The Necessity of Pivoting

Interviews on the Future of our Field

As a soon-to-be graduate with an MFA in costume design, I thought I would be riding high this year—hustling and making moves to launch myself into a decades-long lucrative career in design. Lofty, yes, but that’s truly how I felt things were going to go—I had been kicking butt. It all came to a screeching halt in the short span of four days in the middle of March. All at once my prospects were cancelled. My summer plans were gone, and my upcoming production was eliminated the same day I was let go from my assistant job at a regional theatre. I found myself at a bar on a Friday evening trying not to cry while Celine Dion blasted over the speakers.

I was scared, confused, and unsure how I would afford rent this summer. When a paid research opportunity came across my inbox, I jumped at it. The Maguire Ethics Center on Southern Methodist University’s campus—where I am studying in Dallas, Texas—was accepting applications for their annual summer research and community service fellowships. Students could submit a proposal, partner with an organization, and work remotely for the summer. I quickly put together an outline about examining the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on my industry.

I was accepted into the fellowship and soon began meeting with my sponsoring organization, the Cape Fear Regional Theatre in Fayetteville, North Carolina, to zero in on my research query. I wanted to go on a fact-finding mission to quantify the chaos around me. I was curious: Could the theatre industry continue to serve its communities without direct contact? Would theatre companies be able to survive the pandemic? What would the future of our industry be? National headlines about the closure of theatres were mainly examining Broadway, but that encompasses only a few blocks of real estate in an industry that spans the entire country. I wanted to hear from theatre companies varying from smaller community houses in rural areas to LORT theatres with budgets in the millions across the country. Rather than create tight categories, I aimed to create a quilt of American theatre. I focused on theatres and artists I had connections with as a starting point and created questions aimed at measuring the companies’ attempts to connect with their audiences, like: “On a scale of one to ten (with ten being the greatest), how would you rate your community’s response to your efforts to engage?” I set a target goal of interviewing a minimum of fifty theatrical companies. I was confident that people would get back to me—we were all at a complete standstill, right?

My expectations were grand, and I was surprised at how few responses I received. I failed to account for the fact that while I was sitting at home twiddling my thumbs, the leaders of our industry had entered survival mode. They were applying for emergency grants, state funding, and government aid. I recognize now that the people who appeared unavailable to me or uninterested were trying to save a sinking boat with only a tablespoon to bail the water out.

In the end, I interviewed just over thirty companies across ten states. The artistic directors and managing directors who agreed to these interviews were incredibly honest, transparent, and generous. They shared concerns over their finances, failures, and fears for the future. Some conversations went on for over an hour, as we got lost in the discussion of the great unknown for our industry. Through these conversations I realized that data collection alone could not fully illustrate the struggles these organizations and artists were facing. Realizing that my initial goal of fifty theatres was not enough to capture the complexity and expanse of the theatre industry across our county, I see my research as a slice of the pie.

I learned about the birth of virtual improv nights, open mics, bartending classes, Shakespeare courses, book clubs for plays, and several original Zoom musicals.

Zooming Ahead and Zooming Out

My research began in May, two months after the pandemic hit American soil, and the situation was looking dire for the theatre industry. One small company had shut down entirely and was planning to wait out the pandemic before deciding how to proceed. Twenty companies terminated contracts with independent and freelance employees given that they could not safely mount their spring and summer performances. One artistic director shared that many artists in her neighborhood were food insecure following the layoffs at Disney World. About a third of the companies I spoke to were waiting to see how the pandemic would take shape before diving headfirst into uncharted territories of programming. I saw an exodus of artists from cities like New York City, Washington D.C., and Chicago, as my friends retreated to their childhood homes. All of them were unemployed, and we collectively began debating whether to wait things out or take essential jobs that would put us in the direct firing path of the virus. There didn’t seem to be a right or wrong answer ahead of us, only uncertainties, and it was difficult to imagine the positive outcomes from this time.

Many theatres quickly pivoted with almost no stop time, diving headfirst into the possibilities of using technology to broadcast their work. The Hangar Theatre in Ithaca, New York had just finished casting their summer season and made the choice to perform exclusively virtually, contacting the playwrights and licensing companies to ask for permission to perform their scheduled season in an online format. One playwright agreed and the remaining shows were quickly replaced and recast with the contracted performers. Cry Havoc Theater in Dallas, Texas produced their summer show as a radio play and, at the time of my interview with them, was investigating the possibilities of a producing their fall play as an audio play in 3D. This past month their audio play Endlings debuted, recorded entirely in 3D sound with a binaural microphone. The Agape Theatre Project in Durham, North Carolina began a weekly Zoom talk show called Theatre Talks Live; their first livestream received 250 views and their second drew 700 viewers. Cape Fear Regional Theatre offered a rotating schedule of free streamed classes every week and were able to employ local artists as workshop leaders. Nashville Children’s Theatre’s moved their summer classes online, and they were streamed in fourteen states, Puerto Rico, and Spain. I learned about the birth of virtual improv nights, open mics, bartending classes, Shakespeare courses, book clubs for plays, and several original Zoom musicals. Despite the fears for the future, I found theatre artists were persevering.

However, in the short span of a month, most interview subjects expressed a feeling of being “Zoomed out” and were concerned that their audiences felt similarly. A few leaders expressed apprehension to resorting to a digital platform at all. As the executive director of Texas’s Teatro Dallas, Sara Cardona, said: “The power of theatre is in proximity to our audiences… it is an antidote to the screens.” She was investigating the creative possibilities of socially distanced and imaginative performance while not relying heavily on screens to achieve the desired result. Teatro Dallas’ radio-theatre style podcast, Pizcas, did exactly that and received overwhelmingly positive feedback from audience members.

Many companies made their new creative programming free rather than charging for the content. David Byrd, managing director of Virginia Stage Company, explained his reasoning with the following: “The goal is less about making money as it is about keeping people engaged. Hopefully that will bear fruit later.” Other individuals expressed a similar sentiment and the general consensus seemed to be that charging for a creative outlet in the pandemic was in bad taste. Many companies decided not to charge because the revenue would not recuperate their losses anyways. When asked about creating new programming to generate a source of revenue, Jason Loewith, the artistic director at Olney Theatre Center in Maryland, posed a counter question: “With Hamilton streaming on Disney+ for seven dollars, what will our audiences pay for?”

Two months into my research, the in-person production of Godspell put on by Pittsfield, Massachusetts’ Berkshire Theatre Group bravely stepped into the limelight and became guinea pigs for COVID-compliant theatre under a national microscope. Following their successful run with no reported COVID-19 cases, more theatres have forged a new path to physically distanced live performances.

Communities everywhere, in search of the connection they valued, were supporting their local theatres in whatever ways they could.

Taking Care

Eager to see an in-person production amidst-COVID-19 myself, a friend and I drove to Fort Worth, Texas, to watch Prism Movement Theater’s production Everything Will Be Fine. The drive-in performance piece, presented by Stage West Theatre, incorporated movement, music, and voiceover to tell the heartbreaking story of grief and loss during the pandemic. As we approached the site we were personally greeted at our car window, offered instruction sheets, guided to parking spots, and offered concessions, Sonic drive-in style. The performance lasted a perfect fifty minutes and was wholly engaging and entertaining. The evening gave me hope that the future of our industry would not be restricted to Zoom and YouTube forever. Could theatre make a comeback in person? And what does the community that forms our audiences think?

One question I hadn’t thought to ask in my initial interviews, given my attempt to focus on numbers, was: “Have people responded to what you’re doing?” But all interviewees ultimately shared direct quotes with me from audience emails, prompting me to change the question’s format. Teresa Coleman Wash, the executive artistic director of Dallas, Texas’s Bishop Arts Theatre Center, put it elegantly: “If you take care of the community, the community will take care of you.” It became evident to me that companies that had a strong relationship with their audience base before the pandemic had seen continued support. Theatres like Cape Fear Regional Theatre, which specializes in “edutainment” (a combination of performance and education), received an outpouring of verbal support from parents who were overjoyed that their child could go to a sanitized and physically distanced afterschool environment and have a sense of normalcy. Dallas Children’s Theatre in Texas saw parents joining in the fun from home and participating creatively in Zoom classes. Facetime Theatre in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania decided to proceed with their youth musical this fall and has received overwhelming support from parents—many of whom involved their kids in previous productions and had volunteered their own time but who were not as vocal in their gratitude. It seemed to me that communities everywhere, in search of the connection they valued, were supporting their local theatres in whatever ways they could. This gave the leaders I spoke to hope that their community was invested in the future of their organization and it gave them the energy to continue forging ahead.

Many theatres had quickly adapted to a wholly virtual experience, but there was less certainty regarding how to dismantle centuries of racist practices and white supremacy in the field.

The Crucial Pivot

After the initial shift from quantitative research to a more sociological examination, I wasn’t expecting any further major alterations to the progression of my interviews. However, that changed drastically following the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. With outcry sweeping the nation, calls for reform within our own industry—a supposedly progressive and inclusive environment that is, in reality, not meeting these standards—appeared. The most renowned of these statements, “We See You White American Theater,” challenged companies directly, encouraging leadership of primarily white theatres to reexamine their practices when it comes to casting, staffing, programming, and audience engagement. Many theatres had quickly adapted to a wholly virtual experience, but there was less certainty regarding how to dismantle centuries of racist practices and white supremacy in the field.

When I asked the question, “How are you finding new ways of serving your community” to the industry leaders I was in touch with, their responses shifted from discussing new virtual performances to efforts around creating dialogue, investigating new avenues of supporting their Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) artists, and, most importantly, taking a hard look at their own practices and their position of privilege as leaders. The conversation began to shift to a need for transformation within the industry.

Several interviews illuminated that theatres led by artists of color were quicker to find solutions to serve their BIPOC community, and many of those organizations had actively engaged in that work prior to this time. Dallas companies Teatro Dallas, Cara Mía Theatre, Bishop Arts, and Soul Rep Theatre Company joined forces to create the BIPOC Arts Coalition dedicated to providing a vision and advocacy platform for anti-racism, equitable funding, and structural support for culturally specific artists and performance groups in the city. When I spoke to Teatro Dallas, the coalition had just hosted a live Facebook town hall with Mothers Against Police Brutality and were planning another forum on housing, equity, and the arts’ role in building healthy communities. Michael Bobbitt, the artistic director of Watertown, Massachusetts’ New Repertory Theatre, told me he was getting rid of their subscription model entirely. He described it as a racist system, benefitting white upper-middle class theatregoers. “We as theatre artists are the most expert creatives in the world,” he told me. “We maybe haven’t done a good job of imagining the world we want… It will be a massive, massive failure if we go back to the way we were before.”

Future Endeavors

I tried to close each interview on an upbeat note, with the question: “What has been your most positive discovery in this time?” While many leaders I interviewed had seemed tired and, frankly, a little hopeless, most took this moment to consider something that had lifted them up. The overwhelming majority expressed gratitude for the opportunity to reflect on their operating system, mission, and creative pursuits.

I thought back to Genevieve Beller’s HowlRound article “Rebuilding a Better Theatre Industry Post-Pandemic” published in May 2020. Six months later, how have we done on accomplishing her punch list, with items like committing to transparency, investing in our fellow artists, and switching to sustainable practices? As shutdown time extends into 2021, perhaps it is time for all of us to review and reflect.

My graduation date is looming and, as I try to remain hopeful, I am thinking ahead to what kind of industry I will be entering. How can I be more active in my ability to enact the change and growth that I hope to see? I’ve been reflecting on the times when I didn’t question inequity, when I saw it and didn’t leap to action, and when I could have quieted my own voice to create space for others in the room. It’s not enough to write about a more inclusive environment if I cannot leverage my position of power to raise up my artistic peers of color. So, I’m resolving to be transparent with others in my future business endeavors to advocate for more integrity in theatrical hiring practices. Approaching my design education with a fresh curiosity for new perspectives, I am building better personal research practices and learning to question imperialist perspectives in the information that I utilize. I want to advocate for more sustainable practices on each project I touch that support the ecology of the planet and invest in greener long-term theatrical practices—because I would like us to be around for a very long time.

The future of the industry that I love so much is still very uncertain, but by imagining the prospect of what could be, and taking responsibility for my role to play, I have become a bit more hopeful. And, just like I did with my interviews, I would like to close on two questions: “What is the most positive discovery you have made in this time?” And, “What are you going to do moving forward?”

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Covid shut-downs lifted our hoods to show what levels of resilience, courage and solid foundation we have. This article has many interesting examples. Four additional pivots I have experienced:

- Van Dirk Fisher, artistic director of www.TheRiantTheatre.com and the Black Experimental Theatre, had planned to open in April many ArtHotel rehearsal rooms, galleries and theaters for film and theater makers, musicians, designers - complete with cafe and low cost hotel rooms so teams could meet together to develop works. When the shutdown hit mid-March, he worked through the shock, decided he had to figure out how to use Zoom to put his planned Jocunda Festival - learning to coach actors to develop a deep sense of relationship when they couldn't be in the same room, finding ways to use colorful set backgrounds so people looked as if they were in the same location, and creating ways to involve audiences before and after the readings to create community.

- Bob Ost of Theater Resources Unlimited - www.TRUonline.org - thought he would have to give up his organization that for decades has brought producers, directors, actors, designers and other theater people in the NY area together to share industry wisdom and success strategies. Instead, he started a Friday 4:30-6:00 Zoom discussion group to share ideas about what to do now. He soon added discussion topics and interviews with people at the cutting edge of wtf new strategies and questions/comments from other participants. This discussion group has become a weekly community with, depending on topics, 50-100 people attending from all over the country and world.

- Bryan Doerries first came to national attention with the production of Antigone in Ferguson - excerpts from the classic play followed with community talk-back panel of people concerned about the shooting of the teen-ager Michael Brown when his hands were up and other killings of unarmed people of color - but performances were located in Missouri or other specific locations. When in-person productions shut down, Bryan and his associate and Marjolaine Goldsmith pivoted into Zoom with excerpts from classics followed by talk-backs with medical and other front line workers whose out-of-the-box insights into characters like Oedipus caught in a plague led to profound descriptions of their own experiences, such as patients in their ambulance turning their ambulance into a confessional or giving workers messages of love or apology for their families. And audiences from all over the world, in all time zones, have zoomed in, creating an extraordinary global community. Bryan Doerries even finds ways to call on a few with questions and insights from many cultures.

- Cate Cammarata, a director and TRU board member, could not direct in-person plays in the shut down... so she turned her dramaturgy consulting practice into www.CreateTheater.com, an organization to help playwrights not just get their plays read on Zoom but to support each other, exchange success strategies in online workshops, and share information about contests and other resources. The readings on many Monday nights are directed rehearsed and highly professional, sometimes with prospective producers from anywhere in the country attending online. Readings on Thursdays or Fridays may be impromptu, often organized and cast by the writer with the goal of hearing the script, then further developing the script.