Rest assured: Before too long there will be countless theatre reopening stories to tell. This magazine will tell many of them, and I will undoubtedly write some of them.
This is not one of those stories. This is something different: In part it’s an attempt to talk myself down from the ledge as I gaze into the abyss that is the live performing arts field in this long COVID winter—a task in which I’ve enlisted the help of a number of sane, clear-eyed, relatively hopeful industry voices. And in part it is a plea for more realistic thinking on the part of theatre leaders, theatremakers, theatre fans, and politicians who genuinely want to help theatre and its workers survive, and see its audiences return safely.
The good news is that theatre will be back in some form. It has survived countless plagues, it’s an ancient art, you know the litany. But what form exactly? The cautionary if not quite bad news is that it will definitely not come back all at once in all U.S. cities and venues, and Broadway—the default industry standard and theatre “brand” in all too many peoples’ minds, not least New Yorkers’—is likely to be the last to reopen. We need not only to prepare for this uncomfortable fact, but to consider what it might mean for the performing arts to reorient their priorities. Could the center of gravity in the American theatre shift from Broadway and New York City, and might that not ultimately be a healthy development?
“There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer,” Mara Isaacs (she/her) told me when I asked her when and how Broadway shows might return. Isaacs, a producer on the Tony-winning Hadestown, also worked for years as producing director at McCarter Theatre Center and now runs an independent performing arts company called Octopus Theatricals, so she knows all sides and sizes of the business. Broadway, as she would be the first to admit, is uniquely vulnerable to an airborne pandemic: A 41-house district in dense, mass-transit-served New York City, it relies on packing anywhere from 600 to 2,000 folks, bused in from all over the U.S. and the world, into cramped seats in century-old buildings with poor ventilation, eight performances a week, for roughly two-hour shows, many of them packed with actors singing their lungs out, and crews and orchestras sharing tight quarters. How many COVID alarms does that set off?
Obviously a critical mass of vaccinations will need to be in folks’ arms before any of that begins to be a possibility, which is why most Broadway leaders I spoke to are eyeing October for a “staggered reopening,” and even that with a degree of wariness. (I spoke to them before this week’s vow from the Biden Administration to get vaccines into everyone who wants them by the end of July.)
“I am an optimist—I want to say we’re going to figure it all out,” said Isaacs. “But even what we did before was barely sustainable. The community is going to have to be all in, and at least for the first six months or longer, until we know if people are willing to come into crowded spaces, all these shows will have to have a reserve, a cushion.”
In the meantime, there are spaces poised to reopen in New York City sooner than next fall and before comprehensive vaccination, including not only outdoor venues but many with flexible seating and less punishing business models—i.e., nonprofits. Susan Feldman (she/her), artistic director of Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse, has been on a task force convened by Gov. Cuomo to strategize for reopening since last summer, on which she and her colleagues from the Armory, the Shed, National Black Theatre, and Harlem Stage have all been making a similar point.
“Our conversation has been about, can there be a pathway to reopening where everybody doesn’t have to stay shut until Broadway can reopen?” said Feldman. “Can we get the governor to recognize there can be an incremental reopening?”
The governor’s office, in conjunction with producers Jane Rosenthal and Scott Rudin, recently announced a series of “pop-up” performing events that will appear around NYC in the coming months, and the city of New York will soon offer applications for its Open Culture street permits, which will allow artists and companies to perform in public and charge for tickets starting in March.
“It’s not about getting box-office income,” said Feldman, who plans to have St. Ann’s participate in the Open Culture program with offerings in the park near the venue, with the option to move toward small events indoors by the summer should safety guidelines allow. “It’s about delivering arts to people; it becomes a different conversation, and not so transactional. It’s a whole other way of thinking about the work, which nonprofits already have going. We just have to get more funding.”
Corinne Woods (she/her), director of programs at Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York (ART/NY), said that her organization would be involved in the efforts of many Off-Broadway companies to participate in Open Culture. But she added, building on Feldman’s point, “One of the things that has been most challenging in this pandemic is that Broadway has been set up as what theatre is, so that Broadway standards, and Broadway’s ability to come back, have been set as the requirement for theatre to come back. That does not reflect the theatre field’s variety, especially when you’re able to step away from a model that’s so reliant on ticketing revenue. Which doesn’t mean that Broadway is bad or isn’t doing enough! Our survival is really linked together, despite having very different business models.”
That link is important. But so are the differences…
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