Theatre has always been a dying art form. It’s meant to be that way. After all it is a reflection of life: eternally cyclical. In the COVID-19 era though, it seems the theatre industry’s livelihood is hanging on by a continually thinning shred of hope. And in some ways I am admittedly oddly grateful for this time of pause. Regardless, the once timeless saying, “The show must go on” no longer rings completely true.
Broadway houses are currently dark. Small theatres and studio spaces throughout NYC are slowly closing their doors for good. While Trump can throw a presidential tantrum over a 6,000+ turnout to his rally during a time of quarantine, such a turnout is essentially unheard of in the theatre industry. By CDC guidelines, theatres are one of the highest risk areas in the face of COVID-19. The average Broadway house has 500+ seats which are undeniably closely packed together. Prior to coronavirus it was already hard enough to fill every seat (Tickets are expensive; making theatre is expensive. It’s a problem.), and now it would just be unsafe.
Originally Broadway League has announced a potential re-open date to come sometime after Labor Day this year. Now it is official that Broadway will remain dark through the rest of 2020. Beyond the dark Broadway houses, many smaller theatre companies have either cancelled their current seasons or re-adjusted their current programming in order to be broadcast on video services like Zoom.
That’s where this conversation really starts, with the importance of live audiences.
Making theatre is a collaborative process where a group of people build a new world together. The common notion that theatre is magical can come from its conception alone. At its best, theatre combines multitudes to create something completely new and one of a kind.
Theatre is salad: an incongruous mixture, and its incongruity is actually exactly what makes it work. Theatre is a massive juxtaposition. For example, it’s staged but it feels real. Everything is orchestrated to appear naturally spontaneous. Theatre’s artifice is its life force and a live audience sustains that night after night.
A live audience is a critical component to the making of theatre. Every performer and every thing on the stage is meant to be in conversation with the audience. Live performance is an exchange of energies between performers, audiences and, often, current events. Live audiences keep the performers fresh, and current events can easily change the impact of the text. No performance is ever exactly alike.
Yes, theatre can still happen in real time on video services like Zoom. But the collective experience of real time shared under the same roof disappears. Sharing emotions of joy, pain, and everything between with a mass group of, essentially, strangers is a powerful experience.
This shared experience is exactly what differentiates theatre from other storytelling mediums like film and television. And yet, this shared experience is exactly what now presents a threat to our physical health.
Now, what about our mental health?
Theatre is often thought of as a welcome, inclusive environment ready to embrace anyone who dares to enter. Well, you have to dare to enter. That alone should clue you in that it’s often neither that warm nor that fuzzy. Recent reveals of the theatre industry’s deeply ingrained racist, sexist, homophobic and elitist attitudes may come as a surprise to some. To anyone in the industry, it isn’t a surprise at all — rather a long overdue awakening.
Broadway, the capital of the theatre industry, lives on old money. Old money is white, male, straight — it’s MAGA (Make America Great Again). Old money funds white supremacy and white supremacy thrives on the exclusion of communities who aren’t white. That is where lack of representation and tokenism begins in the United States.
The entertainment industry is notorious for working backwards to “solve” its lack of diversity and inclusion problem.
Even when a play by a BIPOC playwright does get a fully staged production, it’s not uncommon for the play to be whitewashed. Now, theatres are smart about this. If audiences see representation on stage or on the screen, they’ll assume all else is fine. But what about the roles behind the scenes which are just as crucial?
The director and designers (Costume, Sound, Lights, Scenic) begin building the play’s physical world in a pre-production process long before any actors enter the room. Of course research should always be done, but theatre is often founded in deeply personal truths. How can a story first written by a BIPOC playwright then be built with similarly acute insight into a physical world by a team made up of only white artists? It can’t. And it negatively affects the whole process.
At the beginning of this article I said, “I am admittedly oddly grateful for this time of pause.” Um, what?
Theatre is meant to be holistic, not showy. That’s another juxtaposition. I know I’m about to sound idealistic, but I don’t care: I love theatre and I want it to be recognized for the collaborative art form I realized it to be in academia on a national scale. Good theatre can be life-altering. Bad theatre has its perks too — it teaches you what not to do. But it’s time for good, progressive, insightful, challenging theatre to be at the forefront of its own industry again. Yes, there was Hamilton which, for the record, does have its own problems. But more recently, everyone’s sleeping on playwright Michael R. Jackson’s meta and incredibly timely Pulitzer winning musical, A Strange Loop — not on Broadway, because it was too magnificent for Broadway.
I’ve been trying to look at this pause as an opportunity for the theatre industry, for a lack of a better phrase, to “air out its dirty laundry.” It’s a lot more than dirty laundry. And it’s not going to happen immediately, especially when it’s been claimed to have already been happening. But finally, it’s going to start. And I truly hope that Broadway will never be the same again. What about you?
What do you hope to see when Broadway returns?
Diversity and inclusion!
I want it to just go back to normal.
I like virtual theatre!