Now Playing — A “Playhouse 90” for the 21st Century

The Pandemic has shuttered New York Theatre, and London is operating with limited capacity. Live entertainment is on hold. Yet the desire for story-telling, the urge to see something new is greater because we are all in various stages of lockdown. Artists are a bit like nature in that they abhor a vacuum, and where there is a theatrical void, artists will try to fill it. That brings us to a new venture by Jay Michaels and Mary Elizabeth Micari — “Now Playing” will be a new theatre streaming service on “CHANNEL I”.

StageBiz: First off, tell us about CHANNEL I.

Jay Michaels: When the pandemic started and theatres closed and film shoots were halted and the financial strife it delivered, it was obvious that live theatre and all film but especially indie film would change forever. Then I noticed the myriad ways artists found to keep their art alive – Zoom plays, film shot utilizing all social distancing guidelines –- I realized that there are some really clever ideas now hatching.

While nothing replaces sitting in live theatre or in a movie theatre in terms of energy and excitement, so many positive things have come from this time. The stage and screen playing field is now leveled so that established professionals and emerging artists have the same opportunities; live performance art can now be presented to audiences around the world. There is no concern for theatre size limitations. Also, with everyone looking for entertainment, audiences are more likely to experiment with a little-known film. Yes, many will flock back to the theatre when this illness is controlled but –- in my opinion — we will NOT be turning off our screens completely.

I created CHANNEL I because I wanted to create a site that can utilize the accessibility that online theatre offers, bring together companies that might not have heard of each other into to one accessible site and provide an augmentation to the theatre-going experience.

Jay Michaels

Consider Netflix. You might tune in to see The Queens Gambit and then you might “channel surf” to Lovecraft Country or any other show that you may never have heard of without being on that particular platform. My partner, Mary Elizabeth Micari, and I created CHANNEL I with the same intention. Now audiences and artists alike can see their friends perform in a particular show or view their new film and then afterward, while they’re there they might see that their favorite play was done by another company so they might watch that production, or tune in to a movie about a subject important to them, and so on.

Mary Elizabeth Micari

We added interview programs that speak to artists about their work. We have broken it down into particular tastes and now you can see what the director of a new indie film went through for his movie and then you might learn about why there is a Shakespeare conspiracy; then learn new techniques on wellness; then learn gift ideas for collectors; then you’ll hear what another theatre company is doing with a reading series on Zoom and beyond.

When the doors open again, these programs can be valuable tools of promotion to theatre and film companies. When a play opens anywhere, you can still hear from the artists involved about what they did to create it. I am planning to turn the Zoom interviews into live ones, bringing my camera to theatres on a dark night and speak with the cast and then upload to CHANNEL I. We see it now with Broadway –- you’ll buy tickets to the next hot show on B’way then tune in to an interview with its leading actor then watch a preview, etc. Now indie theatre –- that is Indie Film and Off-Off Broadway — can have the same advantage.

Stage Biz: What prompted you to start Channel I and Now Playing?

Jay Michaels: Two things. I was called non-essential. It was true but maybe after years of defending my choice of a not-always-lucrative occupation, I took it to heart and I imagined I wasn’t alone in thinking this way. I utilized my podcast (In The Passion Pit on Podbean) as an opportunity to speak with fellow indie artists about what they were going through. The stories amazed me. There were artists whose day jobs had put them in grave danger of contagion; others who volunteered to help others; others who were working on ways to keep theatre and film alive through new technology or fostering innovative ways to use Zoom. My quest to find kindred spirits ignited an idea. I decided to create a video program where I could talk to indie artists of stage and screen. I love horror films since childhood and so I decided to reach out to indie filmmakers of horror, sci-fi, and fantasy … and that was very successful!

Then a friend approached me and we thought it was time that there was a live discussion focusing on Shakespeare and the Authorship Question. Then, after completing a short film and interview program, I met individuals famous for collecting rare and interesting memorabilia like movie items and toys. I thought that would be another fun topic to explore. Considering the pandemic, and the need to re-examine wellness, Mary thought the time was right to talk about homeopathic cures, herbalism, meditation, and other healing.

Stage Biz: What is “Now Playing?”

Jay Michaels: NOW PLAYING is my version of Playhouse 90 – the great [live] broadcasts of teleplays done in the early days of television IN THE 1950’S. I imagined a cyber theatre where someone can click a link and see a Zoom version of a Tennessee Williams play, then click another link to a workshop of a show that closed a year ago, then watch a videoed rehearsal of a show that will not be able to open due to pandemic or finances then click another link to a series of short films or maybe a web-series. It gives Off-Off Broadway and Indie Film/TV a longer life; it allows them to get a larger audience due the cyber accessibility, and in some cases to simply give a play or film a life when there once was none.

I am a college professor, so the educational value here was also important to me. I thought that it was important to have so many yet-unknown works and discussions with their artists at the fingertips of students around the globe. I would even broadcast plays and films done many years ago that now are a memory. Imagine being an actor with a recording of what you consider your best work but you can just show it so far on your own platforms. Now you have a more far-reaching one.

The challenges I now face with NOW PLAYING are manyfold. I will need to work with each individual company and with the various performance unions in order to have proper permission to broadcast live theatre and completed films. I will also need permission from all participating artists – be they actors, directors, writers, even technicians.
Basically, LEGALITIES will be my main challenge. Right now, NOW PLAYING only has a small number of plays and will have a few more in January when the Channel begins in earnest. THERE IS A LOT OF WORK AHEAD and this is a tall mountain to climb, and, of course, I want it done right – for all concerned.

Also, I have to consider maintaining quality of work. I have already received scores of videos of plays going far back as a decade. Some are amazing and need to be seen but the quality of the video is poor. I have decisions to make on each project. I will have to decide if it’s worth it to show the work or unfortunately hand another death sentence to it now due to a shaky cam in the back of a dimly lit house with bad acoustics. I hope that – to that end – I can offer some form of recording service so future productions can be recorded at compelling quality. Another idea to flesh out!

Stage Biz: You have a great many other interests in entertainment, so how does this fit in?

Jay Michaels: This has become a galvanizing force for me. Since the early 80s, I’ve worked as a stage and film director and actor; then as a producer; then as a marketing and promotions executive; then as an interviewer and promoter. This platform allows me to be all those things.

Stage Biz: What role do you think it can play in the development of new works?

Jay Michaels: Imagine a new play on the channel with a survey attached! It would be like having an out-of-town tryout at your fingertips! This will allow indie filmmakers to see indie theatre and maybe collaborations can be made turning plays into films.

Additionally, there are indie films right now that are brilliant, but they live on individual YouTube channels. This could be a place where they can be seen by indie film lovers who never knew of their existence. Channel I lets you see works you might not have ever known existed, and then see a chat with the creators and cast, and then learn an interactive mechanism to contact them and so on. We have all watched a movie or TV show that we came upon because someone else thought it was good. I imagine audiences that can “experiment” and watch an indie film or Off-Off Broadway play without leaving their chair. Interested audiences could even watch a few minutes on their phones and if it’s good, switch to the larger screen. How thrilling would it be for an indie artist to say “you can see my play … right now … on your phone.”

Further, if interest is ignited, they can watch and learn about the industry through the other interview programs. How great it would be to be able to get to know the director of a new film or to learn that the playwright is telling an autobiographical story or that the killer in a horror film is really a nice guy or simply where you can an autographed poster!

I look to the music industry as an example. If you had to buy an album you might pass on it if you weren’t sure it was your taste, now you can click on Spotify or other platforms and learn about new forms of music. How many of us have enhanced our tastes with a click? Yes, artists have rightfully exclaimed that it takes away revenue in terms of purchasing their albums but at the same time, imagine how many people now know who they are who never did and those same people will follow them to live shows and purchase even more of their music.

Stage Biz: Thanks to the pandemic, are we likely to see a blurring of the line between film, TV and streaming theatre? Has it already happened?

Jay Michaels: Yes. And we are not going back. There has been enough positive feedback even during this devastating situation to say with surety that Zoom, Streamyard and other platforms are here to stay. In NYC, we see real estate taking a plunge because many corporations have found that employees working from home help their bottom line. Benevolent businesses might now put that rental money into benefits for their staff and workers.

Even something like new play festivals where you get three or four showings (that usually include a Tuesday at 2pm). Imagine the power of knowing that after the show has closed, there is the possibility of a recording of being available or that even if you don’t live in NYC, you can participate in the grittier and more experimental world of Indie Theatre. I’ve co-produced several film festivals during this pandemic and even that has profited. I’ve been part of festivals that would serve as host to hundreds of people now have thousands log-on to see the films involved. We see “studio” motion pictures run in the cinemas for a time and then appear on streaming services. We see Broadway and operatic productions appear on The Met’s website or on Broadway HD. Why not take that great play or compelling film that lasted 72 hours appear (after reasonable downtime) on Channel I. They do that now with blackout periods in-between festival showings.
Stage Biz: How will Now Playing help us “get back to normal” in the theatre world?

Jay Michaels: There was this hilarious meme that went around when the pandemic first began that stated “do like you do when a friend asks you to see their show … stay home” well, now we can say to audiences around the world, “watch my play on your phone whenever you some time;” “but I don’t have 90 minutes;” “well, then watch as much as you can then watch the rest later” Then when we get back to normal … “I can’t make it’” “That’s OK, I’ll send you the \ link to the broadcast on Channel I in XX months when it becomes available.”

I know so many people who have never collected a comic book but have seen every Marvel movie. How many people out there have the wrong impression of Off-Off Broadway or Indie Film. Channel I will let them see an entire world of innovative art. Maybe, it could even grow theatrical audiences! Imagine a tourist coming to NY to see a show in the East Village in a 55-seat house and then heading to a cabaret because they became fans of both on Channel I.

Look, I know there will be those that will say I’m “helping kill live theatre” but really that’s not possible. There was once ONLY theatre, then there was film and theater may have dipped but certainly did not die and frankly only grew; then there was TV and BOTH media dipped but only grew, etc. We are already looking at a dark night of the theatrical soul due to financial hardships that plays, artists and theaters themselves are facing. There is no replacing live theatre. Regardless of cost and availability, we will ALL return to NYC, have dinner, see a show and maybe attend a cabaret afterward. It’s the experience we are now pining over, but when you REALLY can’t make it but want to show support. Tune in to Channel I.

I look at it like I look at Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who. Right now, everyone is looking at the dust speck called Streaming TV as the only [reliable] source of entertainment. I believe that Off-Off Broadway and Indie Film needs to aim its collective voice in that direction and scream “WE ARE HERE, WE ARE HERE.”

Maybe that can be a slogan … CHANNEL I – WE ARE HERE.

Stage Biz: And where can people see it?

Jay Michaels: Here is the link [] . Once there are enough subscribers, I will be able to rename the link and once there are more after that I am looking into making it a ROKU channel. thanks Mr. Michaels for his time, and we will be expanding our reviews to include NOW SHOWING and projects on similar platforms and channels. The theatre is not dying so much as it is evolving.

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