If you’re getting sick of screens, it might be time to turn to live theater
If you have seen photos of New York City during the era of COVID-19, you know how dramatic it looks: Times Square empty, the TKTS stairs with the view of countless iconic marquees and billboards chained off, and the lights of all 41 Broadway theaters dim. Inside those theaters, props and plush seats are accumulating dust, and light fixtures must be seeing plenty of cobwebs by now. Since March 12, when a Broadway usher tested positive for COVID-19, the theater industry’s epicenter has been silent and still — along with countless stages across the country. Not only that, but it will remain that way well into next year, with the earliest re-opening set for March 2021. Unlike the many TV shows (yes, like “The Bachelorette”), late-night comedies, and even movies that have been able to resume production, live theater can’t really work around the pandemic. It’s live. There’s an audience — that’s the point. And COVID-19’s curtain call is demonstrating exactly how big of a difference that makes.
Don’t get me wrong, the theater industry is not giving up. The world of performance is no stranger to creativity, so we’ve seen innovative video conference plays and synchronous concerts. USF professor Megan Nicely has even been performing dances for small posses of drive-by audiences in her neighborhood. “You know, in some ways, this wouldn’t necessarily be a new format,” she said of her drive-by production, “Neighborhood Stories.” “At the same time, having it be an option now, when everything else is online, to see actual bodies actually performing and to go with your actual body to the performance, all of the sudden is actually a really big deal.”
There’s no denying that all of this ingenuity has made the live performance more accessible for all. In fact, James Greene of the New York Times argued that theater needs to make virtual entertainment a permanent adaptation. Broadway tickets are expensive, audiences are largely wealthy and white, and, with funding structures dependent on investments and ticket sales, shows are often packed or sold out — an unrealistic expectation in the post-COVID world. Additionally, Greene said that streamed performances invite viewerships that many shows only dream of. The Zoom play “What Do We Need to Talk About?” by Richard Nelson, for example, saw 80,000 views over the course of eight weeks. “It would have taken a year to accommodate that many people at The Public Theater, Nelson’s home base,” Greene wrote.
While Broadway is indeed exploring the possibilities of what theater would be like if productions were made more broadly accessible, it’s not just New York’s $1.3 billion industry that’s struggling. Local theater and community stages have been hit hard, too. And while, according to Nicely, smaller venues are often less dependent on ticket sales for funding, they exemplify the most special parts of live theater. “It makes you realize or think about what it is that is offered by being in a space, with a community of people, even if you don’t know those people, having a shared experience, and focusing your shared experience together. It’s profound,” she said. “I have had experiences of Zooming into a performance with a group of people, and having that community feeling, in a really wonderful way, but when the screen shuts, the downer is really harsh.”
So, frankly, I don’t think we can quite give up on the live performance experience yet. I think COVID’s curtain call is a wake-up call, not to make theater more like TV, but to encourage people (and the institutions that make it accessible to people) to appreciate it a little more. If it can be made more accessible, then in the interest of having entertainment that isn’t on a screen, there’s an opportunity to grow the community of people who adore the live experience.
And the performers would appreciate greater accessibility, too. Live theater has a vast rehearsal process — from casting calls to auditions and callbacks (which often involve a separate dance callback) to rehearsals to previews to the performances, all of which occur over the course of a year or more. Theater workers live in their role as dancer, usher, or accordion-player for months and many times years if the production tours. For me, It’s a lot easier to remember the work that goes into a role when I see it performed live in front of me. It doesn’t just appear, it happens.
There’s the splendor of a smooth set, and goosebumps from the orchestra swelling in the same room as you, far better than any surround sound system. And then there’s the curtain call (when the cast comes out to bow), your chance to applaud the actors as the humans they are. When they drop their character to grin, wave, and bow, it’s a reminder that the story was impermanent, and intended to be that way. You learn to appreciate the story that much more because it’s over. No rewind.
And yet, right now, you can rewind theater. And trust me, I’ve watched Meryl Streep, Audra McDonald, and Christine Baranski’s rendition of “Ladies Who Lunch” joyously over and over, grateful not to have to buy a ticket. We have to take advantage of the innovation because changing the structures of live performance will take time even after the pandemic. But if more people can develop a respect for the merits of live performance, there’s hope that the Broadway of 2021 may look very different, and that local live performance venues might get the help they need.So all I ask is that instead of purchasing another movie on Amazon Prime, dip your toe into the many YouTube musicals that exist for your free enjoyment, stream the epic “Shrek the Musical” on Netflix or “Hamilton” on Disney+, or browse Broadway.com’s “What to do without Broadway”’s daily schedule of live performances. And then, when this is all over (because let’s be real, the stars of “Mamma Mia!” aren’t the ones who need your money), go and give your local stage some love.