“There aren’t a lot of plays about China in New York theatre,” Jeremy Tiang told me about a month ago in a busy Brooklyn café. Seated beside director Michael Leibenluft and actors Julia Brothers and Julia Gu, the Singaporean playwright noted that even the small number of China-centered plays in America tend to be skewed to an American perspective. (Of course.) “But that’s something I don’t have,” Tiang said with a small grin. “And that’s something we didn’t want to do.”
Enthusiasm for his play’s opening in two short weeks infused every word he spoke. The play in question was Salesman之死, an “almost!” true retelling of the 1983 production of Death of a Salesman at the Beijing People’s Art Theatre, directed by Arthur Miller himself—though he couldn’t speak a lick of Mandarin—and translated by Ying Ruocheng, who also played Willy Loman.
Tiang’s fascination with Miller began as a teenager in Singapore. “I started reading all these American plays set in a context that I was not familiar with, and there were a lot of things about Death of a Salesman that I really did not understand,” he said. “There was no way I could’ve seen a performance of it, so I just had this text that was bit disembodied to me.”
Curiosity would lead him to study Miller in college and eventually discover that there had been a 1983 Beijing production, which personified the very questions presented to him as an adolescent: “What does it mean to translate a story, not just linguistically but also culturally—and what is lost and gained along the way?”
Since 2017, when Tiang and Leibenluft began developing the play with bilingual theatre artists, the Salesman team has added Brothers and Gu to its ranks, collectively taking on workshops, rehearsals, and more than a few script edits. The group, or perhaps a more apt word is family, reminisced about three years of united creation.
“I’ve never experienced this level of openness and collaboration in a rehearsal room,” Brothers remarked, tearing up a bit. “It’s a relatively egoless room, and I just feel so privileged and lucky.”
The camaraderie—and excitement for an imminent world premiere—was palpable then, in that bustling coffee shop, and I felt privileged, too, just to be the one reporting it.
The next day was March 12, the day news hit that Broadway was shutting down. COVID-19 was no longer an indistinguishable, looming threat from overseas. It was a very real and dangerous presence on the gridded streets of New York City.
Weeks later, from isolation in his Brooklyn home, Leibenluft recalled over the phone that day in the Salesman rehearsal space. “People were sort of on their phones off to the side of the room, not immediately involved in the scene we were working on,” he said. “I think someone shared the news, and we could all kind of sense that the ground had fallen out underneath us. But we kept rehearsing, because what else were we going to do?”
What else, indeed. But by Friday, reality set in. Target Margin Theater, the intended venue for Salesman, announced the postponement of their season. Soon to follow suit was one of Salesman’s producers, Yangtze Repertory Theatre.
On the same phone call with Leibenluft, Tiang paused before addressing how he was doing. “I think I’m a bit in denial,” he said finally.
Meanwhile, upstate in Ithaca, N.Y., producing artistic director M. Bevin O’Gara spoke to me after she finished filing for Kitchen Theatre Company’s federal relief loan.
“We were supposed to start tech for Catch as Catch Can on that Friday,” she said of March 13. “But it looked more and more like it wouldn’t happen. I was in and out of rehearsals feeling the anxiety of the actors and the design team. Thursday night we left the office saying, ‘We’re going to push through this, and it’s going to be great.’ But by Friday morning, it just felt irresponsible to continue forward. So unfortunately, no one got to see it.”
Back in the fall of 2018, I was a literary intern for the Kitchen, and discussion of producing Catch as Catch Can was circling eagerly between O’Gara and director Zoë Golub-Sass. O’Gara’s longstanding relationship with the playwright Mia Chung, which dates back to both of their days with Huntington Theatre Company in Boston circa 2014, allowed her to watch Catch evolve until she finally brought it to Ithaca.
“I had the opportunity to see the play in New York, and what she had done with it—it had been two years since I’d seen it [in a 2016 workshop]—I was just blown away by how she had developed it. I was enraptured by it.”
That only increased her eagerness to produce it at the Kitchen. “We had a couple of actors in our midst who I knew would interpret the work really strongly,” she said. “Frankly, I’d met Mia when I was a very young director, and the thought of giving the opportunity of such a challenging work to a young director like Zoë was really exciting. It was also one of the most anticipated shows of our season.”
Which is why she and the rest of Catch’s team hope this isn’t the end.
“We’ve got the set sitting there, and probably the largest prop show the theatre has ever done, so all of that’s sitting backstage,” O’Gara said.
I imagine there are many empty theatres across the country that look about the same. In addition to grieving indefinite production delays or altogether cancellations, all U.S. theatres now face the difficulty that curbed administrative action for so long: the concept of losing money. On this front, O’Gara conceded that theatre’s future appears “pretty dire.”
“Most theatres operate show to show,” she said. “They don’t have a lot of cash reserves. We’re relatively fortunate at this moment that we were able to pay out our contracts and get through the next month with some support.”
The Small Business Administration’s federal disaster loans are, according to NPR, a pot speculated to amount to $350 billion total. O’Gara sent in the Kitchen’s application a week ago.
“It’s a lifeline, but that’s going to go fast, especially if all small businesses and not-for-profits are competing for that same pile of money,” she said. “It also needs to be spent in eight weeks, and when you’re not producing plays during that time…” She pauses to search for the upside in all of this. “I mean, it’s a great program, and it’s massively vital to the economy in general, but theatre in particular. We’re taking this as an opportunity to look at—if we do get these funds—what other ways we could employ artists to create work right now, so that some of those contracted employees are still getting those weeks.”
Sally Shen, Yangtze Rep’s executive director, also noted the financial challenges ahead: “Salesman was the 2019-20 season’s main stage production, which was not only our biggest-budget item of the season but also the only revenue-generating program,” she said. “Besides losing ticket sales revenue, the cancellation also created pressure to meet grants compliance requirements.”
With the majority of Yangtze’s funding coming from project-based government grants, Shen was grateful that some loosened their requirements and extended the original deadlines. “Our hope,” she said, “is that we can regroup in the future.”
The future. It’s hard to remember that just a month ago, it wasn’t so blurry and uncertain. But for now, perhaps theatre artists can find solace in the indefinite time they now have to think, learn, read, create, and be with one another, whether cooped up in quarantine together or through the (thankfully) vast social internet.
“I created a WhatsApp group for the cast,” Leibenluft said. “We’re sharing photos of what people are cooking and episodes of TV and all of that. Sustaining that community has in some ways softened the blow of what’s happening. We’ve also talked about possibilities of creating something or collaborating together in different ways during this moment, but that hasn’t materialized yet.”
Tiang jumped in to say that this period of social distancing might serve better as a time to reflect on what it means to make theatre happen, acknowledging Idris Goodwin’s recent analogy of this moment to an “inciting incident” rather than an intermission.
“This feels like a moment to stop and ask what kind of theatre we want to see when it comes back, rather than just yearning for a return to what we had before,” Tiang said. “Accessibility is something we’re lacking. The fact is that theatre is produced on such an unaffordable scale. Ticket prices are often unattainable. I hope we find a way to create theatre that isn’t so dependent upon, well, essentially, capitalism.”
O’Gara also expressed the need for introspection, focusing on how theatre efforts can remain mission-driven. For the Kitchen, this means dedication to community.
“We’re going to be needed more than ever on the other side of this,” she said. “That sense of communal storytelling that really only exists in this art form, that sense of being together, being in a room and watching art happen in front of you and feeling that connection is something that people are going to be so hungry for. I think people who’ve never wanted to be in a theatre before might try it, just to be with people. This is a real opportunity for theatre.”