How one local theater streamed its shows after the shutdown

People’s Light joins the digital life of American theater with Jeanne Sakata’s ‘Hold These Truths'

6 minute read
People’s Light offers a rare chance for ticket buyers to see a filmed version of a production that would have been onstage now. (Photo by Charles T. Brastow.)
People’s Light offers a rare chance for ticket buyers to see a filmed version of a production that would have been onstage now. (Photo by Charles T. Brastow.)

In the past few weeks, I’ve taken in performances from San Francisco, Chicago, and Houston—all while practicing physical distancing in my New Jersey home. COVID-19 threw the theater community a curveball, leaving artists and administrators wondering how they would balance their budgets and personally make ends meet. The answer for many has been to migrate planned content online, including the notable contribution of Jeanne Sakata’s Hold These Truths at People’s Light.

San Francisco and Chicago to Philly

In California, which experienced an early surge in COVID-19 cases, the American Conservatory Theater filmed its productions of Branden Jacob-Jenkins’s Gloria and Lydia R. Diamond’s Toni Stone before shuttering. Access to each was made available on a sliding donation scale, beginning at $5 and continuing up to $100. I paid $25 for each and felt I got plenty of return on my investment—Diamond’s fascinating play, about the first Black woman to play professional baseball in the Negro League, was particularly well acted and sharply directed.

Chicago’s Goodman Theatre made Jocelyn Bioh’s delightful School Girls; or, The African Mean Girls Play available in exchange for a donation. Also in the Windy City, TimeLine Theatre’s staging of Philly playwright James Ijames’s Kill Move Paradise was captured for posterity. I relished the chance to see how a company unfamiliar to me handled a play I found extraordinary when the Wilma produced it two years ago.

Streaming this season

At a time when artistry and escapism are needed more than ever, these options have provided entertainment and relief to audiences stuck at home. They’ve also generated much-needed income for an art form temporarily stripped of its primary revenue stream. Of course, filming a performance requires resources that aren’t available to every theater company, and distribution involves a fair amount of red tape from trade unions and rights holders. Those facts may account for the paucity of similar recorded options coming out of our resident theaters here in the Philadelphia region.

To date, People’s Light is the only local company to release streaming content from this season through its website. When Governor Tom Wolf first recommended the suspension of large gatherings such as live performances in mid-March, the Malvern venue had a popular adaptation of Shakespeare in Love running on its Leonard C. Haas Stage, with a production of Jeanne Sakata’s Hold These Truths set to open on the smaller Steinbright Stage in a matter of days. The former closed abruptly; the latter never saw an audience. Both were filmed.

People’s Light was able to make Shakespeare in Love available only to existing ticket holders, due to an arrangement with the play’s rights holder. But Hold These Truths, which dramatizes the life of conscientious objector and internment defier Dr. Gordon Hirabayashi, can be streamed through May 3, 2020, for a donation of $35, which represents the production’s lowest ticket price.

The right moment

A company spokesperson told me the streaming agreement prohibits the material from being reviewed—a condition I intend to honor here. I’ll simply say Sakata’s drama is worth your time and money, especially with an actor as compelling as Steven Eng as Hirabayashi. (Eng effortlessly embodies dozens of other characters too, across age, race, and gender divides.) The play’s exploration of racism against people of Japanese descent during World War II feels painfully relevant as people of Asian descent around the world experience an uptick of racist violence.

Epic Theater Ensemble, a company cofounded by People’s Light producing director Zak Berkman, presented the New York premiere of Hold These Truths. “I did not know a thing about Gordon’s story, and I was flabbergasted that in my very privileged education, I somehow missed this critical civil rights activist,” Berkman told me by phone. “This is a story that needs to be shared with as many people as possible.”

Berkman has wanted to bring the play to our region since assuming his position with People’s Light in 2011, particularly given Pennsylvania’s deep connection to Quakerism, Hirabayashi’s faith. A one-night reading as part of the theater’s Community Matters series was a success.

Grateful to share this work with the audience: Steven Eng in ‘Hold These Truths’ at People’s Light. (Photo by Charles T. Brastow.)
Grateful to share this work with the audience: Steven Eng in ‘Hold These Truths’ at People’s Light. (Photo by Charles T. Brastow.)

“We had it on our radar since then, and we were just looking for the right moment,” Berkman said. “We thought that in the run-up to the election, it was a great time to share the story and look at the power of the individual—what [Hirabayashi’s] particular faith and hope in the ideals of our country can breed.”

Stage to stream

Technical rehearsals were set to begin the week of March 9, at roughly the time many performing arts organizations began suspending their operations. Berkman and the People’s Light leadership team had to think fast. Because the theater’s productions are recorded for archival purposes, they had a line to a videographer. Charles Brastow, the company’s director of production, adjusted the technical requirements to suit filming. A donor stepped in to cover the costs, and staff worked 12-hour days to set the plan in motion.

Filming Shakespeare in Love and Hold These Truths offered the impacted artists a sense of closure, according to Berkman. “It was hugely meaningful to them,” he said. “I actually did not anticipate the response from either group to be as strong as it was. It didn’t feel like they were ending something so abruptly. And many of them had family members who they really hoped would get to see it, and some had already canceled because of travel restrictions and concerns.”

In the room with Gordon

Reached by email, Eng echoed Berkman’s sentiments. “I am incredibly grateful to get to share the work with an audience who might otherwise never have the opportunity to experience this beautiful play,” he wrote. “I had family and friends throughout the country who had already made travel arrangements to see the show, and now they'll still get to share it with me, albeit from their own home screens. I think the more this play can have an audience, the more its message of inclusion and hope will have the chance to resonate.”

The recording will also be made available to school groups who had planned to see the production at student matinees scheduled throughout the original run. Despite the online availability, Berkman hopes that one day in the future, it will be possible to bring the play back to the People’s Light stage.

“I still fervently want the Malvern audiences to be in the room with Gordon,” he said. “It’s still on the top of my agenda to figure out how we can bring it back.”

I understand where he’s coming from. Nothing can replace live theater, and like any lover of the medium, I long for the day when it can safely return. Until then, I am taking comfort in the closest possible alternative. Companies like People’s Light have found a way to keep their flames burning throughout an uncertain time, while also offering their audience a chance to remotely support them. I’d love to see other theaters in Philadelphia follow suit.

What, When, Where

Hold These Truths. By Jeanne Sakata. Directed by Desdemona Chiang. Filmed on stage at People’s Light, 39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern, PA. Available to stream ($35) through May 10, 2020. Hold These Truths video.

People’s Light’s video of Hold These Truths is closed-captioned.

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