Early in the pandemic, Matthew Warchus, the artistic director of London’s Old Vic theater, got a lot of attention in the British press for his dire warning about the existential threat to nonprofit theater posed by an indefinite shutdown.
But then Warchus — a British theatermaker who has regularly worked on Broadway (“Matilda,” “A Christmas Carol”) — picked himself up and sprang into action. He set in motion an attention-getting series of live-streamed, small-cast dramas, performed by socially distanced big-name actors before the cavernous empty house at the Old Vic.
He started with Claire Foy and Matt Smith, co-stars in TV’s “The Crown,” in “Lungs,” a marriage play that had originated at the Old Vic and, before the pandemic intervened, was slated to run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. His production of “Three Kings” starred Andrew Scott of “Fleabag,” and “Faith Healer” featured Michael Sheen. For each production, Warchus tried to offset the limited visual possibilities by using multiple cameras and Zoom windows to further the storytelling.
During a period when many theaters have turned to archival material, prerecorded work, and readings, and some of New York’s biggest nonprofits seem to have disappeared, the Old Vic’s commitment to shows that are new and live has stood out. Financially, it’s a hit: the Old Vic has sold 30,000 tickets to people in 73 countries.
Warchus, who has been nominated for the Tony Award seven times and won once, for “God of Carnage,” talked by phone from London about the reasoning and artistic choices behind the theater’s streaming work, which it calls “In Camera.” These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
How did your streaming series come about?
I was thinking about if there was any way I could continue with any production, and every way you look at it, there’s an obstacle, there’s a problem, and anything we thought of just wasn’t financially viable. But I knew that I had “Lungs” about to go to New York; the actors were around and knew the play already, so I had this idea to ask them to come in, onto the stage, no set, no costumes, and just broadcast it live.
Have the shows succeeded?
The sales have been immense for all three. [“Lungs”] sold faster than anything that the Old Vic has ever done. So, in the fund-raising sense, it’s a big success. But that shouldn’t be overstated — this wouldn’t be enough to keep the theater afloat alone, but it’s made a really meaningful impact on the desperation of the situation.
And for audiences?
Clearly there’s a huge appetite out there for people to experience something of that live performance thing. Although this isn’t theater — it’s not equivalent — it gives people that experience. It’s like wirewalking, watching an actor go from one side of a play to another without slipping or falling, and there’s a thrill in that.
What about for you as a director?
The number of cameras that we use, the number of windows that are up on the Zoom, and the framing of course — wide, medium, close, and even overlaid — became devices for telling the story which of course aren’t available in theater. So I enjoyed that.
There are also parts you didn’t enjoy?
There’s no sense, at all, that you’ve actually done a show, really — there’s no immediate response, no sense of connection, nor is there an opportunity to go out and have a drink or something to eat. Everybody just goes home, individually. It emphasizes the isolation and the loneliness and the grimness of this whole thing that everybody’s living through.
What have been the biggest challenges?
Finding a play. And finding actors who are available, who have enough [of a] profile to do the fund-raising part of it in terms of ticket sales, and who are brave enough and game enough to go into a live broadcast with minimal rehearsals.
Why are London theaters doing more than New York theaters during this pandemic?
Are they? Don’t get the wrong impression: it does feel like we’re hitting our heads against a brick wall most of the time. But in doing these three plays, we very quickly got Equity to agree that we would pay everybody just a flat fee, and there are no royalty payments, and many people, when they’ve been able to, have given their fees back. There’s something about the unusual circumstances and the fund-raiser aspect which gives it a bit of an easy pass through some of these knotty issues that are hard to resolve usually, and that may be more difficult in other cultures.
How do you keep the actors and the crew safe?
We have the protocols that are pretty standard now. We provide private transport for the actors and the crew. At the stage door there is a thermal scanner. We do Covid testing every few days. And for social distancing our stage manager has a two-meter long pole.
Has anyone gotten sick?
Is it hard to find actors willing to take the health risk?
We found actors who weren’t willing, for sure. And we haven’t yet done a play that’s got anybody in their 60s, 70s or 80s in it.
Why don’t you allow an in-person audience?
We can create a stronger piece of digital theater if we’re not compromised by trying to play to a live audience at the same time. And until we can get more people in, it seems like it’s bending over backward to achieve something symbolic.
Why is it important to do it in your theater?
It’s a very powerful reminder of the situation that we’re in, and invokes some of those emotions of how exciting it would be to be sitting in those seats and watching live theater. It’s the best backdrop that doesn’t cost you anything that you could imagine — it’s both beautiful and poetic.
Why do you limit the number of tickets sold per performance?
I wanted for it to stand a chance of selling out, to create some sense of event and heat. And then, as we found out that tickets were selling, and we could sell more, we then collided with how many people we can actually log on.
Why do the prices vary?
It’s a fund-raiser. It’s about encouraging people to give what they are able to.
Why can’t people stream the productions after they air?
There’s a lot of prerecorded theater out there, and that’s fine. We’re trying to give an additional experience, which is that live experience. I don’t know that we’ll never rescreen some of these, but that wasn’t the deal we made with everybody, and our primary objective is to deliver live experience.
Will the series continue?
Yes. We are continuing In Camera through until our reopening, whenever that is. At the moment we are planning for “A Christmas Carol,” and three or four after that.
Why isn’t everyone doing this?
I think everybody is putting out their own fires right now and working on their own projects. People are coming up with some good stuff — drive-in theater, open-air theater, social-distanced work at the Palladium. You can see, popping up around you, creativity. And what you can’t see is the desperate effort by people fighting like crazy all day to stop their theaters from closing. Whatever it looks like from the outside, everybody is working flat out on something.
You work in London and New York. Which theater industry is managing this crisis better?
It doesn’t feel useful to be judgmental and comparative. We’re all suffering in our own ways, and what we need to do is to lobby to make sure theater can come back as soon as possible, and do what it does best, which is bring people together, and heal through entertainment.
Will you ever return to Broadway?
Yes. We definitely want to bring “Lungs” to Broadway. And “Present Laughter” with Andrew Scott. And when we eventually somehow get “4,000 Miles” [starring Eileen Atkins and Timothée Chalamet] up and running, that’s a show that is looking like an absolute collector’s item, and I have high hopes for it. New York is such an invigorating city at its best. It will be exciting when that gets rebooted, and I hope to be there and be part of it.