It is a strange time for a celebration. Today is World Theatre Day, and it comes just months after I joined the Theatre Communications Group as its director of marketing. None of this is about me, but as we all sit in isolation, the bitter ironies of coronavirus cancellations make it feel like it is about all of us, and our stories.
At TCG, we have been advocating vigilantly for support from Congress for our field, knowing that when/if we come out of all of this unscathed, the theatres will be the one of the major places where we all gather to heal.
And yet, amid this recovery conversation, there are so many still questioning if the arts are vital in this time of crisis.
Many have taken to social media, op-eds, and talk shows to criticize the less than 1 percent of the stimulus package specifically addressing the NEA, NEH, public radio and TV, and the Kennedy Center. But as our executive director Teresa Eyring said in a recent NPR article, “American theatre…does not live in a single building”. In the words of President Trump, “You’ve got to give them something.”
Former diplomat Nikki Haley asked on Twitter, “How many more people could have been helped with this money?” Well, the funds to the NEA and the other cultural agencies actually will help people—people in the arts who also need to work and pay their rent and put food on the table for their families during this crisis. Today, on World Theatre Day, I ask: How many more people could have been helped if they had been exposed to theatre?
Each year, TCG publishes Theatre Facts, capturing the non-for-profit theatres multi-billion-dollar impact on our economy. According to 2018 research by Americans for the Arts, Americans overwhelmingly agree that arts institutions add value to their communities. According to research done by the NEA, arts and culture add over $800 billion to the U.S. economy, or 4 percent of the GDP. And finally, there is research (and loads of anecdotal evidence supporting it) that participation in the arts contributes to the health of the U.S. civil society, making us more responsible and responsive citizens. Isn’t that what this whole coronavirus experience has been about?
On World Theatre Day, amid a global pandemic, we are once again back up against a wall and having to defend why what we do matters. I ask: How many more people, if exposed to sharing an experience in a theatre, would follow the rules of social distancing to protect their neighbors? How many people, after seeing a production that reflects just how alike we are, would think twice before sharing a xenophobic meme, or worse, inciting or performing an attack? How many would instead spread creative ways to combat racism? (See also: #RacismIsAVirus.) How many more people would have tools to express and a place to process the grief we are collectively feeling as some parts of our way of life are lost forever in this crisis?
As many adjust to become newfound keyboard activists and binge-watching gets boring, I encourage us to go vital, not viral. Theatre is vital. In an effort to go viral, it might be tempting to criticize its seeming triviality, to chastise artists who are now unemployed without a “backup” plan, but…just, don’t. Instead try sharing support and empathy for those going through something you may not understand firsthand but can relate to on a human level. Isn’t that what theatre teaches us?
If we have to shout it from our rooftops (at a safe distance of six feet apart, of course), it would do us all good to be reminded that theatre has always been there for us in times like these. I, for one, cannot wait to gather with you all again in a theatre.
Erica Lauren Ortiz is TCG’s director of marketing.