New company Stagecloud offers theater, Netflix style

Matthew Reddin, Staff writer

If you’re reading this, it isn’t too late to see theater company Stagecloud’s first production in Milwaukee, Hyperreality Show. It just looks like it is.

The show, a series of four one-act plays running at In Tandem Theatre, closes on Aug. 16. But after that date, the show will get an afterlife, as the first work to be available on Stagecloud’s innovative theater streaming service.

Streaming services are increasingly the way people watch films and television programs, but Stagecloud founder and artistic director Sean Douglass says his company is the first in the country to try it with live theater, although individual theaters in the United Kingdom have experimented with the form. He originally came up with the idea while working as a playwright in Chicago, where he was frustrated by the inability of his friends and family around the world to see the work he was doing. “I thought it seemed like a fundamental thing theater had never really explored,” he says.

Douglass’ model is simple, and familiar to anyone with a Netflix or Hulu subscription. For a low fee — in this case, $2.99 a month — subscribers get access to the Stagecloud library, which will include full plays (recorded by The Stage Channel, a Chicago company that produces promotional videos for theater companies) as well as behind-the-scenes content, exclusive podcasts and video interviews with members of the theater industry. The latter are already in regular production, with Stagecloud currently featuring interviews with playwrights Frederick Mensch (writer of HBO film Nightingale) and Martin Zimmerman (writer for Netflix’s upcoming series Narcos), among others. Full plays will be added as they are produced live — Hyperreality Show will be the first, followed by another every three months or so.

It’ll be a slow build at first, but Douglass is hopeful that as Stagecloud gains subscribers and clout, the company can either produce more plays in a given season or work with other companies to film their productions and put them on the site. He’s even open to developing a sponsorship model, where Stagecloud offers funding to other companies in exchange for filming their shows, and share in the profits of that recording. “I think it would be mutually beneficial, to companies that are non-Equity,” Douglass says.

It’s that caveat that represents Douglass’ biggest stumbling block. Actors’ Equity Association, the labor union representing stage actors, heavily restricts the recording of productions featuring Equity actors, and it would be effectively impossible for Stagecloud to ever record and present an Equity show. But while that means Douglass has little to no chance of ever presenting a production by the Milwaukee Rep, or Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, for example, he says he has more than enough opportunities outside those restrictions.

“We have very talented actors, and I don’t think the non-Equity status has been a hindrance to the quality of the production,” Douglass says. “It made it more difficult to cast, just in the sense that a lot of actors are Equity … (and) it might lead us to choosing shows that have younger casts, but not necessarily.” He adds that, if Stagecloud is successful, it’s possible Equity could revisit its rules about recordings, with Internet streaming in mind.

Stagecloud is meant to be a mobile company, and Douglass has contacts in Milwaukee, Chicago and New York whom he plans to rely on alternately. But Milwaukee made sense as a place to start. While much of Douglass’ experience is in Chicago, he grew up in Milwaukee and is living here now.

Hyperreality Show includes four plays, all written by Douglass and each dealing with contemporary pop culture and the media. The plays range from more traditional rethinkings like Telenoverla, a parody of a Mexican telenovela, and Fairytale Ending, an after-happily-ever-after story of a Disney-esque prince and princess as their marriage matures, to more unconventional narratives like Brad and Mr. Sorkin Write a Movie, an imagined tale of Sorkin’s follow-up to The Social Network dealing with the origin story of Pinterest, and A Group of People Have a Conversation about Science and Religion Over the Internet, a transcription of actual comments between arguing users on a YouTube video.

After the run of Hyperreality Show, the plays will go up online for subscribers, and Douglass will begin looking to the future — an as-yet unconfirmed project in Chicago in November and getting the word out about Stagecloud.

By this time next year, his goal is for Stagecloud to have a strong national audience, a base from which the company can expand further, sharing more theater with more people, and making it more relevant in the process. “We don’t look at theater as being something that everyone enjoys anymore. … (People) don’t realize that theater can be contemporary,” Douglass says.

ON STAGE — AND SCREEN

Hyperreality Show runs through Aug. 16 at Tenth Street Theatre, 628 N. 10th St., Milwaukee. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at stagecloudtheater.com or intandemtheatre.org. After the run of the show, Hyperreality Show will be available on Stagecloud’s website. Subscriptions are $2.99 a month; a free one-month trial is currently available.