American and Global Theater as we knew it has suffered a quick and sudden death. The productions displayed at the Kennedy Center American Theater Festival (KCACTF) give me hope that the magic and beauty of the theater may persist and grow back to the heights it had once enjoyed for so longer. However, whether we will actually witness this resurrection of biblical proportions is yet to be determined. But as it stands, Broadway and many theater spaces will remain in their caskets until at least 2025, with some never to emerge from the grave.The way that we used to consume theater, the way I grew up on, may never truly be as it once was. The days of a packed house in a smaller Iowa theater may be a distant memory.
And though it feels as though we are dragging our downcast and dismal selves through the dismay and darkness that has become known as 2020, we can take delight in the disillusion of those who believed in the “proper way to do theater” and embrace the somewhat late revelation that theater does not need to, and should not, be restricted to simply one stage in one building. And since research shows that the coronavirus can linger in still air for hours, having an audience sit tightly packed for hours is no longer a very attractive notion.
When the pandemic hit the United States, hundreds of plays were being performed, with thousands of people working on them. And all were shuttered seemingly overnight, including my own production. We were able to perform it on Zoom, but as any performer who was forced to relegate their performance to a digital box big enough for their headshot will tell you, it’s not the same. There was just something about not being able to perform it with my castmates next to me that just sort of cheapened and demystified it all.
As two weeks of lockdown grew into months and months of hibernation for the theatrical and entertainment industry, with actors not being allowed to share the same air as each other let alone a scene, the question shifted from ‘When will we be able to resume?’ to the much eerier and monumental question of ‘How do we resume?’. How does the theater live through a time of sudden social stagnation where it’s almost impossible to see blood relatives or make house payments, much less purchase an expensive ticket to a live performance in a building with poor circulation. While the early answer was table and theatrical reads of productions using the now extremely popular conferencing application Zoom, these KCACTF theatrical pieces and experiences may possibly not only answer the question of how theater survives during these incredibly tumultuous time, but how these types of productions might survive and help theaters stay open when, yes ladies and gentlemen I said when, this happens again.
These productions spanned different mediums and showed the enduring spirit and tenacity of the theater community. There were Zoom productions that were spiced up with the use of the app's green screen effect and color grading to try and help the audience suspend their disbelief. St. Ambroise University’s radio play of An Enemy of the People was a great example of the power that audio shows have, such as radio plays and fictional podcasts, in helping to create a world and suck the audience in with just the use of the actors’ voices and light soundscaping. Minnesota State University and Culver-Stockton College both performed on stage and recorded the performance, incorporating a mask as part of the costume (this is what I think the new normal might be once we have a handle of the coronavirus). Iowa State and Northwestern University both incorporated the centuries old practice of shadow puppetry to tell compelling and entertaining stories while creating an experience that is fun for everyone young and old. Northwestern even combined past techniques with present day technology to entertain the Earth’s next inheritors.
What I take from all of these productions put on by the next generation of performers is hope. I find hope in the drive to continue to create, in the variety of quality content that has come from a forced need to adapt. I find hope in the refusal to be deterred from creating to help keep one of the best historians of human culture alive and thriving. But there is one thing that is for sure. You may never see theater the same way ever again.