How to Build the Future

A vision for a sustainable theatre.
April 21, 2020

Alley The Alley Theatre in Houston Texas (via)

There are several different scenarios for how this whole COVID-19 situation can play out, but two prominent ones come to mind.

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. 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.”

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?


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