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ArtsPass logs on to Internet theater

Service gives auds intimate exposure of creative process

During a recent tax audit, playwright Susan Miller got a surprising question. “What,” asked her IRS agent, “does a play writer do?” Thus came a swift reminder that to the uninitiated, the theater can seem hopelessly foreign.

Miller — whose Obie-winning work has played at the Public and the Mark Taper Forum — was spurred to lift the theater’s veil. Her friend Richard Humphrey provided the means.

Humphrey is the CEO of Arts4All, a for-profit media company that helps performing artists harness the potential of cyberspace. Anchoring the company’s work is ArtsPass, a subscription service that produces online programming designed to give audiences intimate exposure to the creative process.

Recently, for example, violinist Mark O’Connor appeared in the small Gotham studio where most ArtsPass material is recorded. He not only performed but also answered questions from a live Internet audience.

This is just one way performers might interact with online spectators.

Humphrey wants ArtsPass programming — which has also featured singer Jane Monheit and the cast of “Wicked” — to help artists reconceive their audience in digital terms.

“We’re all about working with intellectual property,” he asserts, “and creating the most exciting content for digital space. There are no rules. We’re constantly inventing new models to deliver this material.”

The newest model is the Ten Minute Plays Project. Conceived and coordinated by Miller, it will record every step of the creation, rehearsal and performance of six short plays, all produced in the ArtsPass studio.

Eager to share this process with the world, Miller says, “Here we have a manageable and exciting way into the theater, a way into plays for people who can’t pay a fortune or who don’t live in a city like New York.”

In other words, an audience that watches the Ten Minute Plays will have no doubt what a playwright does. They may even be encouraged to visit a newly demystified theater.

But are rehearsals exciting to watch? Humphrey enthuses, “Artistic process is riveting entertainment” because it shows art evolving into life.”

Of the key groups ArtsPass targets — arts lovers, artists, students and educators — those in school have proven the core constituency. (Educators can receive a discount off the $9.95 monthly fee.)

The Ten Minute Plays Project may yet embrace other digital models.

Whereas the behind-the-scenes material will be edited and post-produced, there may be a live, interactive final performance.

If this happens, the plays will exist somewhere between theater and film: not created for the screen, yet not appearing before a live audience.

This ambiguity doesn’t phase Miller, who notes, “You could take whatever we do here and put it in a theater. We’re still actors and directors and writers working in a room.”

Theatrical intimacy, then, remains at the heart of the playwrights’ goals. And since the first rehearsal was only taped in early March, they still have several weeks to dream up strategies for reaching their disparate — yet electronically linked — audience.

Humphrey has strategies, too, about sending arts content to a global constituency.

ArtsPass, for example, has been approached by the cell phone industry about beaming culture onto handheld screens.

There are signs that ArtsPass won’t enter the future alone.

Collapsable Giraffe, a downtown New York theater company, recently began live Webcasts of rehearsals and may broadcast performances.

In the realm of digital animation, the U. of Georgia’s Virtual Vaudeville project presents meticulous re-creations of 19th-century comedians performing their routines.

In all cases, the artists say they’ve barely tapped the technology’s artistic possibilities. That, however, is the creative point. “I’m not sure where this opportunity will take us,” says Miller, “but why not say yes to it?”

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