“We were worried the work wouldn’t be seen,” said American Conservatory Theater executive director Jennifer Bielstein. When theatres across the country began shutting down two weeks ago to slow the spread of COVID-19, ACT was one of the first theatres (along with fellow Bay area organization Berkeley Repertory Theatre) to announce a pivot to digital. The announcement of a deal with BroadwayHD to bring ACT’s productions of Lydia R. Diamond’s Toni Stone and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Gloria to ticket buyers opened more than a door—it gestured toward a potential floodgate.
The idea of streaming professional theatre isn’t exactly new. Be it BroadwayHD’s library of recorded performances, the industry pillars of National Theatre Live and the Metropolitan Opera Live bringing performances to movie theatres, or the sparsely seen, you-can-find-them-if-you-seek-them-out recorded performances of shows like Shrek: The Musical (Netflix) or the Spike Lee-produced recording of Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over (Amazon Prime). But this was different. This was born of a necessity and done, as Bielstein would put it, “in a really scrappy way.” Even for BroadwayHD, who has been streaming Broadway performances for more than four years, it also proved a new challenge.