerts. Barring the private concerts, almost nothing costs as much as a decent Broadway seat.

Monetizing the stage door experience, traditionally a free and voluntary post-show extra isn’t always comfortable. When Callaway first joined Cameo, she felt weird about people paying for her happy birthday wishes. But then, in April, for her own birthday, her son surprised her with a Cameo from her favorite New York Met, Pete Alonso. (Sample review: “Solid player and human being.”)

“I burst into tears,” she recalled. “I thought, ‘Oh wait a minute. Me doing something like that for someone can be very meaningful.’”

Brightman donates the fees from typical online meet-and-greets, the kinds of fan interactions he used to provide without cost, but hangs on to the payments for coaching sessions. For Lauren Patten, a star of “Jagged Little Pill,” one-on-one online interactions require more emotional labor than a quick selfie, which justifies the price.

“I’ve ended up having really beautiful, intimate conversations with people about the themes of the show,” she said. “This is a level of connection and access that I am never able to give at stage door.”

Kristy Poteat, a hairdresser who lives in North Carolina and discovered online stage doors via a Facebook fan site for “Jagged Little Pill,” agreed. Real stage doors are too hectic, she said: “You’re lucky to get a quick autograph. To have an actual conversation with somebody that you admire, it’s truly a one-of-a-kind experience.”

And the money has meant a lot to Broadway performers, nearly all of whom are now scrambling for work. “Some of our top talent are making a completely livable wage from Broadway Plus alone,” Nathaniel Hill, its founder said. (A couple of “Hamilton”-associated actors confirmed this.)

For Patten, the fees can soften worry over rent. Murin, who is married to actor Colin Donnell, said the money allowed her to pay for extras. “Like, I felt OK about holidays this year, buying gifts and whatnot,” she said.

There are emotional perks, too. Iglehart longs for the adulation of the stage door. When he meets fans online or via reaction videos he feels it again. “There’s still that moment of shock and awe,” he said. Patten says the interactions make her miss her show a little less.

Brightman signed up initially to provide for the fans — and to funnel donations to Black Girls Code. But as the months went on, “it became much more for me,” he said. “I was like, ‘I really crave this.’” These stage doors make him feel like he is still a Broadway actor, even when he isn’t acting.

When Broadway reopens, stage doors probably won’t, not for a while, anyway. When they do, they may not look the same. Masks may be required. Gloves, too. Barricades may push fans even further away from stars, limiting physical contact.

When will a selfie with a star be safe again? And will stars go back to providing the typical stage door experience gratis, now knowing that they can charge for it? The handful of actors we spoke to all said that they would. “You want to give the fans a little something special,” Iglehart said. “You want to give them that little bit of magic.”

But until there are doors, there are browser windows. “It’s not the same,” Brightman said. “It is not even close. But I’m so thankful it exists because if it didn’t, I don’t know where I’d be mentally or emotionally right now.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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