A fun place to play, if the show fits

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A fun place to play, if the show fits
Joshua William Gelb demonstrates a performance inside a closet-size space in East Village on July 30, 2021. Gelb turned a small space in his small apartment into a blueprint for streaming during the pandemic. But what happens as real venues open again? Mark Sommerfeld/The New York Times.

by Jesse Green

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Like proud proprietors of performing arts centers everywhere, Joshua William Gelb is eager to show off his theater. But the tour takes only five seconds, because the theater is a closet.

Still, it’s a privilege to step inside. Since he started doing shows in the 2-foot-by-4-foot-by-8-foot enclosure in March 2020, when the pandemic landed on live entertainment like a lead apron, no one but Gelb has been in it. For that matter, only six people besides himself have set foot in the East Village shotgun apartment where he and the closet live. The first three, last summer, worked with him on a sci-fi-meets-Three Stooges mashup called “The 7th Voyage of Egon Tichy.” The fourth, five months later, was Jianqiao Lu, who, gloved and N95’d, applied makeup for “I Am Sending You the Sacred Face,” in which Gelb played Mother Teresa in blue eye shadow.

Only today, on a beastly summer afternoon, have a fifth and a sixth visitor been admitted. Nick Lehane, Gelb’s friend since graduate school at Carnegie Mellon University, will portray his doppelgänger in the evening’s two livestreams of “The Nine O’Clock Problem.” Lehane is wearing a gas mask — though in this case it’s a prop, not a precaution.

I’m the sixth. Having been bowled over by many of the nearly 60 presentations that Gelb and his colleagues sent into the world as everlasting YouTubes during their COVID-19 confinement, I’d come to think that these shows — in their weirdness, humor, gravitas, intellectual curiosity, graphic boldness and electric vitality — offered the best argument by far for the artistic promise of streaming theater. So I wanted to see how they were made, and especially where.

The where proves disappointing. A closet, even emptied of winter coats and then paneled with plywood and painted white, is still just a closet. Gelb’s has a heavy-duty door pull near the top that helps with the mind- and limb-bending contortions he specializes in, and a cat door near the bottom through which his characters sometimes escape. But not unscathed: Though Gelb is a spry 36 and a wiry 5-foot-6, it’s a very tight fit, and his body (as I see when he changes into a ragged red polka-dot dress for the show) is covered with bruises.

The how is a bit disappointing too, or at least disorienting. Sitting just off camera, not privy to the sound that Gelb and Lehane can hear through their earpieces or the visual manipulations programed into the software, I have no idea what’s going on as the two men rehearse. For a while Gelb is playing all the roles, yanking a wig on and off and yakking at himself in a scene from the farce “Noises Off” that is apparently part of “The Nine O’Clock Problem.” At other times, both actors wear identical black coveralls, moving about in carefully routined but incomprehensible patterns, like big robotic mice in a maze.

When the rehearsal is over, there’s just enough time to prepare for the first livestream by resetting the props. Aside from gas masks, these include a pizza box, a tiger-striped unitard, a tin of tuna fish playing a tin of sardines and a boxy old television streaked with dried blood. (The blood is Gelb’s, from an earlier show in which the TV fell on his head.) Next, the noisy air conditioner gets turned off, which means that music from a punk band playing in Tompkins Square Park barges in. The temperature quickly rises to about 100 degrees as Gelb flips on the bounce lights.

In the last seconds before the 7 p.m. performance, the two men exchange the traditional ironic preshow greetings, although “This is going to be a nightmare” is new to me. As Gelb turns on the cameras and taps at the beat-up laptop that controls the streaming, his voice turns plummy, as if he were announcing the Tony Awards.

“Hello, everyone,” he croons. “This is Theater in Quarantine.”

Is it ever. Rarely has a project been better named to express its parameters, its ambitions and, unwittingly, its limitations. The idea for Theater in Quarantine arose less than two weeks after most shows shut down on March 12, 2020, when Gelb — single, asthmatic, with an almost priestly devotion to theater, from avant-garde to “Bye Bye Birdie” — was restlessly distracting himself with home improvements. After building a new kitchen countertop, he turned his attention to the spare closet jutting into his living room, which in the beforetimes he’d thought about demolishing, or better yet, revamping as a dinner theater with four actors performing for an audience on the sofa. First up would have been “Wonderful Town.”

But sizing up the closet in his lonely stupor, he noticed that its dimensions were nearly the same as those of his iPhone screen. Eureka! “I took everything out, threw it under my bed and got inside,” Gelb recalls. “I put my hands up, I put my hands out, I brought in a chair, I sat in the chair. I didn’t know where I was going, but I immediately knew there was room to play.” He ordered plywood from the lumberyard that day and completed the carpentry on March 27. On March 30, he posted his first two YouTubes, strangely moving studies experimenting with camera orientation and manual lighting effects.

Elapsed time from concept to product: four days.

Most theater that didn’t die during the pandemic at least fainted. The big companies lay panting on their divans for months, unable to turn on a dime or even on endowments of millions of dollars. A few figured out new paths to success of one kind or another: the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles made a mint on virtual magic shows; the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia perfected beautiful film-stage hybrids. London’s Old Vic streamed plays from its empty palace, with stars like Andrew Scott who could just about make them feel real.

But with all their resources, no established theater achieved what Theater in Quarantine did with none: create a body of astonishing new digital work, most of it live, in a variety of genres, every few weeks. Some of the pieces were dance-oriented, some were abstract, some were more-or-less plays and some just sketches or doodles. If the style tended toward the avant-garde, it was a far warmer avant-garde than the old one, which to me seemed more interested in forms than in people. Really what it was, was a new genre entirely.

In short, Theater in Quarantine, despite its dependence on digital effects and its punishing schedule, turned out to be the best and most purely theatrical thing to emerge from the pandemic. Not the most financially successful thing, of course; Gelb’s electric bill doubled, and, until some institutional support kicked in, much of the work was financed by passing the hat and diverting unemployment checks.

But 17 months later, the question he started with — “How live can we get?” — has been resoundingly answered with productions that for the most part follow the four rules he established: They must happen in real time, in one take, feature only full-body shots and “maintain the sanctity of the frame” so that the edge of the closet functions like a proscenium.

What Gelb couldn’t have guessed is that these theoretical, emergency restrictions would become emotionally meaningful to viewers trapped in their own emergencies and closet-like spaces. Seeing him turn severe limitations into something both expansive and expressive was an artistic life buoy for theater lovers, helping us survive the feeling that the perpetual invalid was, if not dead, in a coma.

Having settled the original question, though, Gelb and his collaborators — most of whom he never saw in person, only on Zoom — are left with a series of new and knottier ones: Should Theater in Quarantine continue, now that its name is at least temporarily inaccurate? If so, how? Will it have to step out of the closet? If it does, will it be leaving behind the very thing that made it special?

The questions might as well be accompanied by the sound of a ticking clock. Since spring, Gelb and Katie Rose McLaughlin, the company’s co-creative director, have been watching their viewership plummet as the pandemic appeared, for a while, to be loosening its grip. More than 16,000 people watched “Sacred Face”; about 400 watched “The Nine O’Clock Problem.” Even the lower number is probably more than typically saw the kinds of shows they were each doing previously.

McLaughlin’s background is in dance but also encompasses experimental theater, circus and “mini-spectacle.” She met Gelb while rehearsing a puppet play at Carnegie Mellon, thought he was a genius and has worked with him ever since.

Though McLaughlin, 38, entered the pandemic with the safety of a fantastic day job to return to — she’s the associate choreographer for “Hadestown” — Gelb, who spent many years temping as a paralegal, was just hitting bottom. After years of scrambling, he was a semi-known downtown figure at best, and the constant fundraising that went into producing three-week runs of “The Black Crook” or “a disturbing all-male version” of “Man of La Mancha” for spotty audiences in 18-seat theaters had left him frustrated. “I was looking ahead at a lot of nothing,” he says.

Still, he had not wasted a Long Island childhood spent around stages. His mother, a former actress turned substitute teacher in Port Washington, directed local high school musicals; his father, a former stage manager who worked in telecommunications, “did all the tech stuff.”

“They first threw me on stage to do young George in ‘George M!’ when I was 4,” Gelb says; by middle school he was studying at the Lee Strasberg Institute and by 9th grade at the Stella Adler Studio. Later his taste expanded to include avant-garde work like that produced by the Wooster Group and Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theater.

His Barnumesque pluck and equal-opportunity tastes stood him in good stead as Theater in Quarantine grew from a series of experiments into a showcase for talent. Not just his — though his clowning often reaches the pathos level of the best silent movies. McLaughlin, too, got to stretch her skills as a de facto director (it was she on the other end of most of those Zoom rehearsals) while also putting her own work on display. (“Mute Swan,” a 20-minute dance piece performed by Chris Bell to a text by Madeleine George, is gorgeous.) The composer Alex Weston turned a big folder of music rejected by employers into the evocative score for many of the shows (and the company’s theme); the video wizard Stivo Arnoczy turned “Sacred Face” — Heather Christian’s lip-syncing drag oratorio — into a spectacular Byzantine altarpiece filled with miniature Mother Teresas.

On the other hand, Gelb’s sari was just a sheet trimmed with painter’s tape and held together by a tie clip.

Tiny budgets and low stakes are not usually big draws for artists. But something about Gelb’s let’s-put-on-a-play moxie and the rules of the closet proved irresistible. After seeing a Facebook post seeking ideas for musicals, Christian “cold called” Gelb, having grown bored with the bigger projects on her pandemic agenda. With Theater in Quarantine, she says, “all expectation got slid off the table.” From a list of Christian’s “dead ideas,” McLaughlin chose “Mother Teresa: The Musical”; a few months later, having worked “longer hours more joyfully than on anything since I was 21” — she’s now 39 — the piece premiered. “No agent, no contract, no nothing,” Christian says.

For her no less than for Gelb and McLaughlin, the closet restored the fundamental meaning of “play” — quick, collaborative, wild, uncensored — that led them to theater in the first place. The novel combination of almost total freedom and almost absurd constraint is what made Theater in Quarantine bloom during a pandemic that has likewise been, as Madeleine George describes it, “sometimes excruciating and sometimes liberating, and often those things are one and the same.”

Now the combination is problematic. Trying to shoehorn the Theater in Quarantine concept into a traditional business model, including rental costs and union contracts, would likely kill it if playwrights’ demands for control did not. (George, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, admits that for “Mute Swan” she gladly but only temporarily gave up her “traditional all-things-must-come-through-me stance.”) Already, a live, in-person event planned for the Connelly Theater this summer was scotched when the economics could not be rationalized. No major new pieces are scheduled. And though many ideas for the future have been floated, Gelb, with only a little waffling, says he doesn’t believe “this would be possible in any other context.”

He points to a July 2020 show called “Hypochondriac!” — based on Molière’s “Imaginary Invalid” — in which he sat on a chair floating in air. (In fact it was bolted to the closet wall but, watching it, you couldn’t be sure.) “Mounting that chair is something I could never do in a real theater, for insurance reasons and safety,” he says. “But in the closet I have a lot of control. There’s only so far I can drop.”

Of course, that was also the show in which the television dropped on him.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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