Pandemic forces a radical re-imagining of theater

Way back in the mid-1970s, when pop star Billy Joel was compelled to write a song about the approaching collapse of the American empire, he began his lurid tale of ruin and destruction with a nod to theater. To strike a suitably apocalyptic tone, he chose as the song’s first line: “I’ve seen the lights go out on Broadway.”

The song was called “Miami 2017,” and it turns out Joel undershot the moment by only a few years. On March 12, 2020, by government order, the lights did in fact go out on Broadway. And, in late June, it was announced that Broadway would remain dark for the rest of the year.

A year ago, such an image was the stuff of nightmares, for both those who love theater and those who produce it. Today, it’s a stark reality. And, as goes Broadway, so go hundreds of theater and performing arts companies around the country.

Four months after a sudden and crippling shutdown of live performance that still has no end in sight, the theater industry is in the midst of a painful existential crisis. One that has presented a series of daunting challenges, from keeping staff employed to retaining the attention of audiences to embracing new substitutes for live performance to facing fundamental questions of purpose and meaning.

In the rich and diverse world of Bay Area theater, many companies have been kept afloat to this point by the largesse of their donors and loyal audiences (“You could basically yell into a hole asking for a donation and people would give it to you,” says one insider). But artistic directors in the region—from the mighty powerhouses such as American Conservatory Theatre (ACT) in San Francisco and California Shakespeare Theater (Cal Shakes) in Berkeley, to smaller neighborhood companies ringing the Bay Area—know they can’t depend on generosity as a long-term strategy. With a potent mix of fatalism and hope, theaters in the region struggle with a dramatic adapt-or-die moment. And many are responding by pushing their creativity and ingenuity to its limits.

“The pandemic is likely the biggest catalyst to creativity that any of us will see in our lifetimes in the theater world,” says Ron Evans, a long-time consultant to theater and performing arts companies in the Bay Area and elsewhere. “It’s forced us to basically start from scratch in moving people emotionally.”

Even if the new year dawns with a newly released Covid-19 vaccine, a new president and a new national resolve to revive American commerce, there is emerging in the local theater world a consensus that there is no turning back to the pre-Covid sense of normalcy. Even under the most ideal circumstances, theater companies are likely to emerge in 2021 as different creatures than they were 2019. Whether those creatures are diminished and broken, or stronger and better positioned to meet the future, is now being determined.

The Room Where It Happened

March is commonly a time in live theater when new productions are launched. That was the case with many companies at the moment that the Covid menace moved suddenly from a troubling specter on the far horizon to an immediate shutdown threat.

Sebastopol’s Main Stage West was in the middle of a major transfer of leadership just as Covid-19 forced the theater to cancel upcoming performances of Accidental Death of an Anarchist and A Doll’s House, Part 2.

In April, outgoing Main Stage West co-artistic director and managing director Elizabeth Craven announced that artistic and administrative duties of the theater were being handed over to Keith Baker and Ivy Rose Miller. Recently, Baker and Miller updated Main Stage West patrons and friends with a statement that acknowledges everything in the world of live theater is still very much up in the air four months into the pandemic.  

“When we know more about how to keep you, our actors, and our staff safe during a performance, you will certainly be the first to know,” Baker and Miller write in their statement. “We are taking the opportunity to clean our closets and put a fresh coat of paint on a few things. We continue to make plans for an upcoming season and are pursuing grants to help stay afloat in the meantime.”

Marin Theatre Company was in the middle of presenting the world premiere of playwright Kate Cortesi’s Love when the company was forced to cancel the remaining performances of its 2019/20 season, including the programmed productions of Jordan Tannahill’s Botticelli in the Fire and Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over.

“We did not come to this decision lightly. It took us some time because we wanted to make sure we had as much information as possible,” Marin Theatre Company’s artistic director Jasson Minadakis says in a statement on MTC’s website. “But rather than moving these shows around or deeper into the summer, we decided that we will cancel the remaining performances, and we will be focusing on ways to move forward over the summer. We’re hoping to bring much of our company back when we start performances again.”

Novato Theater Company was just days away from opening their ambitious staging of the Who’s Tommy when Marin County’s shelter-in-place orders shuttered the production in mid-March.

“It was a very dark weekend in my life,” says director and choreographer Marilyn Izdebski. “You nurture this baby and right when it’s going to open, you know, it was horrible.”

Izdebski, who is also president of the company’s board of directors, adds that the lack of information regarding the sheltering timeline has put everything at NTC on hold.

“We postponed Tommy, we cancelled Sordid Lives, we had our next season all mapped out, and we can’t even go forward with our next season until we know when and if we can open,” Izdebski says. “We have a tremendous responsibility to our patrons, our members and our staff to wait until it is absolutely safe to re-open.”

History Has Its Eyes on You

When nationwide protests erupted after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, theater companies generally felt an urge to respond in some way that conformed with their mission. Cal Shakes went one further. Instead of focusing on programming, artistic director Eric Ting launched into an acceleration of the kind of soul searching that had been going on since he’d taken the reins at the company four years prior. Covid caused him to question the mission of Cal Shakes, with the aim of forging a new way based on the values of EDI (equity, diversity and inclusion).

“We’ve been wrestling for a while now with what it means to be a theater when you can’t do theater,” says Ting, one of the few people of color in the country running Shakespeare companies. “When the thing that was at the core of our identity as an organization was removed, there was a giant void at the center. That was a clarifying moment for us. Without (performances), we had all this creative energy to focus on something else specifically.

“And the movement toward racial justice was an opportunity for us as an organization to truly embrace the values that we have been practicing and modeling for years now. What would it be like if we actually thought of ourselves, at least for this period of time, less as an arts organization and more as a civic institution in service to the betterment of our community?”

Such conversations are inevitably leading Ting and his staff to even challenge the cultural hegemony of his company’s namesake.

“Not a day goes by,” he says, “when I don’t have a conversation with somebody within the circle of Cal Shakes who says, ‘So, why are we doing Shakespeare?’”

The police protests and the new civil rights movement it has sparked also compelled Bay Area theater companies to come together in response. PlayGround in San Francisco had been developing a production of Vincent Terrell Durham’s Polar Bears, Black Boys & Prairie Fringed Orchards, a contemporary play that dramatizes many of the issues behind the Black Lives Matter movement.

“It starts as a cocktail party,” says PlayGround’s co-founder and artistic director Jim Kleinmann about the play. “Then it goes into this Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf thing, and by the time it’s done, everyone is shredded and no one gets out alive.”

Shortly after the Floyd incident, PlayGround actor/producer Aldo Billingslea moved quickly to convert Polar Bears into a Zoom-based online production to be presented on Juneteenth (June 19) with the co-sponsorship of theater companies from around the Bay Area. In the end, 43 Bay Area–based theaters and performing arts companies signed on sponsors, to underwrite the production’s royalty and fees costs. The production is still available for free through Sept. 1.

“We were able to have a conversation, shock people awake and energize around the idea of Black voices and Black theater,” Kleinmann says.

Leaning In

Some companies—including Opera San Jose—conform with what Covid demands of them, and push ahead anyway.

Covid, says OSJ general director Khori Dastoor, is “kryptonite for opera.” Indeed, by its nature, opera is particularly vulnerable to a virus that is a bigger threat to older people (opera’s majority audience), flourishes in enclosed spaces with lots of people (like opera halls) and may be most effectively spread through aerosol droplets by forceful singing (like every aria ever).

After many sleepless nights, Dastoor and her team decided to lean into the crisis. For years, OSJ has had an apartment building in San Jose that it uses to host its resident artists (Dastoor herself lived there in 2007 as a guest soprano; it’s where she met the man who became her husband). For its latest production, OSJ used the apartment building to its advantage, quarantining its cast of performers for the incubation period of two weeks, testing the cast often and isolating them as a kind of “family unit” so they could perform in close proximity without masks. One apartment was left empty as an “isolation suite” in case anyone tested positive.

On top of that, the opera company invested heavily in video technology with an emphasis on high-end audio recording equipment, and partnered with a professional video company to produce the best product they could. The result is an online virtual concert called Dichterliebe (A Poet’s Love), now available for streaming.

“It would be my advice to a lot of folks not to try to fight the tide on this one,” Dastoor says. “It’s bigger than all of us. How do you turn to the population in two years, or however long it’s going to take to come back, and say, ‘Hey, we’re essential!’ Well, are you? We’ve already lived without you for two years and done fine.

“I really think staying present in people’s minds is an essential part of not just entertainment but good health. We’re all reading Stoic philosophy under the covers to keep from going into a deep depression. This is a time when we’re relying on art to pull us through. I want OSJ to be serving that need for people.”

ACT in San Francisco, one of the most high-profile theater companies on the West Coast, is not only a premiere performance theater, but also a highly regarded academy for aspiring actors and directors. It has been able to make the transition to online programming much easier on the educational side than on the performance side.

“There’s a lot of sorrow,” says ACT’s artistic director Pam MacKinnon. “It’s a worldwide shutdown of our craft, so it’s devastating.”

ACT’s own audience surveys indicate that only about 35 percent of the theater’s audience will ever return. In the face of such troubling numbers, MacKinnon says her company must focus on three areas of investment: developing new works for the stage, investing in state-of-the-art digital technology and investing in the company’s already strong education and community programs. “We’re just going to be a smaller theater for a while,” she says. “And, maybe by 2023, we’ll be back to some bigger numbers.”

It’s not just the big players that are suffering, of course. Shoestring theater companies are also fighting to survive. Elly Lichenstein has been with Petaluma’s Cinnabar Theater for 45 years, the last 20-plus as its artistic director. Cinnabar has jumped into survival mode by investing in high-end digital video technology and producing new material much like a television or film studio would do.

“I had to be dragged into this idea,” Lichenstein says, “because it is so antithetical to what live theater really does and what sets us apart from television and movie production.”

Evolution as a Value

Cinnabar’s experimentation is emblematic of another soul-searching arena in theater circles. What exactly is the “secret sauce” that distinguishes stage theater from the vast sea of entertainment options offered by Netflix and their competitors? If it’s the in-person experience, that’s off the table for now.

Jonathan Rhys Williams of Tabard Theatre believes the magic is in the live experience, even if separated from the in-person part of it. This month, Tabard is live streaming a fully staged one-person play called Looking Over the President’s Shoulder for 11 performances, through August 9. In this case, live means live—no on-demand viewing, no pausing the action for a bathroom break, no editing out the flubs.

“It’ll be a three-camera shoot switched live,” Williams says. “It won’t be that single camera in the back of the house. There will be tight close-ups, body mics, high sound quality, all of it. Not losing the live element is very important to us.”

Other than the technological and marketing challenges, streaming—whether it’s live or recorded material—presents big issues on the legal front, with theater companies compelled to work with licensing firms and actors/technicians unions on new contracts. Plus, live streaming represents a challenge on the audience side, re-introducing what used to be called “appointment television” habits in an age when almost everyone is used to on-demand time shifting.

“From the artistic side,” Williams says, “my mind just really starts to fly. What might be able to happen by integrating this new technology? What could we do? We’ve already put people on body mics. What if we put them on body cameras too? It could be a new way of creating theater.”

For still others, the secret sauce in theater is remaining closer to street level, to present theatrical arts that are too immediate or too raw or too provocative to float into the ether of big-budget mass entertainment. Shotgun Players performed in more than 40 different venues in Berkeley before finding a home at the former church at Ashby Stage in 2004. Artistic director Patrick Dooley says the twin catastrophes of Covid and the police protests revitalized Shotgun.

“Evolution is one of our values,” Dooley says. “We’ve always been asking ourselves, ‘How are we able to evolve in the moment?’ But we’re trying to do a little better about looking before we jump. A lot of our success over the years has been, we’re going to jump and we’ll figure out how to build the parachute on the way down. That’s part of the thrill ride for our audience.

“This is going to be a crazy ride. But that can be really stressful for some folks. So, we’re trying to figure out a way to keep that daredevil spirit, while realizing the process is not healthy.”

Shotgun’s response to the Covid summer is The Niceties, a live-streamed, two-person play about a white college professor and an African-American student facing off over the legacy of slavery. The play was presented on Zoom. Dooley is a true believer in a new kind of theater aesthetic emerging from all the on-line experimentation.

“There’s a time in every Zoom performance I’m watching that I just kind of disappear into the moment,” he says, “and I feel I’m right there with them. At first, it’s alienating with the screen and that blue tint. But every time I’ve done one of these, I find that the membrane breaks and I drop in and I buy into the convention.”

The Third Act

What the future holds for local theater is far from certain.

“My hope,” says Mike Ryan, artistic director of Santa Cruz Shakespeare, “is that when we come out the other side of this, there will be a hunger for live work because it has been so long denied to us.”

Consultant Ron Evans says there will be a lot of terrible online theater before the good stuff emerges. But the good stuff is coming: “There will be a flavor of theater that will be digested online and loved. And that style is in the very early phases of finding its voice right now.”

The traumas of 2020 may also inspire new theatrical art, plays only now, or even not yet, being written. One-person plays that don’t require masks or social distancing may be experiencing a renaissance.

On the other end, many theater companies may not survive. Elly Lichenstein of Cinnabar says she’s 99 percent certain that her company “will have to build itself back up, start again from scratch. I can see that as something good, if we have to hand this over to younger people who can start at the bottom like we did 48 years ago.”

“Now that we’ve slammed on the brakes,” says Patrick Dooley, “we have a chance to look at ourselves and take inventory. How are we doing? Is this working for me? Is this sustainable? Is this healthy, or just? It’s giving us some time to do a deep evaluation of the underpinnings of our culture and start to design a different architecture. And that’s radical.”

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