With coronavirus grinding the theatre to a halt and completely upending our lives, it’s easy to feel despair. But if you just breathe in (at a safe distance of six feet away from anyone else), you’ll realize that we theatre people are uniquely equipped to face this crisis head-on (without touching our faces). Our existing behaviors fit surprisingly well in this new reality, albeit with some modifications. The following is a list of suggestions for how to remain a theatre person in a world that’s now strangely theatre-free:
- You may feel cooped up by these “shelter in place” rules, but remember we’re inside people. If you’re perfectly happy watching an Atlantic Stage 2 or Roundabout Underground show in a mile-down bunker, you can stay in your house where at least there are windows. If you would’ve killed to see Taylor Mac’s 24-hour marathon show, please recognize you’re not the outdoorsy type.
- You’re already used to sitting for weeks on end in uncomfortable folding chairs; what’s “working from home” but a very long session of table work? That said, if you’re home all day you’ll need a solid routine. I suggest Tuesday through Sunday 10 a.m.-6 p.m. with an hourlong lunch break, taking a five-minute break every 60 minutes or a 10 every 90. Unless the company votes for straight sixes.
- You may feel some withdrawal from not seeing shows, and streaming alone won’t cut it. Let’s face it, when you say “streaming theatre,” I hear “low-definition TV.” But you can still experience the trappings of live theatre, minus the actual shows. Instead of collecting playbills, collect toilet paper. Instead of rushing through the streets to make curtain, rush through the streets to avoid contagion. When you have a glass of wine with dinner, drink from a souvenir sippy cup for nostalgia’s sake. The best part: You can still glare at people for excessive coughing, you just can’t shush them for it.
Doubtless your biggest sense of withdrawal comes from not making your art. But there are lots of ways to incorporate your theatre life into your shelter-at-home life:
- Playwrights, you can keep blowing your commission deadlines, only now you have the bitchin’ excuse of a global pandemic instead of the much vaguer excuse of “I haven’t quite found it yet.”
- Technical theatre folks: All of your lights are now house lights, and all of your flashlights are practicals. Actually, forget lighting entirely—the long hours stuck at home may feel more familiar if you plunge your house into darkness and make every day a 10 out of 12.
- A director friend once said nobody knows what a good director actually does. While that remains true, the CDC has shown definitively what a bad director actually does. So perhaps we’ll emerge from this with a newfound appreciation for leadership.
- Artistic directors and managers, you’re doing great! But hands off those author advances.
- Agents, please continue enforcing all contracts, particularly the social contract of covering your mouth when you sneeze.
- Lit managers, you gotta admit: “You should stay home and read scripts” is basically the “Who wants ice cream?” of the LMDA set.
- Marketing people, instead of selling season subscriptions, maybe sanitizer subscriptions?
- House managers, if it helps, you can number your dining room chairs A1, A3, and A5 and your couch cushions B2, B4, and B6.
- Stage managers and stagehands, you can keep wearing your blacks, but when you get home from outside, you should practice the quick change.
- Fight choreographers, why hide the nap? It’s been a long day.
- Commedia experts, please resist donning a Pantalone costume and shouting, “Did someone say mask shortage?”
- Actors, instead of memorizing lines, could you maybe memorize the coronavirus’s unique RNA sequence? And instead of learning your blocking, could you maybe learn all the potential drug combinations that will block the viral receptor sites? I know you’re not trained virologists, but the scientists aren’t nailing this, so maybe let’s try it and if it works then we’ll keep it (the vaccine)?
- Development people: this is gonna be one hell of a final grant report.
- All of us: it’s going to take some mental adjustment, but for once you truly can’t blame the critics.
In closing, I’ll just say this. Let’s all remember that the theatre is ancient, and fundamental to the human condition. Let’s all remember that theatre people are family. That connection you get from working on a show and rejoining years later and it feels like no time has passed? That connection remains for us. Above all let’s remember that seeing a show is a rite. When next we rejoin for that rite, after whatever travails this time may bring, as the lights go down we’ll all breathe in—we’ll breathe in freely for once—and revel in the profundity of our vocation with renewed gratitude for each other and what we do.
Oh, and one more thing: We said we were gonna achieve gender parity by 2020. With 0 productions nationwide, by golly, we did it.
Mike Lew is a playwright whose plays include Teenage Dick, Tiger Style, and Bhangin’ It.
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