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Coronavirus: Theater Wit’s ‘remote viewing’ aims to be the first of its kind

Leaders at the Lake View company hope the experiment can be viewed as a model for artists who hope to continue on during the pandemic.

Director Brian Balcom (green long-sleeve t-shirt) gives notes to the cast during a rehearsal of “Teenage Dick.”
Charles Osgood

Chicago’s entertainment industry has seen one cancellation and/or postponement after another due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

A prominent member of the Belmont Theatre District wants to keep the shows going — and make sure the cast and crew is compensated.

While Theatre Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. in the Lake View neighborhood, has suspended all in-person seating for its shows, the creative team behind “Teenage Dick” is ready to unveil “remote viewing” for the reimagining of Richard III, the disabled main character from William Shakespeare’s play.

Remote viewing starts Wednesday. Here’s how it works:

MacGregor Arney (left) plays Richard and Courtney Rikki Green plays Anne in Teenage Dick. | Charles Osgood
  • Viewers buy a ticket for their desired date and time — same as always.
  • Viewers receive an email with a private, personalized URL and password to watch a recorded performance on Vimeo at the specified date and time. The recording, shot Monday, was edited to provide close-ups and full coverage of the staging.
  • There are only 98 viewing streams — the same number as Theater Wit’s capacity— available for every performance.
  • At the end of every performance, viewers are invited to join the cast and fellow audience members for a live post-show discussion over video conference.

The show, which can be viewed on a computer, smartphone or tablet, could be seen as a refuge from the dire situation for theater companies, many of which are asking ticketed consumers to donate the price of their tickets rather than ask for a full refund.

Director Mike Lew’s play portrays Dick, a class president candidate with cerebral palsy, maneuvering the brutal politics of high school. Remote viewer tickets are $28.

Theater Wit’s original response to the coronavirus scare was to continue live performances of “Teenage Dick” but limit seating and also sell tickets to watch a live stream remotely. That was before Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered all bars and restaurants to close to the public at end of business day on Monday.

“After the governor’s announcement, if you can’t gather in a bar or restaurant, you can’t gather in a theater; he didn’t say ‘theater’ but I can read the spirit of it,” said Jeremy Wechsler, Theater Wit’s artistic director. “You can see what’s happened in other countries. ... We were supposed to open, you are concerned that people aren’t gonna get to see the work.”

Next, Wechsler, who described ticket sales as “not bad,” put together a plan looping in the actors and their union, with something that would be fair to the well-being of the actors.

He hopes the play can be viewed as a potential national model for theater companies who hope to continue on during the pandemic.

“We’ve already reduced the amount of physical contact between actors, as much as the script allows,” Wechsler said. “After today [Monday], I think there’s a real ethical concern about gathering a group of technicians and actors together in one space, you know. We’re going to go into social isolation here, so I don’t know how many theaters you are able to get to do this.

When the theaters are allowed to reopen, Teenage Dick’s cast will return to perform the show live and in-person, theater officials said. And, more important, the cast/crew will be paid the full performance rates for the duration of the run.

Monday’s performance that took place in front of a private audience of 40, was for social distancing, according to theater officials.

Theater Wit isn’t the only local theater house that’s experimenting with unorthodox practices. Annoyance Theatre has created a GoFundMe account called a “Countdown to Quarantine” to raise funds to live-stream a show that highlights how nine people, locked inside the theater at 851 W. Belmont, interact while being quarantined during a pandemic. The 10-day process will culminate in a live-streamed original show directed by artistic director Mick Napier.