Smartphones to the Rescue?

An Interview with Director Todd Felderstein
Feature by Willard Manus

Smartphone Theater can best be described as online stage reading or digital theater," said Todd Felderstein. Felderstein, a veteran stage, film and TV director, conceived of this project some months ago and has been hosting weekly presentations via the Zoom platform. Working out of his office in the midst of the pandemic, he appears on camera to introduce each play and to read stage directions. He has picked the plays, but they have been directed by others, who are also responsible for casting and rehearsing the actors. In all cases the participants are professionals working for free to bring theater in a non-commercial way to the public.

Thanks to sophisticated technology, the actors can work out of their separate homes but are seen face to face on a split screen. They must use all of their skill and training to relate to each other and bring the playwright's words to life. This new form which I have dubbed ZoombaTheatrer has proved remarkably effective in connecting with audiences. Will it continue to grow and evolve in future was a question that came to mind as I watched (and then participated as a playwright) in the project. This in turn led me to interview Todd Felderstein for
WILLARD MANUS: What motivated you to start Smartphone Theater? Is it something you have planned for years or was it triggered by the impact of the pandemic which has shuttered theaters and forced theater lovers to turn to their TVs, computers and smartphones for content?

TODD FELDERSTEIN: Smartphone Theater is the result of a moment. Prior to the stay-at-home order, I had a routine that was based around my career in film, theater, and attending the Actors Studio directing and play development units as often as possible. With life taking a very dramatic turn because of this global interruption, it occurred to me that we still needed a way to keep the creative community creating and connected. When the idea struck I came up with the name, bought the domains, starting learning the Zoom platform and then reached out to my theater family. Our first live stage reading launched days later on March 27th with Gena Acosta's Air Born and we have been "Live at 5p" every Friday since.

WM: What is the mission of Smartphone Theater? Do you intend to keep it going only as long as the pandemic lasts, or will you continue to produce plays once things are back to normal?

TF: This is certainly a question that has been on my mind quite a bit lately but the short answer is, yes! Since it doesn't seem that live venues are going to reopen their doors anytime soon, our current model will remain every Friday at 5p for as long as playwrights, directors, casts and audiences choose to continue. When the physical curtain does rise once again, which I hope is soon, the idea is to evolve Smartphone Theater into a platform that still serves the online public. Our mission is to bring live theatre into the home alleviating distraction, traffic and chaos that tend to steal our attentions. It seems to me that a livestreaming platform of new and somewhat new plays, delivered directly to your home computer would only inspire audiences to patronize theaters. I think livestreaming and live-attending work hand-in-hand. The goal is to successfully do both.

WM: How many plays have you produced to date? Please name a few of them: titles, writers' credits, names of actors and directors.

TF: As of May 20th Smartphone Theater has produced eight plays over eight weeks which includes one full length (Act 1 and Act 2 performing on two separate Fridays). Our playwrights include Gena Acosta (Air Born, Night Train), Jim Geoghan (Written in Ink), Eugene Butler (Confessions at a Wake), Will Manus (Checkmate), David Field (A Couple of Horses' Asses), and Peter Onorati (Under Construction). Directors include Peter Flood, Jonathan Levit, Sarah Gurfield, Greg Mortenson, Stu Berg, Katelyn Ann Clark, Shirl Hendryx, and myself.

Our first cast was with Catherine Carlen and Stewart Zully. Subsequent weeks have added Sofia Vassilieva, Gena Acosta, Curtis Belz, Tom Alper, Kimberly Green, Stewart Zully, Lisa Richards, Stephen Medillo, Annie Vest, Brendan Patrick Connor, Cindy Dolenc, Jennifer Lassalette, Brandon Irons, Lauren Francesca, Ellen Gerstein, and Michael Cavanaugh.

WM: Smartphone Theater seems to work best for short plays with only a few characters and limited physical action. Do you think, though, that this could change in future, when the technology becomes more sophisticated and the actors, freed from isolation, could work together out of your studio?

TF: Absolutely. As demand increases I believe livestreaming platforms will improve which will allow theater professionals to enable multiple cameras, switching, improved audio and stronger/more stable internet connections. Our first full-length play was made enormously successful through our limited technology and unlimited creativity. With a second full length planned for the beginning of June, I see many more in the future. Isolation doesn't have to be a hindrance but instead a motivation to do things differently.

WM: You are presently offering your series free of charge to the public (with the Zoom productions being archived on YouTube). If the series should evolve, will you try to find a way to monetize it-turn it into a profit-making enterprise for all concerned?

TF: How to turn Smartphone Theater from its current free model into a financially sustainable model is the big question that is being discussed which I hope will be answered in the handful of months ahead. But yes, a profit-making enterprise for all would be fantastic.

WM: How can interested viewers find their way to Smartphone Theater? Please give precise instructions. The same goes for those looking to find you on YouTube.

TF: Smartphone Theater is the name of our live stage-reading series and Website: (also Theater). The site provides information to future and past readings, casts, bios, and links to our YouTube page which is also called, Smartphone Theater. We also have a Facebook page called Smartphone Theater.