Signature Theatre’s world premiere of the play Easy Women Smoking Loose Cigarettes was one of the stage casualties when the coronavirus pandemic caused the shutdown of all gatherings over 10 people. The production played from February 18 through March 13 to near sold-out audiences before the performances ended in response to the COVID-19 health crisis.
But thanks to a unique deal, people are now able to stream D.C. playwright Dani Stoller’s comical play through April 12.
The deal came about thanks to Signature’s status as a member of the League of Resident Theatres (LORT), which consists of 75 member-theatres who have collective bargaining agreements with the Actors’ Equity Association, stage managers, directors and choreographers, and scenic, costume, lighting, sound and projection designers.
“When it first started really to be clear that the pandemic could endanger our public gatherings – it was especially vivid to our colleagues in California and Washington State first – and things started to be shut down at the beginning of March, we were all starting to think about what we would do,” says Maggie Boland, Signature Theatre’s managing director.
A Contemporary Theatre in Seattle, Washington, and Berkeley Repertory in California were the first two theatres to approach the union partners about the possibility of capturing or recording a performance and making it available as a surrogate for those whose shows were going to be cancelled.
“We were able to make something work that has traditionally been outlined by our union agreements,” Boland says. “We were really fortunate that everyone quickly grasped the seriousness of the situation and the jeopardy to their members’ employment and to our theatres’ revenue streams.”
Thankfully, the deal came together on March 12, so Signature was able to record its final staging the next night, and did so with the use of three cameras in the audience, in a production done in front of family and friends.
“We wanted an optimal placement of these cameras so we could edit together as high a quality version of the show as we could,” Boland says.
For those at home watching, all the fun of the play is right there to be enjoyed. The show is directed by Stevie Zimmerman and stars John Austin as Bobby, Shanara Gabrielle as Lee, Susan Rome as Marian, Jordan Slattery as Kitty and John Leslie Wolfe as Richard.
The story follows Marian, a matriarch of a far-flung Jewish family, who seems happily settled into retirement with her new husband Richard but everything turns upside down for her when her pregnant niece, the troubled boy next door and her distressed daughter with a secret show up at her door.
“When I read Dani’s script, I knew immediately that it was going to be something great,” Gabrielle says, “Not only does she have great storytelling skills but also whip-smart dialogue. I found the play full of characters who were ambiguous in a way that’s really true to life.”
She particularly liked the way the characters figure out what they think is right and wrong, and how far they can stretch the limits of their love.
“People are going to laugh and find themselves laughing at moments where they may be a little uncomfortable and I think that’s fun right now,” Gabrielle says. “It’s also ultimately, a story about family. What does a ‘family’ look like and how do we all make our own family, and that’s something that seems really relevant right now.”
This unique opportunity to experience Signature Theatre’s sold-out production was made available to all ticket holders whose show was cancelled, plus an additional 400 are allowed to purchase streaming rights; only about 40 percent of those tickets remain.
As of April 1, viewers from 18 states plus the UK, France, Canada, India, Belgium and Taiwan have taken advantage of the streaming.
“The crazy silver lining of this situation is that more people are getting the chance to see Dani Stoller’s play, including some theatres who have expressed interest in producing it at some point and would not have been able to see it otherwise,” Boland says. “It’s literally being seen around the world.”
All current ticket holders were sent a password protected link and those who wish to watch the production can purchase virtual tickets for $35 at sigtheatre.org.