What a time to be alive.
Like a lot of theatre artists, I’ve been really worried about what the future looks like for theatre. And I’ve seen a lot of HOT TAKES on this so let me acknowledge that
- American Theatre lives in the artists, not the institutions. It is incorrect to say that American Theatre is dying. It is alive and will always live within the artists. The institutions provided a space and resources but the art lives within us and that’s what makes theatre unique.
- Theatre cannot come back like other fields can. Actors can’t social distance. It’s against their job description. Yes, you can perform to an empty audience but you cannot perform at a distance. You cannot do a quick change while maintaining social distancing. Or a load in. To say the solution is to “return to the basics” is a slap in the face to playwrights, actors, tech crew, and every single person in the rehearsal room. I have two basic 2-two handers that happen in one location with limited tech needs. And even I can acknowledge, that even that play cannot be staged while maintaining social distancing.
- A lot of theatre artists are mourning right now. Let them. I’m not saying people in every industry aren’t hurting but I can’t speak to the specific hurts other industries are facing. I can speak to theatre artists. My production friends, my touring road crew friends, my playwright friends, my theatre friends are hurting. Our art form absolutely depends on other people. It’s collaborative but many of us have lost a lot this year. I was supposed to have three world premieres this year. Aside from the lost income, there’s also a loss of a moment that could’ve potentially changed my career. And I know I’m not alone. I don’t know a single playwright who hasn’t lost a production. And that’s a hurt I don’t even know how to describe.
- Now is a great time to re-evaluate what theatre became and what it was on its way to turning into before the pandemic. One of my friends call theatre “high art” and I kinda hate that. It shouldn’t be this exclusive, unaffordable experience while artists who bring the work to life are living paycheck to paycheck. The inequity in theatre is appalling and now’s a good time to evaluate and change. I hope many institutions are taking the time to (a) invest in new work and (b) reflect on their practices and revise them to be more equitable.
All of that aside, and there’s so much more than that, let’s talk about virtual programming. It’s the future right? And there are some really great things about it. It’s more accessible. It allows for different kinds of programming to happen. And I know we’re all supposed to jumping all in because we don’t have a choice and we’re resilient.
Resilient is slowly becoming a trigger word for me. I am exhausted by the need to be resilient instead of nurtured. Yes, survival skills and being able to pull yourself off the ground are admirable skills (very American dream) but they shouldn’t be necessarily all of the time. That’s how trauma is born. When you can never take a break, when you can never take a breath, when you have to constantly re-invent yourself because there are no systems in place to protect you…that’s traumatic. And I’m not using that word in a hyperbolic sense. Resilience is great but so is support. So is feeling like you have a community you can trust to fall back on.
So, as resilient as we’re all being, it kind of makes me wonder why we have to be. And why we had to be even before the pandemic. Theatre wasn’t thriving. Gatekeeping and appropriation were running rampant and people of color and women were still fighting just to get in the door, just to get heard. Don’t even get me started on QPOC or trans* theatre artists.
What if as we pivoted to virtual programming we also pivoted to who we’re choosing to showcase? What if we use this moment, a moment in which theatre has been the most accessible in my lifetime, to finally tell the stories we haven’t been telling? What if we took more “risks”? (Also, calling trans + QPOC stories “risky” is offensive.) And what if after the pandemic we continued on with that same energy? The whole “Our audience wouldn’t like this” or “We can’t reach out to a younger audience” is not a real thing anymore. Because with virtual programming, yeah, you can. What if we took this moment to redefine our audiences?
Look, I’ll be the first to say it. A virtual staged reading is not anything close to a reading in a theatre with an audience. Especially if, like me, you write really fast-paced dialogue. It’s harder to pick up on cues and sometimes the internet cuts out so it’s harder to hear. I understand the problems and there are many.
But that isn’t a reason to not try. Let’s get weird with it. Because why not? Who knows when we’ll have this chance again? We’re all mourning (I know I am) but if we could move through our grief and then build something stronger than it’s ever been before?
What if we took the steps now to do the hard work we had been ignoring before so that when we come back, we have created something we can all be proud of?
I don’t want to go back to how things were. We were broken. Let’s instead challenge ourselves, check our values, and move forward. Let’s break what we have, what we had, and let’s build something that’s more accessible, more inclusive, more everything.
I love theatre. I’ve been having a moment of deep panic. I love theatre and I love teaching and both fields are changing forever and may not exist the same way after this. And that’s scary.
But when I think about how much work we could be doing now to make sure we’re not returning, we’re reinventing…well that’s exciting.
I want to be excited again. Don’t you?