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From Nicety to Necessity

The death of theatre has long been predicted. When films—especially talkies—were invented, people thought theatre would perish. When broadcast TV arrived, the funeral was planned. When cable and VCRs hit the market, the death knell was again sounded. The internet, it was hypothesized, would be the final nail in the coffin. VR and AR were the latest plagues to threaten. But time after time, theatremakers have all been certain we’d find a way to morph and even benefit from new technology. And now will this pandemic not seal our fate as archaic? It may just be the great equalizer.

The Ecosystem of the American Theatre Has Been Turned Upside Down

Theatres with lovely large venues, lots of seats, and the wherewithal to attract large numbers of people to pay large amounts of money to view virtuosic work may now be at the bottom of the theatrical food chain. Meanwhile, nimble, itinerant companies that don’t rely on ticket sales for viability may surface as the new sages. Stages, seats, performances, and intimacy-through-proximity—once theatre’s calling card—are the same elements that threaten to render us obsolete.

COVID-19 is the great disruptor, forcing long overdue introspection and reinvention. The movements for equity spawned by the death of George Floyd, ten blocks from my Minneapolis home, demand the magnification of that reinvention.

I have long surmised that that which has been labeled “site-specific work” or “vanity theatre” or “novelty performance art” will occupy a greater proportion of our art form’s offerings. COVID has accelerated that process. “Venues” are omnipresent and can be found everywhere, and the agile landless performance companies will be revealed to sit atop a new pyramid. “Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine, and at last, you create what you will,” said George Bernard Shaw.

We unnecessarily segregate our canon-based, improvisers, devisers, and ensemble players. It’s time to stop that. The art will look different. Can we embrace the notion that plays may get in the way of theatre or that theatres may get in the way of theatre?

two people posing for a photo in a crowd

Muhamed Noor's election victory celebration to the Minnesota House of Representatives at Mixed Blood Theatre's Equity Hall.

Adaptability is the New Sustainability

I have a good friend who is a plumbing contractor. He and his union crews bring water to buildings and take poop away from those buildings. A necessary service is provided. Plumbing and plumbers prosper.

Theatre must serve a similar utility function: I want to discover how we can transform live theatre from nicety to, like plumbing, necessity. The question we must ask ourselves is: Into what social equation can theatre insert itself so that that equation is no longer an equation without theatre’s inclusion? It could be public policy, climate change, the criminal justice system, or any of the other essential social challenges in our country. It just must be essential. This is for the betterment of American society and perhaps the longevity of the art form itself.

Theatres make self-believed contentions about their irreplaceable value to the fabric of society. Theatre leaders across the country proclaim that their stages are soapboxes and their players today’s town criers. But when COVID forced a conversation about that which was essential, theatre was in the lowest tier, much to the dismay of its practitioners.

I believe that our signature of assembling people for a shared common experience will continue. But that shared experience must produce something more than catharsis or nostalgia; something greater than empathy, political enlightenment, or awareness; something more enduring than an enlightened conversation on the way home from the theatre. I contend that there must be a call to action or that the piece of theatre be the enzyme that catalyzes resolution of a social malaise. Cross sector work will define impact in unprecedented ways.

Will this pandemic not seal our fate as archaic? It may just be the great equalizer.

Power Balance over Balance Sheets

Today’s amplified attention on anti-racism, white supremacy, and colonial thinking, behavior, and policy will have traction. We are in, I believe, a rare moment when those insisting on revolution and those with the authority to effect change want the same thing, forever altering power imbalances. Any other behavior will not be tolerated. Board and staff leadership will evolve to aspire to have greater balance and representation culturally and racially. Those that do not will perish.

Inspired by “We See You WAT,” there are weekly convenings each Friday of d/Deaf and disabled theatre leaders and artists. Starting a movement going by “Nothing Without Us,” expectations are being crafted for the field for people with disabilities. These expectations will shock every job classification in almost every institution, and their aspirations—through a “race and” lens—will expect not only shifts in attitude, behavior, and procedures, but will cost cash and lots of it. Trans theatremakers are involved in these conversations so there aren’t sequential movements but simultaneous ones.

If the regional theatre movement was founded to decentralize theatre from New York City, now is the time to recentralize in our own communities.

A New Currency

Of course, capitalism is at the root of it all. Our relationship to money—as expressed in compensation, admission charges, production values—must adapt if our art form is to be viable in a time when anyone can see anything at any time for free on their cell phone, tablet, or laptop. Recognizing a symbiotic mutualism, philanthropists, theatres, and journalists will become interdependent partners. Non-profit corporations will decreasingly be the model for the regional theatre movement. If relationships are our currency, the money will follow.

Our moral compasses must take precedence over our balance sheets. Inviting, welcoming, and affirming everyone with intentionality is non-negotiable. Compassion is a verb and hope is something you give and not have. There will be a necessary Darwinism, thinning the field’s players. Training programs and conservatories will retool.

But survival should not supersede mission realization. Today’s artistic directors take great joy in facilitating the realization of others’ dreams. Tomorrow’s artistic directors must be virtuosic curators and presenters as well as producers. We must become part of your story.

a large group posing for a photo

The cast and crew on the first day of technical rehearsal for the 2017 production of Vietgone by Qui Nguyen at MixedBlood Theatre.

Pandemic Stimulation

Despite its incalculable costs I have found COVID a source of professional inspiration. And I find solace and freedom in these quotes about uncertainty:

“Uncertainty and mystery are energies of life. Don't let them scare you unduly, for they keep boredom at bay and spark creativity.” — R. I. Fitzhenry

“The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty; not knowing what comes next.” — Ursula K. Le Guin

“The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning.” — Eric Fromm

In the next year, the calls to action at the theatre at which I work include un-electing a president; influencing housing insecurity by connecting service providers, policy makers, developers, and landlords; connecting race, philanthropy, species preservation, and conservation in a show performed at a zoo; and identifying racism as a health care issue in a Zoom play.

But we also will have the privilege to give unfiltered voice to a plethora of smart “artivists.” Our building will remain what it became at the dawn of the pandemic: a food shelter; a center for mask distribution and COVID testing; and a hub for voter registration/recruitment and census taking.

Do these activities make us “essential?” That is for others to decide.

Of course, we know this is just a Band-Aid. We believe the best is yet to come. We theatremakers are too stubborn to go away because of a global pandemic.

The theatre of the future will have flatter leadership structure, with input from myriad voices. That theatre will be of, by, for, with, and about community. If the regional theatre movement was founded to decentralize theatre from New York City, now is the time to recentralize in our own communities... of place, of culture, of shared experience and—as important—of conflicting ideas.

Albert Camus said, “It is art and the artist who remake the world, but always with the ulterior motive of protest.” Theatre will be the proverbial cockroach at the end of the apocalypse. But that cockroach will not be a pest, but one indestructible force of future animators of change of post-plague tomorrow.

a light blue and orange illustration

Illustration by Zev Woskoff, inspired by the essay.

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Thoughts from the curator

Our present-day economic downturn and social upheaval are demanding that theatre institutions interrogate their work and structures. What we have known, what we have done, is no longer. We have to remake our field, our institutions, and our ways of making. How will we do that? What will rise in place of what once was? In the course of the series we will look at the what of our institutions (the programming), the how (the practical, implementable actions), and the why (our purpose and our role in making more healthy, more just communities).

Searching a Way Forward


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