How to keep theater alive when there’s no live theater
It was devastating to see how quickly the American theater collapsed in the midst of the COVID-19 quarantine—and I say this as someone who lost both my jobs by March 24—but from a certain perspective it wasn’t exactly surprising.
Until this spring, our entire industry was built on an economy of scarcity. My fellow theater artists and I knew that movies and TV had a certain cultural advantage because they were available everywhere and to everyone, but we argued the essence of our work was in its fundamental ephemerality. Our performances happened only a certain number of times for the select number of people who could both get a ticket and travel to the lone venue where that particular cast was appearing on that particular day. We enacted rules that made it difficult or even impossible for our work to be recorded. We spent a lot of time affirming that productions gained an almost sacred worth because the intimate magic they created was unavailable to most people.
We weren’t entirely wrong. The unrepeatable “liveness” of the theater can indeed be exhilarating, and speaking for myself, it has often created an almost religious awe. But on some level my colleagues and I knew that we could use that ephemerality as an excuse to make our work as selectively accessible as a luxury good.
We didn’t feel great about that. We had many, many conferences about it, and every now and then we’d shake things up a little so that our limited tickets were less expensive or our limited runs were indeed able to appear on TV. But mostly we were just tweaking a system that relied on the elusive opportunity for people to share rooms with us.
And that system could not withstand quarantine. By banking on the limitless potential of scarcity, we allowed ourselves to ignore the potential for catastrophe, and now we find ourselves asking an existential question: How can we still be theater artists, since being theater artists means being live in a room with just a few other people?
But what if that question is flawed? What if our relationship to our audience—not to mention the expression of our craft—can still be inherently theatrical, even if we’re not on a traditional stage? What if we’re still theater people, even without the theater?
That’s not to say that a live performance with a live audience isn’t the bedrock of our art form. Of course it is. It always will be, since being in the room with the art creates such a potent form of communion. But even if we agree that we will always put the stage in the center, theater professionals can still allow ourselves to offer a continuum of access points.
The last three months have forced us to do that, and the range of projects we’ve created is astonishing. Live-streamed plays are being written and performed; older productions are being released online; virtual marketplaces are being created to support artists; and theater award shows are gamely moving to screens. Sometimes people pay for this content, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes it’s great, and sometimes it’s…on its way to greatness. But no matter what, it doesn’t feel like TV or movies. It feels like theater, learning to make sense of itself on another platform.
Just look at the recent live stream of Michael Urie performing the play Buyer & Cellar, or the Public Theater’s online production of the play What Do We Need to Talk About?, which Richard Nelson explicitly wrote to be performed on Zoom. These pieces had “liveness.” They had spontaneity. And while they lacked certain things we can rightfully love about sharing space with performers, they still felt “theatrical.”
What else can we experiment with? Not just online, but in a variety of ways, how can we assert ourselves as theater artists outside the theater? How can we reach audiences who might never make it into our limited-run show in a 99-seat venue, and how can we then link that encounter with what we do onstage? How can we use the temporary absence of theaters as an opportunity to build bridges back to them?
I’ve been awakened to the possibilities by the pieces I’ve edited for The Flashpaper: Theatre’s Thoughts on Right Now. That’s the print-only journal I founded, which launches this week as a way to let theater artists respond to urgent current events, using any genre they choose. The Flashpaper also provides these artists a passive income stream that isn’t tied to having a show in production or even having access to a theater. They are all equally compensated for every issue sold, no matter when or where it is purchased.
Thanks to the contributors, the first issue of The Flashpaper is also a forum on how the industry can dismantle the worst parts of the old system and reinvigorate the best. With everything from original plays to manifestos to hand-drawn comics, they remind us that we have always had the capacity to reach people in multiple ways, through multiple channels, and with multiple points of view.
We can’t allow ourselves to forget that. We can’t allow ourselves to go back to the way it was before, because no industry that imploded as quickly as ours did was ever that stable to begin with. We don’t need to despair about that, or at least not only despair. We have the opportunity to reevaluate what theater is, what it means to be theater artists, and who it is that theater can reach. We have a chance to replace our sanctified scarcity with a sustainable and welcoming abundance.
Mark Blankenship is a theater journalist, editor, and podcaster. He is the founder and editor of The Flashpaper: Theatre’s Thoughts on Right Now, available at TheFlashpaper.com.