Lauren Gunderson rubbed her hands together in excitement.
“We’re about to get this playwriting class started,” said the prolific playwright, wearing her signature vibrant eyeglasses and a Shakespeare Theatre Company sweatshirt. She then spoke to her students for nearly an hour about shaping a story’s beginning and ending, crafting character-defining choices and penning effective stage directions.
Because of the coronavirus outbreak, the session Wednesday was no ordinary class. Rather, Gunderson led these lessons virtually and for free from her home in San Francisco, a region ordered to shelter in place. With her husband and two young children at home with her, she addressed more than 900 people tuning in live. By Thursday, viewership had grown to more than 23,000.
“Right now, there’s something about reminding ourselves about community and insisting on it even though we’re stuck in our houses,” she told The Times. “I think people are engaging because they believe theater isn’t going anywhere. They’re convinced that we will be back and we will need stories to get us back together.”
Gunderson, the most produced playwright in the country, has taught in-person classes at Marin Theatre Company. She got the idea to go online from her “Jeannette” musical collaborator, Ari Afsar, who had recently livestreamed a concert in Los Angeles. After announcing her plan on her social media accounts, Gunderson was quickly flooded with surprisingly specific questions about storytelling. Many came from high school and college students whose courses had suddenly been axed, their playwriting projects left in limbo.
“That convinced me that this doesn’t have to be just a fun distraction for an hour,” she said. “If this had happened to me in college, I would’ve been so distraught and frustrated.”
Gunderson is among many who have pivoted to public digital instruction in this moment of social distancing — many for free or at a low cost.
Jaclyn Backhaus led a virtual, two-hour session Monday evening about starting a new play for about 40 students. Last week the playwright and cofounder of New York-based Fresh Ground Pepper performing arts company learned that New York University was moving all classes online. She wanted to try out her usual pedagogy and get used to the Zoom interface before resuming her three playwriting courses onscreen.
“I’ve never done anything like this before, and as someone who operates in a writers group modality of teaching, I wondered if the internet might actually make the back-and-forth feel more accessible,” she said. “I thought, here’s a chance for me to learn more about this and reach some new folks who are bored and have nothing to do.
Backhaus offered the session on a sliding scale (from free to $25) and had viewers pay her digitally or donate to an arts organization. She was surprised by how well her methodology translated digitally.
“We did timed writing exercises, and we got through a lot,” she said.
The playwright was visiting her parents in Arizona when the pandemic evolved in New York. Her mother and her husband are also college instructors (at Arizona State University and NYU, respectively) and will also be teaching college courses virtually.
“My childhood home is now kind of a remote teaching center!” she said with a laugh. “We’re all helping each other and peeping in on all the Zoom tutorials from each other’s schools.”
Playwright and screenwriter Erik Patterson, who has hosted an informal playwriting workshop in Encino for more than a year, is moving his weekly meetings to Zoom. He was inspired by USC playwriting professor Luis Alfaro, whose class is now held virtually, and is limiting the meeting to eight people to allow enough time for peer reviewing — a valuable part of any writing workshop.
Weekly meetings for Bridgette Portman’s playwriting class (April 6-June 1, $200), last held at the Dragon Productions Theatre Company in Redwood City, Calif., will also be conducted on Zoom.
“It’s kind of great because some people couldn’t enroll last time because the commute was just too much for them,” she said. “Now that’s not an issue; it’s open to anyone anywhere with an internet connection.”
“As soon as I thought, ‘I can do something productive that might give people something to do in this time when they’re self-isolating,’ it made me feel a little bit less helpless,” Lee said.
Virtual playwriting classes are one of the ways the theater industry has shifted online amid the coronavirus outbreak. Actors’ Equity and licensing houses have granted rights to recorded and streaming productions, while Seth Rudetsky and James Wesley, as well as Rosie O’Donnell, are hosting concerts from their homes.
Even 24 Hour Plays responded with a “viral monologue” edition, with 20 socially distanced actors performing pieces written and filmed in a single day. And beloved New York show tunes piano bar Marie’s Crisis will remain open in a way, as its pianists will live-stream their sets.
“I have no idea what’s gonna happen, and it’s pretty scary, but we are an industry of creative, ingenious people who are problem solvers and love thinking outside the box,” said Lee. “We have the technology to do these things. We will adapt; we will figure out how to keep going.
“It’s a bad time for pretty much everything, except for finding ways to be creative.”