Updated: May 15, 2021
COVID-19 and social distancing requirements have closed most theatres. Tragically, some will stay closed permanently. Some theatres will recover. But these lucky ones may reawaken to a new normal.
We already have many questions about how theatre, if it (a) does, as a profession, manage to hang on and its people produce live shows as they have for millennia, and (b) how they will actually accomplish that.
I've recently sat in on several discussions among professionals about how theatre artists will continue to ply their trades. No one seems to have a clue how it will all pan out. I don't really expect them to know. I don't have much of a clue either, FWIW. But I do have some thoughts.
The answer to everyone's big question: Yes, of course, theatre will continue. Because for a couple of thousand years so far, despite pre-COVID-19 pandemics, innumerable wars, catastrophic natural disasters, and The Lion King, nothing has managed to kill it.
Theatre always emerges stronger, as it will in this case, because it now has thousands of new and important human stories to tell. As Jeff Goldblum would have said in the sadly-never-filmed Jurassic Mamet, “Theatre life finds a fucking way.”
Not only will it survive, it will flourish--undoubtedly and indubitably. Because we humans need and cannot do without the thousands of personal stories told to us by friends, relatives, and live performers. Patti Digh, in her book “Four-Word Self-Help: Simple Wisdom for Complex Lives,” wrote: “The shortest distance between two people is a story.” Theatre is really just dressing up these stories and letting only your close friends play the parts.
Nothing can replace live storytelling, and nothing ever will.
But how will it survive? In what form? Are the days of too-small seats and surreptitious elbow-angling for joint armrests over?
At least for now, yes.
What will theatre in the days of social distancing and viral contamination look like?
Some theatres have already had the foresight (and hefty budget) to embrace “The Tech” and this is a three-pronged benefit:
• It satisfies the inevitable requests to provide opportunities for folks to view a production they missed when it was originally presented.
• Theatrical archives are eminently useful for later analyses of script, acting, and technique.
• It lets people see plays not available in their own area.
Live performances by virus-free actors and crew will be streamed. Computer and personal devices, which most of the people in the theatre-available world have, can act as both senders and receivers. Just imagine Facetime-ing The Vagina Monologues. The Tech has already bridged the gap between our massive geographical distances; people thousands of miles away are now at arm’s length.
I posit that, because of the ease of viewing (and as long as prices are affordable, if not free), theatre audiences will undoubtedly increase.
For years now, podcasts (including my own, Onstage/Offstage [onstageoffstage.org], in which we showcase the work of artists and technicians from virtually all theatre professions) have been broadcasting audio versions of plays. Now we have easy video in the form of Zoom and similar apps, all publicly available and all relatively simple to learn and use. It's very much like what Garage Band and Pro Tools did for the music industry--they put the tools in the hands of amateurs.
We have to stop looking at this as “what we no longer have,” and start looking at it as “these are the tools we now have.” Think about it: Good plays are all about unbalancing the status quo. Evolution works the same way. Stability is good, but it has always been temporary. Without periodic apple-cart-toppling, humans would rarely change their perspectives.
Granted, we now have Zoom, a communication boon. But how long will our play performances resemble Hollywood Squares or the TV intro to The Brady Bunch? At the moment the medium is what it is, and we have to adapt our profession to it and create specifically for it. But, as with all technological progress, our needs will dictate the changes to come.
I believe The Tech will provide, at first with viable alternatives for our previous practices while concurrently expanding our production choices. What will we ask for in future upgrades? Will we still Zoom on actual hand-built sets or situation-specific virtual backgrounds--modern-day digital cycloramas? How will The Tech handle lighting? Sound? Will it do it all in “post,” that is in the computer? Will it, if this virus throws us new curves, allow us to represent live actors with avatars or computer-generated figures? Will COVID-19 turn us into Pixar? Will we soon have “Zoom for Theatre”?
I'm a playwright, and I know that if all theatres were suddenly converted to Taco Bells I'd still keep writing, and so would many of my colleagues. Because this is what we do. And we’ve done it on street corners, storefronts, and outdoor malls. We are specifically built to tell stories destined for live, immediate performance. And we will undoubtedly find a way to produce them.