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There are several different scenarios for how this whole COVID-19 situation can play out, but already it has exposed all our country’s injustices—notably our awful racial inequality in public health.
That said, two prominent scenarios come to mind for how this will unfold for the future of crowds:
The first is that we slowly start to re-open things over the course of the year (with precautions like mandatory masks), don’t experience a resurgence or spike, and things approach a “new normal” baseline by the end of the year. There will still probably be restrictions on crowd size in that scenario, but it might not be as bad as we think—it depends on how much testing we do, the amount of tracking we have, and the resulting amount of data that that give us. (There are still so many statistical unknowns.)
The second situation is that we start to see a spike as rural and Southern states start to re-open, we can’t get our act together with testing and tracking, and we clamp down on social distancing for the foreseeable future, until we have some sort of vaccine. The latter situation probably means that any sort of large crowd—of the kind that almost all theatre would fall into—would be a no-go until the vaccine is circulated, or until things seriously start to calm down.
As we get more news every second, I go back and forth on whether it’s likely that theatre will exist in some form by the end of the year (if the first scenario plays out). I think it’s possible, in some partial form. But we need to prepare for the possibility that theatre as we know it will not exist until 2021 at the earliest. Already, summer theatre is almost all off the table—Shakespeare in the Park is the latest cancellation. And this isn’t even to mention that many theaters are going to have to shut down because of the financial situation—already, UCB has closed all its NYC locations. I expect there to be several more large theaters to close down as well.
This time of forced pause is going to lead to a lot of introspection, both on a micro level (do I want to devote my time to a career this fragile?) and a macro level (how can we rethink everything in theatre?). Many Artistic Directors are already thinking this way:
Said Chay Yew [outgoing artistic director of Victory Gardens], “We’ve always complained about how the American theatre doesn’t work. I for one find the blank slate exciting. We either repeat what we did before or we don’t. The structure will have to come down."
Joe Haj [artistic director of the Guthrie] conceded that if the crisis “ends in six weeks, we may be much like we were before. But if not, or there’s another spike in the virus, we may need to rethink our model entirely. There’s a huge role for leadership. We need to be able to dream ourselves forward.”
# How to build the future?
It’s really got me thinking: what would a truly sustainable, accessible, and scalable future look like for theatre?
There’s a lot to that question. It’s what I’ve probably thought the most about in the last year, and want to continue to develop thinking around as we move forward. What could we build? (This piece on building by Marc Andreessen was thrown around tech twitter a lot this week. Lots of issues with it but I agree with the sentiment.) Here’s a quick, informal list of things to cover:
Digital Platform: The last major movement in American theatre was in the 70s and 80s, with regional theaters and off-off Broadway, a distinctly pre-internet time. Theatre has seen little to no adaptation to modern technology, outside of some small developments. What a digital platform exactly looks like for theatre is the big question, but I would want it to be something that would allow for: easier ways to raise money for theatre, easier means to access space, easier means to access audiences, and cheaper and more accessible means for audiences to find and access theatre. (Great streaming theatre, like NT Live, would be a start.)
Trans-media: How can companies become trans-media storytelling companies? Can theatre companies create content across different forms, like audio, video, immersive live theatre, etc? Digital content is, by its nature, much cheaper and more accessible than theatre.
Money: A double whammy: theatre doesn’t pay its workers enough money (excepting Broadway), and it also is too expensive for audiences. This is an obvious—and huge—problem.
Environmental sustainability: Theatre’s ephemerality means it often can be pretty wasteful. For how progressive theatre often pretends to be, we haven’t thought enough about how to not only lessen the environmental impact of theatre, but also to engage with that issue.
How to be like music: Streaming music didn’t kill the music industry. Streaming music, though it has its fair share of problems, has not killed concert attendance. Live experiences are still craved above all else. Even watching Beyoncé’s Homecoming on Netflix makes you want to be there—it’s one piece of a greater puzzle of the whole of music.
Marketing: We need more creators like Jeremy O. Harris, who create their own marketing in their work. Theatre has traditionally done an awful job at this, and that’s why its audience is increasingly old. How can the future of theatre be marketed completely differently?
# 🗒 Notes from the Week
# Quarantine Time
I really like unstructured periods of time personally, but creating a routine is not easy.
The deserving winners:
Best Play: Heroes of the Fourth Turning (Will Arbery)
Best Musical: A Strange Loop (Michael R. Jackson)
Special Citations: David Byrne and the Broadway production of American Utopia; Deirdre O’Connell for career excellence including her performance in Dana H.; the New York theater community for perseverance in the face of loss during the COVID-19 pandemic
# Online theatre offerings
Playwrights Horizons is offering free playwriting masterclasses with Will Arbery, Clare Barron, Michael R. Jackson, and Larissa FastHorse.
You can watch New York Theatre’s free online masterclasses on their Facebook, notably with artists like Jeremy O. Harris.
Many theaters are also starting podcasts of different forms. I covered Soundstage last week (though I was much less taken by the second episode, by Robert O’Hara). Geva Theatre started an excellent interview podcast, as well.
You can watch Michael Urie in the one-man show Buyer & Cellar, which he did for free live on Youtube from his apartment, as part of a benefit for the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS COVID-19 Emergency Assistance Fund. (It’s available for only another day or so.) Helen Shaw thinks it’s proof-of-concept for streaming theatre’s power.
And this is bringing me joy:
# Vinson Cunningham on Unproduced Theatre
New Yorker critic Vinson Cunningham is starting a great column covering unproduced plays he’d love to see put up. I loved this week’s on the amazing Kathleen Collins (highly recommend her film Losing Ground). Last week’s on Jean Toomer’s “A Drama of the Southwest” was also excellent. And the artwork is by the fantastic Xia Gordon.
# Fiona Apple
Fiona Apple’s “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” has generated a once-in-a-decade amount of hype (complete with a “perfect 10” from Pitchfork). It’s a wild and terrific album, and I look forward to giving it some deeper listens. I loved this thread from Jeremy O. Harris: “What follows are all the Shameika’s who said I had potential…co-curated by Janicza Bravo”
# Films to Stream
# Peter Brook’s Golden Fish
I think about this quote from There Are No Secrets all the time. It’s relevant to anyone that makes live art. And I think it’s equally important to keep in mind as we explore the new frontiers into which theatre can be pushed.
There are theatres that aim simply at producing a good ordinary fish that can be eaten without indigestion. There are pornographic theatres that aim wilfully at serving fish whose guts are clogged with poison. But let’s assume we have the highest ambition, we only wish in performance to try to catch the golden fish.
Where does the golden fish come from? We don’t know. From somewhere, we guess, in that collective, mythic unconscious, that vast ocean whose limits have never been discovered, whose depths have never been sufficiently explored. And where are we, the ordinary people in the audience? We are where we are as we enter the theatre, in ourselves, in our ordinary lives. Thus, the making of the net is the building of a bridge between ourselves as we usually are, in our normal condition, carrying our everyday world with us, and an invisible world that can reveal itself to us only when the normal inadequacy of perception is replaced by an infinitely more acute quality of awareness. But is this net made of holes or of knots? This question is like a koan, and to make theatre we must live with it all the time.
# End Note
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See you next week!