I often find myself a bit sad after the closing of a show. I miss the daily rehearsals, the continual discussions of the work and how to make it better. I miss the nervousness of audiences walking in and I miss talking with the team afterwards at the bar about what went wrong and what went right. It can be difficult to have something you created go from right now to yesterday.
When a show is over, it’s really gone.
Meanwhile, we can revisit any movie, any television show, and any song whenever we’d like. As my friend Bernardo Cubria says, he can watch On the Waterfront and think about its themes even though he was not even alive when it came out. Time is so much more kind to recorded mediums: film, television, music, or even visual arts.
So it’s not surprising that as theater artists, some of us find ourselves looking to create different kinds of work. One such playwright, Christopher Oscar Peña, recalls how Victory Gardens’s Director of New Play Development Geoffrey Jackson Scott asked him if he was a playwright or a writer: “And that really stuck with me, and I started expanding the kind of writing I was doing.” Since then Peña is one of many theater artists who have created their own web series.
According to Wikipedia: “A web series is a series of videos, generally in episodic form, released on the Internet.”
Peña’s series, co-created with Vayu O’Donnell, is titled 80/20 and explores the dating and hetero/homosexual percentage of a young man living in New York City. They have currently produced one full season (ten webisodes) and are planning season two. According to Peña, “For a while now, I have jokingly been telling people that I’m going to ‘Lena Dunham’ my career, meaning, we live in an age where the mainstream theater says no a lot, but it’s pretty easy now to shoot your own shows. With my playwriting, I’m more experimental with tone, style, voice, language, and structure. But a web series forces me to use a whole other skill set: to have to focus on a condensed period to tell a story and to work less with words and more with visual. So in a way it’s like exercising a different muscle.”
On this difference between working in the theater versus creating a web series, producer/actress Allyson Morgan says, “Obviously you don’t get the immediate gratification from the audience (Jokes! Laughs!), but you don’t have to put yourself through the ‘workshop’ process of development. While working on a play for over a year can feel good and rewarding, there’s something liberating about writing quick and dirty (so to speak) and just throwing it against the wall to see what sticks. It’s in some ways a lower risk to just try your hand at something that doesn’t need to be reviewed favorably to have a life.”
Morgan is part of the creative team producing After Hours, the brainchild of Topher Mikels, about five New York bartenders. The series is shot on Go-Pros as opposed to a more traditional digital camera because they wanted the aesthetic to look like it was captured on security cameras.
For playwright and actor J. Julian Christopher, his web series Bulk was not only about putting his work out there, but also creating art for a very specific group. Bulk is the romantic misadventures of a young man who returns to the gay bear scene after a devastating break-up. His co-creator, D. R. Knott, says of their audience, “What we love about creating a web series is that no one is asking us to be broad or universal. We hope a diverse group of people sees Bulk and enjoys it, but we have always been clear that we are gearing the series toward the gay bear community.”
Bulk has indeed found its niche, as it has been viewed in over one hundred countries, about which Christopher says, “Now in its second season, it’s great to have something that is documented and recorded. Theater is in the moment, which is beautiful, but once it’s over, it’s over. It only lives in memory. The web series also allows us to reach a worldwide audience that is absent from theater.”
Something common to many web series is that the show creators are also in the series as performers. Playwrights Peña and Christopher are lead characters in their series and producer Morgan also appears in hers. For actor Julia Grob, her ensemble web series East WillyB is also a chance to explore her skills as a performer within a new medium. “I am a theater baby, I have been acting in theater since I was in elementary school,” she says, “but as I got older I got frustrated by the confines of the medium: exploring a character through one moment, repeated over and over again. I loved that in TV and web series, you could explore a character over time and watch the character grow and respond to different circumstances.” East WillyB, created by Grob and Yamin Segal, mostly takes place in a Latino bar in Bushwick where the locals learn to deal with all the newcomers inhabiting the area, as well as their own interpersonal storylines. Grob adds, “As a native New Yorker, what I’m most proud of, is telling a story where Brooklyn is a central character.
Given the recent production capabilities of such companies as Netflix and Amazon, these artists feel that creating one’s own content is something that will continue to grow and pull in more artists looking to have their work viewable any time—enjoyed not just in one theater, that one night. Morgan says, “Online content is competing with art across all forms and types because it’s so accessible and easy to both make and to view with little monetary investment. Artists will always find a way to get their work out there, and right now it seems easier to shoot something in a day and put it on YouTube than to enter endless one-act [play] competitions.”
Meanwhile Peña also sees it as a calling card of sorts: “In an economy where it’s hard to make a living in theater, I think this is a great way to make work, to get it out there, and hopefully to gain an audience from it.” And Christopher looks at it as something that will take over the mobile market. “On a larger scale, we see the success of Netflix,” he notes. “People are rarely watching television live now. It’s great to be able to be entertained while in transit. It is the wave of the new millennium. Our current society does everything in transit, including entertainment.”
created by Topher Mikels and Allyson Morgan
created by J. Julian Christopher and D. R. Knott
created by Julia Ahumada Grob and Yamin Segal
created by Christopher Oscar Peña and Vayu O’Donnell