As the theatre community deals with the necessary cancellation or postponement of productions all across the country due to COVID-19, theatre education and community engagement professionals who work at producing or presenting organizations are mourning a double loss. Not only are we coming to terms with the sudden halt of so much work and effort by artists across all career levels, but we are also mourning the cancellation of school-based and community-based programming in support of that work, as well as the loss of arts education projects that enrich so many lives, young and old, beyond our stages.
It is important not to forget that the past few days have seen the cancellation not only of all productions on Broadway and at nonprofit theatres across the U.S., but also of matinees for thousands of K-12 students, production-related school-based workshops, long-term classroom teaching artist residencies, after-school arts programs, youth ensemble rehearsals and productions, community and school tours, international trips, adult classes and workshops, pre- and post-show audience gatherings, artist networking events, talkbacks, artist panels, arts conferences—the list goes on.
The sense of loss is compounded by the fear and the scars many of us bear, knowing from experience that arts education funding and programming are often the first items on the chopping block in times of economic strife. So as the country deals with the consequences of this pandemic, arts education and community engagement professionals are both thinking about how to save and sustain programs now, and about how we get ready for the advocacy and fight that is sure to continue once we find ourselves on the other side of this crisis.
In the meantime, theatre and arts education leaders across the country are coming together virtually to identify ways we can support each other, adapt our work to continue serving our constituencies, and support the freelance teaching artists that deliver these programs. While some institutions have been able to pay teaching artists for previously scheduled work that has now been cancelled in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, some cash-strapped smaller organizations who are simply trying to keep their doors open may be unable to pay these artists. If program cancellations continue through the summer months, this will undoubtedly mean the loss of income for thousands of teaching artists who rely on summer camps and classes for their employment. As we advocate for economic relief for displaced entertainment workers, let us not forget the thousands of teaching artists—accomplished artists in their own right—who are often the unsung heroes of the work theatres do in communities across the country.
Ultimately I believe this crisis has made clear to me and to many of my arts education and community engagement colleagues that just as our government and healthcare systems were unprepared to deal with this pandemic, we too have been historically unprepared and underfunded to serve our communities in innovative ways. The last few days have seen a rush to create online resources and curricula for youth and families at some institutions, and many other organizations are gathering more and more people to support each other remotely, exchange ideas, create art, and find new avenues for teaching and learning. Some theatres—including my own institution—have recorded performances, and many others are doing or considering live streaming. That is a good start. After this crisis passes, we will also need to equip education and community engagement departments with the funds and technology tools needed to make our work more accessible to our communities—the future of our field and our future audiences depend on it. I remain hopeful we can do it. Theatre people are nothing if not resourceful and adaptable.
In these times of uncertainty, I have returned, as I often do, to the words and lessons of theatre innovator and activist Augusto Boal:
Theatre is a form of knowledge; it should and can also be a means of transforming society. Theatre can help us build our future, rather than just waiting for it.
Our theatre education work at its core is about the resilience of the human spirit and about the value and impact that art can have on everyone’s lives, whether you engage with it professionally or as a participant in the community. I know that we will get through this moment, because our mission has always been about imagining a different today and a better future with and within our communities. Theatre is the most humanistic of art forms because through it we can not only see ourselves and reflect on our collective past and present, but also actively enact the world we want to inhabit: a more just, equitable, and inclusive world where the arts and artists—the truth tellers among us—are truly valued for their enormous contributions.
In the meantime, I continue to be in awe of my fellow educators and community builders who day in and day out—often without the support or recognition they deserve—give so much of themselves to so many to ensure that our art form and our world not only survive but thrive.
So in the midst of this global crisis, take a moment to thank a theatre and community educator or mentor. Help us advocate for the preservation and funding of arts education programs during these hard times. Their preservation is the very survival of our knowledge as a society and democracy.