Loving Theatre in the Time of COVID-19

A Playwright's Response

On Thursday, 12 March, it was announced that Broadway would be closing until mid-April, at the very least. All the pulsing momentum in New York City—the increasing anxiety, the masks seen on subway cars—was halted with the question: “If Broadway is closed, what else?” The answer was soon abundantly clear: everything else.

In one sudden announcement and twenty-four hours, all my friends with freelance jobs or in theatre had no work or minimal income. As of this writing, over fourteen thousand people have died in the metropolis I have made my home. While biding my time before being laid off at my day job, I didn’t cry about the university production of Derecho, a play I’d been rewriting for the last two years, being cancelled, and I did my best not to dwell on my sudden lack of income in what had been my most prosperous year for my playwriting so far. After all, my hurt was everyone’s hurt and it seemed ridiculous when people were losing their loved ones.

a large colorful mural

One Crown Heights mural three blocks away from the author’s apartment in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. It reflects the Crown Heights community, made collaboratively under the direction of Groundswell. Photo by author.

We’re currently not certain when theatres will reopen, and the timeline continues to move excruciatingly further out. Entire end of seasons by leading organizations such as Oregon Shakespeare Festival have been cancelled, June now feels naively optimistic, and it’s hinted at that large gatherings will be the very last thing we add to our society in the future. Theatre has moved, rightfully so in the time of COVID-19, to the bottom of the priority list of things getting back to normal.

As a result, countless playwrights and theatremakers have been openly grieving the state of our lack of work, lack of connection, and inability to share physical presence—the one thing we theatremakers traffic in. I’m finding similarities with the arc of grief I experienced after my father’s passing: as a pessimist, any time I get bad news I skip right over denial and move straight to anger at the injustices whatever I’m grieving lays bare; I bargain to be on my best behavior and sacrifice myself so I can keep the thing I love; I sleep a ton and try to pretend that it isn’t depression; and I slowly—ever so slowly—change my behavior to accept my new reality.

The Well-Meaning and Troublesome Emergence of the “Shoulds” While Grieving

With the shutdowns thanks to COVID-19, at first I was incensed at all the compounding mandates to be productive and continue writing—anywhere from Sarah Ruhl’s op-ed in the New York Times the morning after Broadway closed saying we should write poetry to the countless Instagram accounts and theatre companies asking if I could write content for free. Why were playwrights like me being encouraged to just keep making work when thousands of us had just plunged into indefinite debt, with no clear end in sight? What dramatic writing could possibly solve the inequities of the current moment? I found the constant comparisons to Shakespeare especially grating, considering the man had a royal patron—something that doesn’t reflect the current reality for most theatremakers. I was furious, as one is with any complicated thing they love, that all of theatre’s issues came to the forefront as I grieved its absence: its classism and complete dependence/fixation on donors as a revenue source, its often-hypocritical non-profit model, its focus on social media engagement to determine its relevance, and its tendency to talk about scarcity instead of abundance.

I found the constant comparisons to Shakespeare especially grating, considering the man had a royal patron—something that doesn’t reflect the current reality for most theatremakers.

The object of my affection is injured so internationally and on so many levels that there have already been countess thought pieces on what we should be doing: we should stop trying to recreate our plays online, which are often impossibly frustrating to watch in terms of quality and are a cheap recreation of the “real thing”; we should instead let ourselves watch Tiger King or do whatever we need to grieve. There’s also been the response: we should know that bad theatre has always existed even before it all went online, and we should continue hustling to experiment with new forms, especially knowing that capitalism will not have solved itself overnight when theatres reopen.

When I ask all the playwrights I know how their practice is going, the vast majority say they have good days and bad days, but that they generally cannot focus long enough to write more than a few pages—something that, for me, deepens my grief. I think of how my three siblings and I each had to grieve our father differently: some needed to tear up the garden and work twelve hours a day, others needed to stay in bed and distract themselves with their phones. Similarly, we are all grieving different forms of theatre that we have different relationships with; what works for Ruhl cannot work for me because her career as an accomplished playwright, published and with name recognition, is entirely different than mine as an emerging one. Any advice offered or a gentle “this worked for me” will just highlight the disparities between us and how theatre treats us differently as a result of our respective races, classes, current health, and previous accomplishments.

What Do We Have in Abundance When It Comes to Theatremaking?

Despite paroxysms of frustration throughout my twenties, the reason theatre has always moved me—the reason I’ve never abandoned the form—is the engaging fact that shit can always hit the fan. A joke can be squandered because an actor loses focus; there is potential failure lurking in every dramatic moment if an audience doesn’t believe it. This immediacy of failure makes some people not want to come back to theatre, but it is exactly why I do; sticking the landing is never clear, despite endless amounts of rehearsal.

It’s rare that an audience enters a large regional theatre filled with the suspense that something about the performance they’re about to see may not work. In fact, they expect it to work: audiences are often seeing plays that have been tested out at smaller theatres or through decades of productions—plays that, by definition, are safer investments for donors to make. For this reason, choosing to invest in theatre becomes an art of boring futurity—one that focuses on investing in institutions that make safe bets, that produce work filled with attempts to shelter audiences from the risk that lies at the root of the form.

The theatre that speaks to how we try for better and humanly fall short is the theatre I am truly grieving in the time of COVID-19. I crave something that thinks about its audience and its community before it thinks of itself. Before the pandemic, this sort of theatre that valued engagement over product was what won out over Netflix; but now, during the pandemic, I feel I’m seeing even less of it.

The theatre that speaks to how we try for better and humanly fall short is the theatre I am truly grieving in the time of COVID-19.

In my grief, I have moved onto the strange phase that comes with bargaining. I think, in some way, that if I can bargain with my collaborators and accept this was meant to happen to usher in a more equitable version of theatre for the future, then the theatre I love will return. Instead of resurrecting as a zombie of increasing budgets trying to encapsulate risk, I imagine it returning a completely different being that runs towards the risk of new work from new sources, exploring new versions of liveness. But this hope of the betterment is hard to maintain when collaborating is harder than usual—people are in radically different emotional places based on circumstance. Companies and artists alike are thinking even more about survival than usual.

For those of us who can show up, feel focused, and want to make something: How can we have some of the conversations we have been putting off? How can we acknowledge the current field is not livable and requires insane upfront investment in degrees that are plunging young theatremakers into debt this very spring with no prospects of employment? How can we emerge with potentially different structures that do not require us to expect overcommitment as a way of life? If we continue to make art in the same precarious paradigm we always have, just online and streaming, we will have failed to learn the lessons this moment is serving to us: the current system is not working, it has never worked for most people, and it will not work the same way after this.

Reframing Creative Output: Theatre as Art of the Now Instead of an Art of Futurity

Theatre is an art of the present moment, and yet we treat it as if it is an art of planning exceedingly far ahead, an art of futurity. Success comes from five-year plans; we plan productions and futures that often fail to materialize even without a pandemic, instead of looking at the talented people we have in every room, neighborhood, and friend circle and saying, “These are people I can create with.” Our lives are filled with the logistics of the future: future audiences we hope to play for, future artists more successful than us we hope to work with, future schedules we hope will manifest, and, above all, future potential revenue streams.

Part of the reason for this is because of the way our system is created: we are waiting for money to come that often does not come, or comes with conditions. We let capitalism dictate the way we seek collaborators, the darting networking eyes I see at every Off-Broadway opening night party instead of asking, “Who is my cohort now? What can I create with them? How can we bring delight into this room instead of future ones?”

We cannot, as creatives in a creative field, only talk about art-making. Especially in a health crisis where black and brown people are dying in higher percentages than the rest of the country, any prompt to create must be accompanied by a prompt to creatively redesign the way we create, who is included in that creation, and how and why we pay people for that creation. If we were to shift our theatre to be an art of the now as opposed to an art of futurity, it’s likely we’d land upon some creative solutions that those working within a context of futurity cannot provide.

The current system is not working, it has never worked for most people, and it will not work the same way after this.

If theatremakers think about the now instead of the later and organize hyperlocally to uplift and create either art or assistance for those in our neighborhoods, then we can do the real good that our non-profit mission statements aspire to (JACK in Brooklyn, which has transformed their space into a food distribution hub for their neighbors in need, is a heartening example of the kind of impact a small, non-profit venue can have). If we are hyperlocal and keep ourselves small, our art can respond nimbly to what people need: food banks, creative lesson plans to engage trapped children, games to engage those too young to attend an online Zoom class.

Some questions we need to ask ourselves are: What are we doing to mentor the young theatremakers who are currently graduating with little guidance and less opportunities than usual, and who may leave the field? For those of us who are writers, how can we create attention for the people who are most suffering without adding to more art they should feel obliged to consume? Specifically, since writing plays is one of the largest acts of futurity in the theatre (usually what we are writing is on average two to three years from being fully produced, if at all), how can writing serve us? In a digital age of isolation, when words have the capacity of building new worlds for our present moment, what can we offer our community?

brooklyn new york

Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn at sunset on Saturday, 21 March 2020. Photo by author.

If the loss we are suffering from this pandemic has taught us anything, it feels like the same thing I learned through grieving at a young age: You don’t know what the future will bring. And if you refuse to let some roots down where you are, they will haunt you like phantom limbs in the future. They will ache for how grounded and watered you could have felt in the eye of a storm. The answer lies not in voluminously creating more work but to creating more community with that work. The answer is not livestreaming as a one-sided experience, but presence and engagement with that community so we can expand our definition of home. The answer is not the ticker tape of news but the flight of words and performance that lead to action, soaring back and forth over the internet or across the street. A virtual and proximal harmony. And, within that harmony, a seeking to answer the questions: What happens when we, as artists, stop caring about donors and start caring about our neighborhoods? What happens when we make our home where we are instead of where we might someday be?

In the future, after COVID-19, theatre will be necessary because it will be hyperlocally focused. In the optimal scenario, it will both entertain and serve the community, it will create more resources for those with little access, and it will drive toward an equity that our current class-based industry can now only dream of.

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Thanks for this beautiful essay - I am sharing it with my class in Directing & Dramaturgy as we reflect on the path forward.

Thank you for this! It gives me hope and perspective. There is so much we must keep in mind while, that we cannot forget while we're attempting to cope with the drastic world changes happening around us.