Theater Without Borders

John Zdrojeski, Zoë Winters, Jeb Kreager, Julia McDermott, and Michele Pawk in Will Arbery’s “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” produced by Play-PerView.
Play-PerView

“It is wild to think we are still MAYBE AT MINIMUM 8 months from theatre really coming back,” Jeremy Wein recently tweeted, echoing the sentiments of countless theater buffs in New York and beyond. But instead of groaning and bemoaning like so many of us, the Brooklyn-based producer and director is actually doing something about it.

Not long after the March 12 lockdown, Wein spearheaded Play-PerView, a virtual theater initiative that delivers unique, live-streamed events for audiences all over the world. The group leverages the power of community, creating strategies for theater artists to support one another in trying times with love, hope, and digital innovation.

“Play-PerView was a direct and immediate response to the pandemic,” Wein explained. “When everything started shutting down, I knew in my bones it wasn’t going to be a short-term thing. The moment doors start closing the clock starts ticking, and I heard it ticking loud.”

Forging a more accessible brand of theater in the COVID era

The performances and other events raise funds for the Actors Fund, Broadway Cares/ Equity Fights AIDS, nonprofit theater companies, and many more. This altruistic component was a priority from the start.

“I think that is the driving force for me,” said Wein. “I am in a fortunate position where I have been employed during the entire quarantine and don’t have to worry about keeping a roof over my head or where my next meal is coming from. I have a valuable position and I want to do what I can to help others.”

According to Wein, it’s not just actors or directors who need fortification during this crippling coronavirus pandemic.

“I also try and look out for the people on the fringes too –– like the front-of-house staff member who isn’t in a union and about to get kicked off their health insurance.”

The live readings are, by any standard, quite affordable. Play-PerView offers an at-will tiered fee structure, whereby virtual tickets are sold, based on availability, from $5 to $50. On the day of the event, a Zoom link is sent to ticketholders.

Josh Zuckerman and Wendie Malick in a rehearsal for the July 25 performance of Stan Zimmerman and Christian McLaughlin’s “Knife to the Heart.”Play-PerView

When choosing content, Wein and his team cast a wide net. He has a wish list of people he wants to work with and pieces he’s seen in prior seasons that he would love to remount. Sometimes they take to Twitter to ask what folks want to see. Occasionally theater artists will reach out to them about collaborating, or someone who has done a prior reading pitches them an idea.

Since March, they have managed to assemble an impressive slate of offerings, including Lucas Hnath’s “A Doll’s House Part II,” “The Pink Unicorn” starring Alice Ripley, Tori Sampson’s “Cadillac Crew,” and Bess Wohl’s “Barcelona.” They are planning a “Debrief” Instagram Live series, informal talk shows about the distinct challenges of making theater in the digital realm.

Last week I was lucky to catch the one-time only reading of “Heroes of the Fourth Turning” that reunited the superb original cast. Will Arbery’s topical drama, you may recall, caused quite a stir at Playwrights Horizons last season and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. The riveting production, with its stark black backgrounds and moody lighting, made excellent use of the Zoom format.

The event racked up 2,200 viewers and more than $20,000 in donations to benefit a Playwrights Horizons initiative that gives a financial boost to theater artists in need during the COVID crisis.

At first Wein wanted to present live, one-time only performances to make it feel like a special event. Many theater fans, however, were deeply disappointed when a show came and went before they could view it. To make the content more accessible, they plan on offering extended viewing periods for all future readings.

The response has been overwhelmingly positive. Not only have they received warm praise from the media, but key members of the theater community have begun to take notice.

“Annette O’Toole and Michael McKean tweeted some very nice things about ‘The Few’ last week, which was really amazing,” Wein said.

He noted that Play-PerView has raised more than $70,000 in four months, and he aims to clear $100,000 in donations by end of the summer.

How does it feel to extend their reach beyond New York City?

“Pretty amazing, but it’s not just reaching beyond NYC,” Wein said. “It also extends to our neighbors in our own backyard. I don’t think people realize how many folks can’t physically leave their homes even if it is not a pandemic, for medical reasons or whatnot. Receiving messages from those folks really makes it worth it. Accessibility is not just about ticket pricing.”

Wein added that he hopes the endeavor reveals a need for this type of online content moving forward, even after we are “back to normal.”

Next up on July 25 at 5 p.m. Eastern time is a live-stream reading of Stan Zimmerman and Christian McLaughlin’s “Knife to the Heart,” an incisive comedy about a bris featuring Andrea Bowen (“Desperate Housewives”), Wendie Malick (“Hot in Cleveland”), Todd Sherry (“Parks & Recreation”) who channels a wicked Paul Lynde, and Josh Zuckerman (“90210”). On August 1 is a reunion reading of “RoosevElvis,” the acclaimed buoyant drama that imagines a clash between the spirits of Teddy Roosevelt and Elvis Presley.

When asked what else is on the horizon Wein demurred, explaining he couldn’t reveal the news just yet.

“But I will say we have our second Pulitzer finalist in our series, and several more reunion readings in the works, including a title a lot of people have been asking about and recently picked up some Obie awards earlier this month.”

PLAY-PERVIEW ONLINE THEATER INITIATIVE | Information at play-perview.com | Knife to the Heart” streams Jul. 25 at 5 p.m. Eastern | $5 to $50 at tinyurl.com/ppvknife.

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