I’ve been writing about New York City arts and culture since May 2001, focusing on events that require people to leave their homes and venture out to museums, theaters, movie houses, restaurants, botanical gardens, clubs, and other venues to experience art, film, dance, plays, music, nature, and other forms of entertainment.
But as of March 12, all of that was shut down. I had anticipated that twi-ny would effectively be shut down as well, but to my surprise and delight many arts institutions, once they realized they would be closed for a long period of time, embraced the situation and began making works they presented over Zoom, Instagram Live, Facebook Live, YouTube, and their own sites. I was initially worried that I would not know what to do with the sudden free time I had — I’m used to going out five or six nights a week, covering whatever is happening in the city — but soon enough I was ridiculously busy watching and writing about the endless stream of productions being made for the internet and, often, about the pandemic itself, exploring ideas of loneliness and confinement and, once the George Floyd protests began, equality, racism, and freedom. It’s been exciting navigating through so much creativity and following how so many individuals and companies are experimenting with online technology in ways that are not only thrilling to watch but beckon toward the future, with the ability to reach a global audience all at the same moment, at the touch of a button.
And so, as we celebrate America’s 244th birthday — one in which we have come to understand that we have a lot of work to do to face a shameful past that continues into the present — and most of us will be partying from wherever we are sheltering in place, it’s also time to celebrate the ingenuity of actors, directors, artists, writers, musicians, composers, dancers, choreographers, journalists, comedians, thinkers, and others who are making this crisis so much more bearable than it could have been.
Below are the first of hopefully only two This Week in New York Pandemic Awards, honoring the best in live programming that took place between March 13 and June 30. The only rule is that there has to be a live facet to it — either occurring at that minute and/or with an interactive element such as a live Q&A or live chatting. Depending on how the reopening goes and with many arts venues unlikely to start having in-person audiences until 2021, we will be back in December for what we fervently hope will be the second and last Pandemic Awards.
BEST NEW PLAY
Arlekin Players Theatre, State vs. Natasha Benin, based on Natasha’s Dream by Yaroslava Pulinovich, translated by John Freedman, directed by Igor Golyak, performed by Darya Denisova. Filming live from their bedroom, married couple Igor Golyak and Darya Denisova collaborate with an inventive team to come up with an ingenious participatory experience that has been extended through July 12 (free).
The Public Theater, What Do We Need to Talk About? Conversations on Zoom, written by Richard Nelson, with Jay O. Sanders, Maryann Plunkett, Sally Murphy, Laila Robins, and Stephen Kunken. Richard Nelson adds an unexpected chapter to his Apple Family Plays as Richard, Barbara, Marian, Tim, and Jane gather together on Zoom to take stock of their lives once again in this poignant, moving work that closed June 28. But you can catch up on the clan again in Nelson’s follow-up, And So We Come Forth — The Apple Family: A Dinner on Zoom, which continues on YouTube through August 26.
BEST SHORT PLAY SERIES
The Homebound Project. Benefiting No Kid Hungry, each iteration of the Homebound Project consists of ten short pandemic-related solo tales by an all-star team of writers (Michael R. Jackson, Sarah Ruhl, C. A. Johnson, Sarah DeLappe, Qui Nguyen, Anne Washburn, Samuel D. Hunter, Bess Wohl, John Guare, Clare Barron), directors (Steven Pasquale, Leigh Silverman, Jerry Zaks, Trip Cullman, Danya Taymor), and performers (Amanda Seyfried, Daveed Diggs, Diane Lane, Blair Underwood, Phillipa Soo, Zachary Quinto, Mary-Louise Parker, William Jackson Harper, Jessica Hecht, Marin Ireland), streamed for a limited time; the fourth edition is scheduled for July 15-19 (minimum donation $10).
The 24 Hour Plays. These Viral Monologues are divided into thematic groupings called rounds that comprise intimate solo plays between four and fifteen minutes in length, with Tony Shalhoub, Marin Ireland, Daveed Diggs, Ashley Park, Santino Fontana, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Jake Gyllenhaal, Cynthia Nixon, David Hyde-Pierce, Maddie Corman, Michael Cerveris, Elizabeth Marvel, Brandon J. Dirden, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Ethan Hawke, and others in works by Lynn Nottage, Kristoffer Diaz, Donald Margulies, Lydia Diamond, David Lindsay-Abaire, Preston Max Allen, Jonathan Marc Sherman, and more, each iteration benefiting a different charity based on that round’s topic (free).
BEST PERFORMANCE IN A SHORT PLAY
Diane Lane, Let’s Save the World, written by Michael R. Jackson, The Homebound Project. Academy Award nominee Diane Lane is luminescent in Pulitzer Prize winner Michael R. Jackson’s bright, shiny tale about angels and hope.
André De Shields, “A Father’s Sorrow,” written by Shaka Senghor, The 24 Hour Plays. Tony winner De Shields is a force in Shaka Senghor’s “A Father’s Sorrow,” playing Elder Qualls, a priest whose son has been incarcerated.
BEST PERFORMANCE BY A HUSBAND-AND-WIFE TEAM
Mandy Patinkin and Kathryn Grody, Twitter, directed by Gideon Grody-Patinkin. Nearly every day, Gideon Grody-Patinkin takes out his smartphone and records his parents, actors Mandy Patinkin and Kathryn Grody, as they have breakfast, experience computer problems, discuss TikTok, and just live life during a pandemic; this is about as real as it gets, and it’s funny as hell.
Tony Shalhoub and Brooke Adams, Happy Days, written by Samuel Beckett, Plays in the House, part of Stars in the House, hosted by indefatigable pandemic MVPs Seth Rudetsky and James Wesley. After beating their coronavirus infections, Tony Shalhoub and Brooke Adams, who have been married since 1992, revisited Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, which they toured with in 2015, performing it live from their bedroom for Stars in the House, with proceeds benefiting the Actors Fund.
BEST PERSONAL STORY TOLD BY A PLAYWRIGHT
Lynn Nottage, “Pilgrims,” TrickleUP NYC Artists Network. Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage shared a remarkable true story about a tree in her backyard for TrickleUP, a grassroots subscription video platform (minimum donation $10/month) with short performances by a wide range of talent including Suzan-Lori Parks, Taylor Mac, Kathleen Chalfant, Lucas Hnath, Jane Houdyshell, Tonya Pinkins, Jefferson Mays, Rachel Chavkin, Miguel Gutierrez, Paula Vogel, Faye Driscoll, Thomas Jay Ryan, Dominique Morisseau, Basil Twist, Latanya Richardson Jackson, Alan Cumming, and many more, benefiting artists affected by the Covid-19 cancellations.
BEST REUNION READING
LAByrinth Theater Company, Our Lady of 121st Street, A LAByrinth Virtual Reading and Benefit, written by Stephen Adly Guirgis, with Elizabeth Canavan, Liza Colón-Zayas, Scott Hudson, Russell G. Jones, Portia, Al Roffe, Felix Solis, David Zayas, Bobby Cannavale, John Doman, Laurence Fishburne, Dierdre Friel, David Deblinger, and Elizabeth Rodriguez. The LAByrinth Theater Company gave a blistering Zoom reading of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s 2002 play about a group of people gathering for the funeral of a murdered nun whose corpse has gone missing; the acting, led by David Zayas and Bobby Cannavale, was the best I’ve seen online during this crisis.
BEST ZOOM SHAKESPEARE NOT IN THE PARK
Theater of War, The Oedipus Project, with Frances McDormand, John Turturro, Oscar Isaac, Jeffrey Wright, Frankie Faison, David Strathairn, Glenn Davis, Marjolaine Goldsmith, and Jumaane Williams, translated and directed by Bryan Doerries. Theater of War, which specializes in presenting ancient Greek and modern plays and examining them through a razor-sharp sociocultural lens, put on a stunning Zoom reading of several scenes from Sophocles’s Oedipus the King, followed by a community discussion about elder care, relating the play to what is happening in nursing homes during the pandemic; Oscar Isaac as the doomed ruler tore the house down with an unforgettable finale.
BEST ZOOM NOT-SHAKESPEARE NOT IN THE PARK
Molière in the Park, Tartuffe, directed by Lucie Tiberghien, with Raúl E. Esparza, Samira Wiley, Kaliswa Brewster, Toccarra Cash, Chris Henry Coffey, Naomi Lorrain, Jared McNeill, Jennifer Mudge, Rosemary Prinz, and Carter Redwood. Molière in the Park founding artistic director Lucie Tiberghien and cofounding producer Garth Belcon usually stage works by Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, aka Molière, in Prospect Park, but this summer season they have gone virtual, staging an exciting adaptation of Tartuffe on Zoom; the fab production design by Kris Stone makes it look as if the performance is taking place on the gorgeous estate of Orgon, one of the main characters. The cast features Raúl E. Esparza as the villainous scoundrel Tartuffe and Samira Wiley as Orgon (free; extended through July 12 on YouTube).
BONUS: BEST ZOOM BUM
Raúl E. Esparza, Tartuffe, Molière in the Park. Four-time Tony nominee Raúl E. Esparza shocked and excited the audience when he dropped trou during the first performance, setting the chat board on fire with squeals of delight from fans all over the world at the sight of his bare bottom.
BEST INTRODUCTION TO A PLAY
Simon McBurney, The Encounter. From May 15 to 22, St. Ann’s Warehouse streamed a recording of The Encounter, a primarily one-man play about human contact that uses sound in extraordinary ways, from his London-based Complicité company. McBurney stretches the bounds of what we think we see and hear in his spectacularly inventive lockdown-related introduction, toying with technology like a master magician with a fantastic, childlike sense of humor and wonder.
BEST THEATER INTERVIEW SERIES
Red Bull Theater Company, RemarkaBULL Podversations. Red Bull has been busy during the coronavirus crisis, presenting reunion readings of such previous productions as Coriolanus and The Government Inspector as well as talks with actors about specific speeches from the theatrical canon, what they call “RemarkaBULL Podversations,” including Elizabeth Marvel discussing and delivering the “Cry Havoc” speech from Julius Caesar, Michael Urie exploring the “Queen Mab” monologue from Romeo & Juliet, and Chukwudi Iwuji digging deep into the “Homely Swain” soliloquy from Henry VI.
BEST AWARDS SHOW
Broadway Black, The Antonyo Awards, directed by Zhailon Levingston. The inaugural Antonyo Awards was an eye-opening experience as the best in Black theater was celebrated in ways that the Tonys and others would never be able to; it was all the more powerful given that it took place on Juneteenth as the country was reaching critical mass over the George Floyd protests and the Covid-19 pandemic.
BEST LIVE OUTDOOR CONCERT
Dropkick Murphys: Streaming Outta Fenway, with special appearance by Bruce Springsteen. Boston’s Dropkick Murphys took over an empty Fenway Park with a ferocious two-hour live set that had me dancing like a madman in my home office. It reached a nearly impossible crescendo when Bruce Springsteen joined in from his New Jersey farm. The benefit for Feeding America, Habitat for Humanity Greater Boston, and the Boston Resiliency Fund can still be seen here; be sure to crank it up to eleven.
Hello from FitzGerald’s: @StayAtHomeConcert caravan with Jon Langford. British troubadour Jon Langford, of the Mekons, the Waco Brothers, the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, the Skull Orchard, and Wee Hairy Beasties, traveled through the streets of suburban Chicago regaling the neighborhood with jaunty songs delivered on the back of music club FitzGerald’s white truck, his saucy humor and lovely acoustic songs as intoxicating as ever.
BEST SOLO A CAPELLA PERFORMANCE
Brian Stokes Mitchell, “The Impossible Dream.” One of the most inspiring moments of the pandemic occurred nightly after the 7:00 clap as Tony winner Brian Stokes Mitchell, trying to regain his voice following a difficult battle with Covid-19, stuck his head out his West Side apartment window and crooned “The Impossible Dream,” changing a few words to honor the essential health-care workers who helped him and who continue to lead the fight against the virus despite the inherent risks. Mitchell had to stop doing it when the crowds reached unsustainable levels, making social distancing itself impossible.
BEST FACEBOOK LIVE CONCERT SERIES
Richard Thompson, couch concerts with Zara Phillips. Every few weeks, British musician Richard Thompson, one of the world’s great guitarists and songwriters, takes a seat in his Montclair, New Jersey, living room and performs tunes from throughout his fifty-plus-year career, joined by his partner, singer-songwriter and adoption activist Zara Phillips. Being able to see Thompson’s guitar playing thisclose is worth the price of admission — it’s free, but donations are accepted for the Community FoodBank of NJ — and his wry quips, delivered with a devilish smile, are a joy in these hard times. Thompson will be performing his brand-new pandemic EP, Bloody Noses, in its entirety on July 5 at 4:00; he is also thrilled to finally have a live gig, backing Phillips at a free July 15 outdoor show in Woodbridge.
Chick Corea, Piano Improvisation. Legendary jazz pianist Chick Corea, who turned seventy-nine last month, has been performing gorgeous piano improvisations on Facebook Live, a necessary respite on that platform from arguing politics with high school classmates you haven’t seen in years.
BEST INSTAGRAM MUSIC BATTLES
Swizz Beatz, Verzuz. Hip-hop producer Swizz Beatz is on a mission to support and celebrate living artists during this pandemic, and he is doing so by hosting a series of online battles between Alicia Keys and John Legend, Kirk Franklin and Fred Hammond, Bounty Killer and Beanie Man, Nelly and Ludacris, Erykah Badu and Jill Scott, and Babyface and Teddy Riley.
BEST INSTAGRAM DANCE SHOW
D-Nice, Club Quarantine. Harlem-born D-Nice was the first deejay to get the internet cooking once everything shut down, getting people up and grooving to his live Club Quarantine parties on Instagram.
BEST ZOOM MUSIC VIDEO OF AN OLD SONG
“Raise You Up,” Kinky Boots International Pride Cast Reunion, with Billy Porter, Stark Sands, Annaleigh Ashford, Wayne Brady, Harvey Fierstein, Cyndi Lauper, and more. Reunion videos are hot, but none captured the heat like this Pride anthem from Kinky Boots, performed by an all-star cast.
Modern English, “I Melt with You.” British band Modern English resuscitated its 1982 smash hit with a quarantine edition that is melting the internet, with leader Robbie Grey impressing not only with his vocals but his lockdown look.
BEST SOLO DANCE PERFORMANCE
Jamar Roberts, Cooped, WPA Virtual Commission, choreographed by Jamar Roberts. Longtime Ailey dancer Jamar Roberts’s Cooped is the most explosive five minutes to come out of the arts world during the pandemic; with fierce determination, Roberts investigates solitude, confinement, and the black body, set to a searing score by David Watson on bagpipes and Tony Buck on drums.
Sara Mearns, Storm, WPA Virtual Commission, choreographed by Joshua Bergasse. NYCB principal dancer Sara Mearns glides across her New York City apartment, stopping by the window to assess the world outside, in this sensitive, reaffirming work choreographed by her husband, Joshua Bergasse, and set to Margo Seibert’s rendition of pianist Zoe Sarnak’s “The Storm Will Pass Soon Now.”
Jaqlin Medlock, #GIMMESHELTER, Stephen Petronio Company. Native New Yorker Jaqlin Medlock dazzled in Stephen Petronio’s work choreographed over Zoom for the company’s gala fundraiser, performing breathtaking movement in her apartment.
BEST ZOOM DANCE
Martha Graham Dance Company, Immediate Tragedy, Martha Matinees, choreographed by Janet Eilber. Martha Graham Dance Company has been presenting classic archival footage in its Martha Matinees series, but for Immediate Tragedy, artistic director Janet Eilber reimagined Graham’s lost 1937 solo for a company of dancers over Zoom, moving around the individual Zoom boxes like a thrilling game of Tetris; just magnificent.
STREB, Body Grammar, choreographed by Elizabeth Streb. Elizabeth Streb’s Action Heroes, who combine acrobatics, athletics, and dance on unique apparatuses in jaw-dropping ways, focuses in on the performers’ heads, hands, feet, arms, legs, and torsos in an experimental work that would make Bruce Nauman proud.
BEST TELEPHONE OPERA
On Site Opera, To My Distant Beloved, Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte, music by Ludwig van Beethoven, song text by Alois Isidor Jeitteles, additional English dialogue by Monet Hurst-Mendoza, directed by Eric Einhorn, with soprano Jennifer Zetlan and pianist David Shimoni or baritone Mario Diaz-Moresco and pianist Spencer Myer. On Site Opera was in a bind during the pandemic, as the New York City–based company specializes in site-specific productions in unique locations. But it has come up with a splendid alternative, a twenty-minute performance adapted from Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte, delivered over the phone for one listener at a time. To enhance the romantic tale of longing, each listener receives emailed love letters prior to either a soprano or baritone calling you up and singing just for you, with interactive dialogue as well. You don’t have to know anything about opera to fall in love with this experience, one of the best — and most unusual — of the pandemic, and even better now that it’s been extended through August 9 ($40).
BEST INTERVIEW SERIES
92nd Street Y, 92Y Online. The 92nd Street Y has always featured a great lineup of guests from across the artistic, sociocultural, culinary, and geopolitical spectrum, and it’s been no different during the coronavirus crisis, with its doors on the Upper East Side closed for the near future. But that hasn’t stopped the Y from presenting live, online talks about just about any topic imaginable, with celebrities galore and hot-button issues. Many of the events are free, but you have to pay for some of the archived discussions. Our favorite is a free one with Pamela Adlon chatting with her friend Mario Cantone, a wild and woolly conversation that never lets up.
Ken Davenport, The Producer’s Perspective. Theater producer Ken Davenport has been one of the busiest guys during the lockdown, speaking with dozens of theater stalwarts about the state of the industry and what they’re doing during the crisis. Among his sixty guests have been Alan Cumming, Kate Rockwell, David Henry-Hwang, Jason Alexander, Marilu Henner, Kenny Leon, Jenn Colella, Santino Fontana, Ashley Park, Dominque Morisseau, and Kerry Butler, with Steven Pasquale, Danny Burstein, and Raúl E. Esparza coming up.
BEST FILM & TELEVISION REUNION SERIES
Josh Gad, “Reunited Apart.” Cuddly, lovable Josh Gad lets his fan-geek show by bringing back the casts of classic films from the 1980s and ’90s, and you might be shocked to see that just about everyone participates from wherever they are sheltering in place. So far he has brought together the cast and crew of Ghostbusters, The Goonies, The Lord of the Rings, Splash, Back to the Future, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, all of which can be watched for free on YouTube, with donations accepted for specific charities.
BEST ART TALKS
The Frick Collection, “Cocktails with a Curator,” with Xavier F. Salomon. Frick chief curator Xavier F. Salomon has become an internet sensation, hosting “Cocktails with a Curator” every Friday at 5:00, exploring in depth a work from the Frick Collection, relating it to the current crisis, and selecting a cocktail to accompany the fifteen-minute talk. His warm, genteel, engaging demeanor, vast historical knowledge, and love of highballs are just the recipe for an art-starved public. You can also catch him on Wednesdays going around the world in “Travels with a Curator.”
“Art at a Time Like This,” curated by Barbara Pollack and Anne Verhallen. Curators Barbara Pollack and Anne Verhallen have been asking the question, “How can we think of art at a time like this?” since March 17, when they began exploring existing and/or new work by one specific artist a day, Monday through Friday, putting it in context of the Covid-19 crisis and, later, the George Floyd protests. Among the impressive list of participants are Ai Weiwei, Chitra Ganesh, William Kentridge, Petah Coyne, Dread Scott, Laurie Simmons, Mel Chin, Alfredo Jaar, and Mary Lucier. Pollack and Verhallen have also hosted weekly live, interactive Zoom discussions with many of the artists, examining fascinating aspects of the intersection of art and politics. Of course, their basic question focuses on painting, sculpture, video, and installation art, but it also relates to dance, music, theater, literature, film, television, and more. How can we think of any of this at a time like this? All of the above awardees, and everyone else who is creating art during a time like this, should be justly celebrated, not only for entertaining and educating us, but for shining a light on what the world may be like on the other side of this.