Daniel Thomas, an executive director for Bay Area theater company 42nd Street Moon, wants to make the communal experience of theater available to as many people as possible. That’s why Thomas initially decided to become a producer and an administrator, in addition to working as an actor and musician. This ethos can also be seen in 42nd Street Moon’s MoonSchool, an educational program that offers classes in music, dance and acting to both children and adults.
But 42nd Street Moon’s commitment to creating accessible artistic opportunities is now being stretched as never before, with the emergence of the coronavirus and the theater’s subsequent closure in March. The final three performances of “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” — a huge hit with audiences — were canceled, and upcoming musical “The Pajama Game” has been moved to an August opening. The MoonSchool, however, still offers classes virtually, including a weekly Friday afternoon dance party and new yoga classes. Thomas, alongside the rest of 42nd Street Moon’s staff, is working to find novel ways to continue interacting with audiences and artists via social media.
“Right now, what you’re getting (on social media) … is individual artists just going online and saying, ‘I just want to share my talent with you,’ ” Thomas observed in an interview with The Daily Californian. “That’s been nice, but the ones that (interest me) have been a little more interactive, in terms of just having conversation with people.”
42nd Street Moon has found a way to strike the balance between audience interaction and showcases of artistic talent with its social media content. The company’s Facebook page hosts a triad of weekly livestreamed series, including “Tuesday Talks Over the Moon,” a conversation with 42nd Street Moon staff and artists; “Full Moon Fridays: Live Cabaret Series,” which features musical performances from artists and occasional special guests; and “Quiz Me, Kate,” a musical theater trivia competition.
All of these programs foster the communal, interactive experience that Thomas sees as the heart of live theater, but the move to virtual performance hasn’t been without its challenges. As Thomas said, scene work with children enrolled in virtual youth programs isn’t quite as smooth when there’s a lag between line readings. 42nd Street Moon’s performers also quickly discovered that musical numbers are hindered when the pianist and the singer are connecting across different living rooms. Thomas worries, too, about how the onset of virtual performances will affect the live theater scene once the crisis of the pandemic abates.
“Are we possibly devaluing the value of the art because these people who have worked so hard to develop their talent … are now creating all of this content for free?” Thomas asked. “Do we build up an expectation from the audience member that they should then be able to access that whenever they want and however they want? Look at (the cost of) going to a live performance — going to theaters or symphonies or concerts — when suddenly there’s been this wave of free, interesting content being posted online. Does that actually create a further barrier to us in the long run?”
These are questions without easy answers, but nonetheless, Thomas remains optimistic that audiences will always be able to distinguish between prerecorded and live performances, and that in the long run, increased literacy with technology will help smaller theater companies, such as 42nd Street Moon, “take a step into the 21st century.”
Taking this first step are the performers and creatives, whose passion remains unshakeable. When Thomas floated the potential postponement of “The Pajama Game” in early March, a large majority of its cast and creative team was able to commit to the new dates. Thomas also said the youth programs at MoonSchool, full of eager, fledgling performers, still plan to put on virtual versions of their productions.
Juggling such a large roster of projects, including current virtual programs and planned in-person productions, is a mammoth undertaking that is stretching the boundary of live performance and affecting theater companies across the Bay Area and beyond. But for Thomas, this undertaking remains worthwhile.
“Music and theater has always been a unifying moment,” Thomas said. “It’s always been a place for building community, for building shared experiences. And whether we’re doing that in a concert hall or in an elementary school cafeteria or behind our individual computer screens, that is the most important thing we can do in creating art.”