MUNICH — When playhouses throughout the world first closed their doors in the early days of the pandemic, many scrambled to upload recorded performances to their websites as a way of staying connected to their audiences. The result was an overwhelming — but short-lived — explosion of archived theater that varied in artistic and technical quality. Virtually all of it was free.
Since then, a growing number of theaters have flirted with pay-per-view formats, devoting lavish resources to professionally filmed productions for online premieres. Along with ensuring that the show goes on, these pay-per-streams are designed to test the hypothesis that people are willing to open their wallets for quality shows they won’t find anywhere else.
It took decades before anyone figured out how to successfully charge for media content on the internet. It’s easy to forget just how difficult it was to convince people that digital subscriptions were worth paying for. That pay-per-view theater has taken off so quickly seems one measure of how the pandemic has changed the way people consume culture.
Here in Germany, theaters like the Volksbühne, in Berlin, and the Bavarian State Opera, in Munich, are finding that audiences starved for culture are willing to fork out significant sums to virtually experience the drama that they love and miss.
Perhaps nowhere else have these streaming efforts been so focused and abundant as at Schauspiel Köln, the main theater in Cologne, in western Germany.
In little more than a year, its pandemic-era streaming platform, Dramazon Prime, has become an increasingly sophisticated and flexible online showcase. Indeed, its programming has evolved to something resembling an actual theater schedule, with nightly streams of new and recent productions.
And despite the bad play on words, the platform’s name indicates that, even early in the pandemic, the Cologne theater had a key insight: When they offer programming online, playhouses are no longer merely competing against other local venues for audience attention. They need to contend with streaming giants like Netflix that lure us with the promise of endless “content.”
Dramazon Prime’s recent schedule shows how Schauspiel Köln is attracting virtual audiences with finely wrought streams of everything from traditional to experimental productions that tinker with formats reminiscent of film and TV.
Recently, the theater unveiled its most elaborate digital production to date, a six-part mini-series based on Christopher Marlowe’s “Edward II.” Cheekily updating the 1592 tragedy for the streaming age, “Edward II: The Love Is Me” is a sendup of Netflix costume dramas, with sitcom and soap operatic touches. Each episode runs between 20 and 40 highly stylized minutes, with glamorous sets (it seems to have been largely shot in a shuttered luxury hotel) and costumes that liberally mix Elizabethan dress and modern styles.
This “Edward II” was directed by the young German director Pinar Karabulut. As in her recent “Mourning Becomes Electra” for the Volksbühne, she shows a flair for pop cultural pastiche — but it threatens to overwhelm the production. She wears her movie mania on her sleeve, and one often tires of all the fangirl references to the likes of Scorsese, Tarantino and Luca Guadagnino. There’s sex and camp and violence galore.
The most consistently enjoyable parts of the series are the lavish opening credit sequences, which establish a slick, tongue-in-cheek tone that the episodes struggle to sustain. The more sexually explicit installments are prefaced with disclaimers that the actors have all been tested for the coronavirus, and advise viewers never to engage in unprotected sex, in an apparent sendup of American “trigger warnings.”
A more distilled version of theatrical madness packaged as film is “Black Water,” a short feature based on the latest play by Elfriede Jelinek, the Austrian Nobel laureate. “Black Water” had its world premiere in Vienna shortly before the pandemic hit, in a production that ran to three and a half hours; the Dramazon Prime version, by the theater’s artistic director, Stefan Bachmann, is a mere half-hour. It features six of the company’s actors reciting bitter and often darkly comic monologues in a cocaine-fueled bacchanal, trapped in a freight elevator and, later, huddled together on the floor of a bathroom. There’s lots of belching, Red Bull-guzzling and expulsion of bodily fluids. And I would be hard pressed to tell you what any of it means.
Even when dealing with more conventional stage works, Dramazon Prime seems committed to making online drama that is more than a secondhand theatrical experience.
Bold camerawork and editing distinguish Bachmann’s production of Wajdi Mouawad’s “Birds of a Kind,” which premiered before a live audience in September. For its stream (which is subtitled in English), the theater enlisted the cameraman Andreas Deinert, who devised a rigorous and restrained visual style that cuts between wide- and split-screen compositions to show the characters from multiple perspectives. In the end, the cinematography and editing are far more impressive than the play itself, a sprawling and overwrought family saga set against the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with dialogue in German, English, Hebrew and Arabic.
A more harmonious blend of stagecraft and camerawork comes in an emotionally shattering version of “The Grapes of Wrath.” Rafael Sanchez’s production sets the action of John Steinbeck’s vast American tragedy in various backstage sites, with simple props to suggest the locations crossed by the Joad family on their journey from Oklahoma to California during the Dust Bowl years. Sanchez is the Schauspiel Köln’s in-house director, and his production (also subtitled in English) succeeds at being at once epic and intimate.
As with all the Dramazon Prime streams, you pay what you want to watch “The Grapes of Wrath”: For most productions, you can select a price between 1 and 100 euros. According to Jana Lösch, a theater spokeswoman, people tend to choose amounts that reflect what they would ordinarily spend for a night at the theater. Even so, online ticket sales don’t nearly cover the theater’s operating costs, let alone generate profit, Lösch said.
I’ve heard similar things from other theaters: Nobody’s expecting to get rich from selling online tickets. Then again, state-subsidized theaters in Germany, such as the Schauspiel Köln, do not rely on box-office receipts the same way Broadway or West End venues do. Generous government support for the arts here in the best of times means theaters and other culture venues can still forge ahead in the worst. But state largess is not enough to ensure the show goes on. For that, you need determination, creativity and a willingness to experiment with new formats and aesthetic possibilities.