Dear theatre, I’ve been writing to you for a long time. But this time it’s different, because I’ve been thinking about how we as a field—freelancers, folks with salaried positions, those currently furloughed, crew, maintenance staff, interns, and even the theatre cats—can move forward again. Not in three years or four, after many in our field and audiences emerge into the light in search of places to gather and commune and break spiritual bread with residual trauma in their bodies and the weight of grief in their hearts. But now. Right now.
It is said that one of our jobs in theatre is to imagine the future while being in the present and acknowledging the past at the same time. In this moment, which may be longer than a moment, or may even be the eternal now (can we think about that yet?), is there a future we can not only envision but map out collectively, without, you know, leaving lots of folks behind as collateral damage—that charts an equitable way forward?
This is a moment that requires vision and leadership, craftiness and courage, faith, and patronage.
Because it is clear that at least in this country the current administration’s policies will do little to save the arts. It is also going to take lots and lots of working together rather than working in silos—one theatre there, another theatre here, one venue trying to sustain their “brand” whilst another drowns in the instability of their inability to sustain a company till the end of the year.
Much has been written, and perhaps much more needs to be, about inequality in the arts: who has a lot, who has little, and who has nothing. We are talking money and resources here. Not talent, skill, or ingenuity. Many arts workers are in the precariat class, and this moment exposes them cruelly to systems which may force them out of the field altogether. Because who gets to keep one patch of land when it all seems to be burning at once?
Photos of empty theatres grace the ruin porn of our Twitter feeds and Instagram posts. Mourning the many beautiful buildings—and not so beautiful ones too—has become a daily practice.
Look. That used to be a theatre once.
The possible reality that some of us are surrounded, depending on where we live, with the specter of block after block of empty theatres is a cause for despair. Justly so. But every time I walk by an empty theatre these days, the few moments I do venture out, I think about many communities where there’s not a single theatre (or cinema or opera house, etc.) on any block. And this makes me wonder about who theatre is for, and how we can do better.
I would like to think that theatre is its people—all of them, and not just some. All of us who work and dream at this dream work, and who do so often for meager pay, sacrificing much to engage in the necessary soul work of a society. Most people in the theatre are self-employed gig workers, chasing gigs and making gigs and having to be resourceful 24/7. Even on good days. But now that we’re in the bad days, how do we retrain ourselves to still do the dream work of society in ways that can reshape the inequities of the field on economic and structural levels?
Some folks have already been doing the work of reshaping the field, both from within and from the outside, for a long time. Often with little to no press, major funding or patronage or splashy pages in the papers of record, and with the lowest overhead you can imagine: staffs of one or two doing everything in community centers, church basements, parks, garages, tents, and pop-up theatres around the country. The contingent day workers of our theatres salvage scraps and look for gold, and sometimes manage. Just to break even. Barely.
Rethinking the Commons
Let’s start with identifying the “commons” and how we think about the theatre of everyday life, and how institutional theatres, for one, could function differently in the kinds of opportunities they not only make for artists, but ask artists to dream up themselves in exchange for fiscal support.
Where do people gather now, even in small ways? Supermarkets? Laundromats? Sidewalks? Open fields? Hospital waiting rooms? So how about commissioning composers to write music for laundromats and supermarkets and hospitals? Or commissioning writers and actors and directors and designers to create mobile video installation-plays precisely for such common areas?
How about we make possible something I have dreamt about for a long time: a bread-and-theatre initiative, i.e., deliveries door to door of bread (or other staples) accompanied by a little play offering?
What kinds of conversations can we have with landlords of shuttered retail stores about putting up window theatres throughout our cities? Maybe not, again, with live actors, because of health concerns, but with recorded performances created specifically for these walk-by and drive-by venues?
What about creating stations that operate like Citi Bike, offering audio plays and musicals for rental, maybe at the same price as or in tandem with renting a bike for an hour or two? Could theatres partner with Citi Bike or other ride share programs?
For communities with invisible and visible disabilities, what mobile theatres can we make to both include them and recognize them as part of our vibrant citizenry?
How about phone plays for elderly folks and those without access to art that can stream into their homes? Not everybody has WiFi, after all. Many depend on public libraries for their web access, and those are closed.
Shall we record the names of all the dead—all the dead—from this virus and its mutations and create a national/global epic-theatre call-and-response action daily?
Shall we reckon with the death in the room?
Moreover, how can we rethink the commons as an integrated arts space, rather than thinking about the edifice and the administrative infrastructure that supports it as the space that must be attended in order for us to “receive” culture?
Venues, Caring, and the Digital Commons
Given the dire shape of the economy now, and if we are to believe the smart folks in the field of economics who are already thinking about the future, we are headed not for better but for worse. For the theatre field that could mean a Darwinian struggle that would see venues with solid endowments able to bear the brunt of the catastrophe, while others fall by the wayside.
It doesn’t have to go that way. What if we could see the field as horizontal and not vertical? What if one big company that is taking it hard but has a game plan to stay afloat partners with five to 10 companies that are barely making it or about to go under in their region or across the country? What if we can save each other in a true culture of caring? Can we imagine such a field? One that looks across instead of up—that thinks expansively instead of insularly and silo-like?
Regeneration, restoration, equity (true equity), and healing take work. It takes, in other words, a lot of actors in a society, and hey—we in the theatre know something about acting and doing.
“In times of no steak, we make other things in order to feed ourselves,” my mom used to say. Art is soul sustenance. So, if the live as we may know it is not possible, then yes, let us Zoom and develop other platforms too to enact the dreaming and making and keep our artists fed (paid) and given hope. Let us be hopeful for each other while we are still here.
This means rethinking everything about the way we do things. It means rethinking the staging and writing of intimacy, about the way we experience and deal with proximity and distance, and even articulate the concept of touch.
It means acknowledging that our audiences, outside of the public art realm, will be unseen or “seen” only on chat bars/rooms and Zoom rooms that “show” them.
It means too rethinking what a theatre season means. A producer told me today that he did not know how to plan a season now, but I said to him: What about not planning? Or planning month to month? Acknowledging in a very practical, matter-of-factly existential way that life is fragile and unstable, and that any long-term, five-year/10-year season plans are futile at best?
Can we relearn how to be nimble?
If we collectively acknowledge that the limited public commons and the digital rentier capitalist commons are our realms right now, what about conspiring to make hybrid theatre pieces online? Not just readings. Not just streams of recorded shows. But whole new things just for the digital theatre and audio drama worlds. (They too have been part of our world for a long time.)
What about making a bunch of things with cool, talented folks like us who are just, you know, bereft and cancelled and at low tide in all senses, then putting them online through a ticketed portal (so we can all make a buck or two, or more than a buck, because rent and groceries and healthcare and….and…), and let them run in rep over a long period of time? Not just one show playing for a day or a week, or two weeks, but seven to 10 shows, scrappy-artful, poor, and beautiful, over a period of months? All up on a not-Netflix portal for a while? Why not make a thing of it, celebrate the artists and designers (feature their design work!) and choreographers and scholars and critics (!), as a way to sustain your audiences, rather than losing them entirely?
While you are at it, remember that not all folks speak English! So, consider works in “other” languages.
Make sure stuff is captioned, too. There are some talented folks in the captioning field out of work right now.
Consider sharing portals of work with companies in other cities. Rethink how co-productions can be made. Rethink international collaborations, which now will be only possible digitally, given travel restrictions. Consider VR!
Remember art speaking to the moment? Speaking past the moment too, but being a record of a time?
Remember not worrying about who gets to stage the world premiere but allowing stuff to just be seen because someone wants to do it and share a little art? Remember that what you started planning five years ago may not be what an imagined audience will necessarily need or want to see when they’re back in your socially distanced theatres, because who knows what audiences will be like then, in that elusive future we can’t hold?
But, you may say, let us not rush into things. Let us not get giddy over Zoom and YouTube streaming and forget that that is really just a placeholder. So, we hold the place. Let us hold it. Let us do things unrestricted by some of the ways of doing from before. Let us be crazy-bold, small-bold, all caps and no caps about the work.
Let us learn from our students and their teachers, who are reconceiving entire productions, not readings, online in the Zoom environment. Let us learn from Forced Entertainment and the spell-like meditations of their “End Meeting for All” series.
Let us not be afraid whilst we reckon with the fear in which we are living—the terror of being alive.
Caridad Svich is a text-builder and theatremaker who had three world premieres and one area premiere cancelled this year due to COVID-19. Her newest piece Better Maybe was written for the Play at Home initiative. She still believes in theatre, though she sometimes wonders why.