Sandra Marvin had just dropped her plants off with a friend in March, in anticipation of a three-month U.S. tour performing in the musical comedy “Romantics Anonymous.” She checked her phone and got a message that there might be what she called “a small hiccup” in the company’s travel plans owing to growing concerns over the coronavirus. Within days, the tour was called off.
Almost six months later, “Romantics Anonymous” is on the road again. Sort of.
But instead of the production traveling to its original tour destinations of Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Charleston, S.C., audiences in those cities and others will take turns coming to the Bristol Old Vic in England — virtually — over five consecutive nights.
The livestreamed performances, which begin Sept. 22, will feature the creator/director Emma Rice’s original 2017 staging in its entirety, complete with sets, choreography, a seven-member cast and even onstage kissing. The only modifications to the script, Rice said this week, will stem from the absence of an audience in the theater.
“We are all nervous,” said Rice, who first presented “Romantics” (which features music by Michael Kooman and lyrics by Christopher Dimond) at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in London during her time as its artistic director. (“Sweet-natured and giddy” was The New York Times verdict on the show, a Gallic romance centered on two timid chocolatiers and the titular support group.)
“The thought that we might all get to be together again and make music together again and forget what’s happening for a few hours is intoxicating,” Rice added. “Let’s see what we can make happen safely and joyously.”
In the latest of several attempts to replicate, or reimagine, the live experience when many countries have severely curtailed and even forbidden indoor theatrical productions, the “Romantics” cast, musicians and crew will spend the first 10 days sheltering in place at their respective homes.
They will then be transported in private vehicles to an apartment block around the corner from the Old Vic for the last two weeks. Everyone involved will be tested for Covid-19 at the beginning and end of their first quarantine, then weekly while together in Bristol.
“On the whole, we haven’t been looking at theater all that much for ideas because there aren’t that many examples,” said Poppy Keeling, executive producer of Wise Children, the Bristol-based company that Rice created after leaving the Globe. “We’ve really been looking at what TV and film have done in this country, with very clear, government-ratified guidance for getting that industry back up and running.”
Simon Baker, the production’s technical director and Rice’s partner, performed in a similar capacity on the popular June livestreams of the Duncan Macmillan play “Lungs” at the Old Vic’s London theater. Its popularity may have had a lot to do with the starry two-person cast — “The Crown” co-stars Claire Foy and Matt Smith — but that modified production demonstrated the possibility of guerrilla filming.
“We realized that the technology had really come down in price and we could do it ourselves,” said Baker, who plans to use a camera crew of just four.
As with the virtual cinema model, where audiences choose which of several movie theaters to support with a home ticket purchase, “Romantics Anonymous” viewers in the United States can select one of six presenting organizations as their venue.
Joining the original three U.S. destinations — the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, the Shakespeare Theater Company and Spoleto Festival USA — are St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, Berkeley Rep in California and Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
In each case, the selected theater will split the proceeds with Wise Children. Tickets will cost 15 pounds (about $20) in advance and go up to 20 pounds (about $27) the week of the performances. Information can be found at wisechildrendigital.com or at the individual presenters’ websites.
With no limit on tickets, it is hard to determine the financial prospects of the five-performance run. “We’re taking a huge risk,” Rice said. “We know how many tickets we have to sell to break even, but we have found underwriters in case it’s a disaster.”
In keeping with the idea of a touring production, the first four performances are exclusive to specific regions of the United Kingdom, beginning with a Sept. 22 show sponsored by seven theaters in Scotland and the north of England. The sole U.S. performance will be the final one, at 4 p.m. E.D.T. on Saturday, Sept. 26. And the creative team hasn’t ruled out the possibility of additional performances, although that would require the entire cast and crew to quarantine longer.
The series of livestreams will give everyone the chance to learn from the previous performance’s mistakes, according to Rice. “The experience will be like a typical theater show,” she said. “We’ll all meet at the end of the night and talk about what can be done better.”
While Keeling lamented that those nightly talks won’t happen at a local pub, Marvin — who plays three characters in “Romantics” — is looking forward not just to being on the stage after almost half a year, but also to sharing that stage with so many colleagues.
“I live by myself,” she said. “This will be the most people I’ve been around since March.”