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Nearly three years after Sean Hayes ended his 14-week run as the man upstairs in David Javerbaum’s An Act of God, he’s returning to the role. And this time, he has the potential to reach a much larger audience than the 800 or so at Broadway’s Booth Theatre.
Hayes has recorded the play, with Colman Domingo and Cheyenne Jackson, for Audible’s millions of members as part of the Amazon-owned company’s push into audio plays and other theatrical works. “It’s wonderful for people who don’t have access to theater,” the Will & Grace star says, adding that now-pal Bill Maher, who missed the show’s 2016 engagement, “can hear it.”
Audible isn’t looking to disrupt the theatergoing experience — in fact, the company is in the second year of a long-term lease with Minetta Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village to stage live performances of many of the plays it’s also bringing to listeners, including Carey Mulligan in Girls & Boys and Alan Cumming’s upcoming one-man show, Legal Immigrant. The company began its push into producing original theatrical works with 2017’s Harry Clarke starring Billy Crudup at the Vineyard Theatre. The following year, it brought the project back at Minetta Lane. In all, Audible has released 11 downloadable original audio plays under the Audible Theater banner with more on the way.
Kate Navin, Audible Theater’s artistic producer, says the goal of the program is to “expand the reach of these performances” and also give Audible’s creative partners new media through which to tell stories. “It really comes out of that desire to facilitate what the creative community wants,” says the former Gersh agent who joined Audible in spring 2017.
A critical piece of Audible’s theater initiative is a $5 million fund to support the work of emerging playwrights. The first project to result from that program is Chisa Hutchinson’s Proof of Love, a one-woman show following the story of Constance, who must face uncomfortable truths about her marriage and herself after a tragic accident splinters her upper-class black family. The production, which will open May 14 starring Brenda Pressley with director Jade King Carroll, will also be recorded and released as an audio play. “It’s huge to think that my work could actually reach so many ears all at once,” says Hutchinson. “That exposure is really exciting.” So far, 25 commissions have been announced with new writers selected annually.
While it might seem contradictory for a tech-enabled platform like Audible to focus on physical productions, Navin says that the Minetta Lane relationship is key to the company’s theater push. The partnership with the 390-seat theater gives Audible the ability to stage productions of varying lengths depending on the availability of talent. And many projects are recorded live before being delivered to Audible members.
Audible’s platform also makes it possible to reach audiences outside of the theater. An Act of God, for instance, was not staged at the Minetta Lane, but Hayes was able to record a version that members everywhere can hear when it becomes available June 4. “The experience of theater can be so fleeting,” says Hayes. “Audible allows people to experience the show no matter where they are.”
The early response to the program has been promising, per Navin. While Audible doesn’t disclose specific audience numbers for a project, she says that — based on the number of downloads — Girls & Boys would have filled a standard Broadway run for 26 weeks.
The audio plays are even inspiring non-New Yorkers to seek out theatrical experiences. Says Navin: “We got feedback from somebody who said, ‘Because of Audible Theater, I’ve paid attention to my local theater and I went and saw a play,’ which is my dream.”
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