How the ACT II Playhouse, a Philly-area theater company, moves from a small empty stage to a streaming giant. Tony Braithwaite discusses what’s next for the Theatrical World during and after Covid-19.
Theater companies international, national and local have been stuck down and dumb by Covid-19. How they have chosen to deal with the down is what has kept them working and their audiences please – relatively speaking – or not. dosage MAGAZINE and I have featured how companies from 11th Hour to the Wilma have crafted often innovative ways into streaming radio and YouTube theater. After realizing by June that physical staging with interactive audiences in attendance would not happen for 2020, ACT II Playhouse in Ambler chose a fascinating route to the start of its new season as several months ago, they partnered with a tech startup out of San Diego, SURFCODE, and its focused new venture, PlayPlay.
ACT II Playhouse was introduced to Surfcode by a NY producer, GFour Productions who had a successful project with them. After becoming official in March 2020, PlayPlay has aided performing arts organizations sell over 20,000 tickets, plus retain revenue for canceled shows.
Tony Braithwaite, Act II’s Artistic Director, along with Carol Flannery, Act II Playhouse’s Director of Marketing and Communications, made Braithwaite’s near-annual political sketch revue, “Electile Dysfunction, Hindsight is 2020,” their debut into the brave new world of un-app-download able, streaming live theater with PlayPlay as its partner last week. Virtual tickets start at $30 and are available online, or by calling the Act II Playhouse Box Office at 215.654.0200.
dosage MAGAZINE and I spoke with writer, director and actor Tony Braithwaite about breaking new ground while staying true to sketch comedy’s roots and live theater.
A.D. Amorosi: How has everyone been holding up, personally and professionally? I’m always delighted to see any info connected to its work and that which occurs at Act II.
Tony Braithwaite: Things can’t help but be difficult when your company’s income drops hundreds of thousands of dollars, but I am truly proud of how we’ve managed. We were in mid-rehearsals for Neil Simon’s Chapter Two when we had to shut down. We canceled that run, then we canceled Pippin too. Our summer show was to have been a Cole Porter revue, Too Darn Hot, and we rescheduled that to summer 2021. What’s helped all the craziness and consternation is that we have a wonderful team in place at Act II, a devoted Board, and very loyal subscribers and supporters.
A.D. Amorosi: I thinking about the old adage where tragedy plus time, equals comedy. Is there anything funny yet about Covid-19?
Tony Braithwaite: Peter Sellers once said, “To label any subject unsuitable for comedy is to admit defeat,” and I have always ascribed to that mantra! As such, there’s a whole pandemic parody song in Electile Dysfunction
A.D. Amorosi: Away from Act II, you had a chance to do one of the last staged 2020 shows before the shutdown, at 1812 Productions with Jen Childs. Comment please on your long term relationship with Childs.
Tony Braithwaite: Jen and I actually got to do our show right before things in the world went south. This was our 5th comedy cabaret, Together Again for the First Time. We did a sold-out run at Act II in January, and then a run at 1812 in February. I adore creating these shows with Jen, and I predict we’ll keep that going post-pandemic for sure. Working with Jen is always one of the highlights of my year. We have such a comedic short-hand, we share an adoration for comedy history, and we also just really like each other: as performers and as human beings.
A.D. Amorosi: Anything you wish to say or not say about PPP loans and ACT II – your involvement in this?
Tony Braithwaite: We were able to get PPP, thanks dominantly to the amazing work of our Director of Finance and Operations, Pat Taddei and the good folks at Ambler Savings Bank. Ambler is sort of the Bedford Falls of Pennsylvania, and I always like to think of Act II as sort of the Bailey Building and Loan: “the beloved little local institution that could.” It has always been very important to us to build and sustain local relationships. I really treasure that aspect of the Playhouse: “a community-minded professional theatre,” as we once called Act II. It’s been heartbreaking to watch the rampant unemployment in the American Theatre, but I am proud to say that even though we were forced to cancel Chapter Two on March 12, we continued to pay cast, crew, and designers for what would have been closing in late April. Also, we have not had to furlough or terminate anyone on Staff, and God willing, we won’t have to, going forward.
A.D. Amorosi: Tell me about waiting to go digital/streaming with Act II shows or your own work apart from Act II. Was there any feeling of hesitation that this wouldn’t feel right without a stage and a live audience?
Tony Braithwaite: We had sold about 1400 subscriptions to the 20-21 season when the pandemic struck, so delivering something to those folks became a priority. There are so many legal and union rules and regs to navigate with filming and streaming published works like Chapter Two or Pippin, but Electile is our own property so it seemed a likely choice for this “great experiment.” Making Electile the video was fun and interesting but there’s no question about it: I miss live audiences.
A.D. Amorosi: What changed your mind, and how and when did PlayPlay, and GFour come to the forefront?
Tony Braithwaite: We thought that since we had the rights to this show, and we were about to enter the election season at full tilt, we could do this show virtually and find an audience. Also, we could do it safely – partially outdoors, socially distanced and with precautions in place. But we almost didn’t do it since there was no way to stream it in a way that would work for us. Then, through some chat group connections that our Director of Marketing has, we heard from GFour that they had streamed a show they had the rights to and it worked out really well. The streaming platform was a new one: PlayPlay.
A.D. Amorosi: Odd that you didn’t go with a local. Why PlayPlay?What do they bring to the table?
Tony Braithwaite: We’re not aware of any local developer or platform that offers streaming. We would have loved that! PlayPlay was custom built for regional theatres. It uses AWS cloud hosting and doesn’t require an app download, will control the number of views, can restrict sharing of the video, and offers an easy fulfillment experience. And we needed those features. Local theatres have been using Vimeo, ZOOM, YouTube, Facebook, and other non-local platforms, and none of those were affordable or logistically feasible for a small company like ours (or for our patrons).
A.D. Amorosi: The downside is obviously the lack of directness and interactivity with an audience. Do you miss the hard laugh or does that feeling dissipate with time?
Tony Braithwaite: Video is a different animal for sure. The biggest bummer for me was that we had to cut the audience improvisation section that we had originally planned. But patrons who stream the show have emailed and told us that they are laughing together, loving the show, and they appreciated that we did this for them. That’s awesome, even if we don’t get to hear those reactions in the moment.
A.D. Amorosi: That said, just the trailer alone signals opportunities heretofore not realized. Discuss going into Electile Dysfunction, Hindsight is 2020 with the arsenal that digital technology offered – as well as good old Man in the Street interview stuff, which I thought looked great on you.
Tony Braithwaite: I truly loved the Man on the Street stuff, it’s the closest we get to improv. But my favorite innovation that video offered was being able to sing a duet as both Nixon and Trump. We simply could not have done that in-person and it’s a fun highlight of the video.
A.D. Amorosi: You have a full slate of shows lined up on the website including Doubt: A Parable. Dare I ask are these digital, stream only? And where do you stand with their productions currently, and how do they feel on a digital platform?
Tony Braithwaite: This is all evolving but let’s just say I can’t see a scenario where our patrons, or we, will be ready to come into the actual Playhouse anytime soon.
A.D. Amorosi: Considering the expansion, technologically and aesthetically, of what you can do via streaming, how do you think going forward you can integrate the live and the streaming worlds when, and if, we can go back to hard staging.
Tony Braithwaite: Great question! And also an evolving answer. Right now we’re seeing how this all lands with our patrons. I do think streaming options may well be in our future, during and post-pandemic. But I will also say emphatically as a performer, and as an audience member even: nothing compares to a Live performance!