NEW YORK — It was the sound of virtual filmmaking heard halfway around the world.
“Okay, who’s not ready?” asked associate director Monet.
“Let’s set all the props,” Elliott said.
Then, at last, he added: “Okay, roll the cameras.”
With a cinematographer in California, actors in New York and London, and an editor in Tel Aviv, cast and crew members assembled digitally on this February weekend for an installment of that entrepreneurial challenge of 2021: Building a Show During a Pandemic.
The New Group, a popular off-Broadway theater company Elliott founded in 1995, was applying a starry cadre of actors to a towering classic, Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” The company has always spun off in intriguing dramatic directions: Championing the works of Mike Leigh, Kenneth Lonergan, Thomas Bradshaw, David Rabe and Wallace Shawn, Elliott has grounded his company in plays rich in boundary-pushing language and personality.
Now, as the shutdown of live entertainment enters its second year, he is deepening the New Group’s investment in a new, hybrid genre: the theater experience online, using state-of-the-art film techniques and stagecraft. Not merely drama presented in a wooden-feeling Zoom channel, but something adapted more ambitiously for a visual medium. The first venture of the company’s offshoot, New Group Off Stage, is this version of Beckett’s absurdist masterwork — a play set in the ether of the open-ended, existential unknowable. In other words, a play that’s fit for these harrowingly uncertain times.
“Ethan, actually, brought ‘Waiting for Godot’ to my attention,” Elliott said in a recent Zoom interview. “All of a sudden, I saw a human element to the play that I had never really seen before. I mean, to my surprise, I have to say, the excitement around this sort of innovation has given me thoughts that maybe this is something that could be here to stay.”
Theater and other performing arts companies from one end of the country to the other have been absorbed for the past 12 months in just staying alive. For many, that has meant gravitating to the Web, with video from previously taped productions, Zoom readings, and flirtations with Webcasts, radio plays and newly filmed works. Artistically and financially, the payoff has been spotty.
Few organizations have been able to make much money from virtual offerings. And because digital platforms are foreign to a form built on live audience contact, the productions often lack the energy and urgency that plays and musicals require.
Elliott and his Off Stage collaborators don’t know what to expect either. But even as the New Group plans for a return to live performance when theaters reopen — with, among other shows, a new musical, “Black No More” — it is developing a deep roster of online productions. Over the next year, that will include a Web series, “I Need Space,” by Donja R. Love; a new musical, “The Dinner,” with music and lyrics by Brandon Victor Dixon and Michael Olatuja; and new solo shows by Lypsinka and Richard Thomas.
“The great thing is there is nothing but possibilities,” said John Ridley, screenwriter of the Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave.” He wrote the book for “Black No More” and is producing the Off Stage program.
“It’s about love. It’s about right-sizing it and seeing who comes,” he adds. “We have the ability to tailor this to the audience. We’re talking about additional projects, additional delivery means, multiple platforming. However many people can see it, we’re down with that.”
The question is, can a stage-focused enterprise truly become a multimedia franchise? Other companies, such as Washington’s Arena Stage, have been experimenting online; its current project is a trio of original one-act musicals, starting with the Bengsons’ “My Joy Is Heavy!” and continuing with pieces by Psalmayene 24 and Rona Siddiqui. But are these placeholding exercises until the coronavirus all-clear signal? Or can the cinematic skills acquired during the shutdown be inculcated and expanded upon?
Elliott’s company offers a particularly promising test. A stage director with Hollywood film credit — he helmed 2000’s “A Map of the World” with Sigourney Weaver and Julianne Moore — Elliott has made the New Group a showcase for top-drawer writers and actors. Edie Falco, Susan Sarandon, Alan Cumming, Tonya Pinkins, Jesse Eisenberg and Dianne Wiest are just some of the stars who’ve appeared on his stage over the past several years. If a crossover between stage and Web might be forged, the New Group would be a logical site.
“You feel like you stare right into the howling, cold night,” Hawke said of “Godot” from North Carolina, where he was working on a film. He plays Vladimir to Leguizamo’s Estragon in this production, which was recorded over several days in February with each actor in scattered spaces. Wallace Shawn plays Lucky, Tarik Trotter is Pozzo and a fifth actor, and Drake Bradshaw, son of playwright Thomas Bradshaw, portrays the Boy. Hawke, who appeared in Rabe’s “Hurlyburly” for the New Group in 2005, signed on to “Godot” first; Leguizamo came to the project later, as the other half of Beckett’s beleaguered tag team, turning up in vain day after day, to meet a stranger who never fails to disappoint them.
Speaking by Zoom from London, Leguizamo explained that as a result of previous viewings of lighter-hearted versions of “Godot,” he was skeptical it was for him.
“I gotta be honest. I didn’t feel the sadness, the pain, the anger, the hunger,” he said. “And now, doing it, I allowed myself to feel all those things. Me and Ethan, reading to each other on Zoom — by week two, I started falling in love with it. Then I became addicted to it.”
“Godot” may be one of those rare classics that stands up to its characters being physically isolated; Beckett’s notoriously vigilant estate granted Elliott unusual leeway in translating the play to film, the director said.
“At first, our thoughts were very, very humble — like we would just record it on Zoom,” said Derek McLane, the Tony-winning set designer and a longtime Elliott collaborator. “But as we started to think about it, we thought, ‘Well, that’s not going to be very satisfying. We need it to have its own world.’ ”
What McLane evolved, in consultation with cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau, was a haunting visual aesthetic, with the actors enveloped in darkness, illuminated by beams of light emanating from behind. Morgenthau suggested using a high-tech Sony camera, which eventually was sent to each actor, with instructions on how to set it up. Set pieces were shipped, too.
“I’m sorry to get all nerdy about it,” McLane said, “but the camera has a very short depth of field, so that everything in the background goes out of focus and it just focuses on the actor’s face, which suddenly makes it feel like film as opposed to Zoom.”
That the actors had to multitask as their own film crews only intensified the pressure. But in a play so enigmatically open to interpretation, building spaces devoted entirely to their own characters was not strictly a disadvantage.
“I feel like there is something to be said for that isolation,” said Trotter, who also wrote the score for “Black No More.” “I felt like that spoke to a different sense of security, another line of defense, if you will. I felt like it was not only a curse, it was also a gift.”
Shawn described Lucky’s extraordinary monologue — an avalanche of verbiage — as “the hardest thing I ever had to memorize.” But just as unsettling was performing it into a void.
“What it lacked was the fun of sitting around with the other actors in a play,” he said. “Even in a movie, there is a lot of spare time when people are setting up the lights, and you can sit around and talk with the other actors, which can be enjoyable and even help to create relationships that benefit the play. It’s really one of the parts of acting that is most enjoyable. I missed that.”
“Nothing to be done” may be the defeatist opening words of the play, but, if anything, this “Godot,” which will premiere in early May, has persuaded the director to think about doing more in this vein.
“So much work has gone into it, and so much passion, and not just my own, that it would be silly to put a period on this,” Elliott said. “Let’s see what happens.”