The print magazine we put out in May may not have felt much lighter than usual, but it was glaringly missing one key element: several pages of listings of theatre productions in nearly every state of the U.S. that have appeared in the back of every issue of American Theatre for decades now. That is because, as you will hardly need to be reminded, there are no productions on stages in the U.S. now, nor in the foreseeable future. Thanks to the deadly spread of the novel coronavirus disease christened COVID-19, our lives as citizens, consumers, workers, and artists have been irrevocably overturned, and theatre is just one among many social practices abruptly halted by the mandate for social distancing.
There is, at press time, no clear end in sight. Even if the curve of infections can be flattened, as it has been in many countries and some U.S. states, reports from those areas describe tentative, halting steps in the direction of “normal,” not full-blown or roaring recovery. That’s why, though there are no official stay-at-home orders past June, most theatres have canceled their summer seasons, and many have cancelled fall and winter seasons as well. Many of us worry that nothing short of a COVID-19 vaccine will be an all-clear signal to gather safely again—an eventuality as much as a full year or more away.
The long-term medical effects and economic trauma of this crisis have been and will continue to be well documented. Less easy to assess will be the damage to our souls and to our ways of relating to each other. We are irreducibly social creatures, even those among us who count ourselves introverts or misanthropes. Like it or not, we thrive on connection and community. And theatre has long been among our preeminent practices for sharing, examining, and affirming our common humanity, in spaces we share with others, often many others, usually strangers. That public communion is on pause, obviously. But artists never stop their work, even in winter or wartime. And it is artists, theatremakers among them, who will be our best guides through this virus’s spiritual devastation, and who will collect any unexpected, hard-won gifts of insight and clarity this worldwide crisis may bring us. Artists may also find dramatic inspiration in an excruciating irony: that the world is at last sharing a common experience with the potential to bind us into broad sympathy and a sense of common purpose, at the same time we are asked to stay warily apart from each other, to suffer this frightful uncertainty more or less physically alone. This is the stuff of Beckett or the Book of Job.
What, then, will American Theatre write about when there is no American theatre? In fact there is no shortage of things to write about now, in our painfully if temporarily dormant field. In the weeks since the country’s theatres shut down in mid-March, the staff of both American Theatre and Theatre Communications Group have been as busy as ever, keeping up with and disseminating news about the fortunes and futures of America’s theatrical and educational institutions. Just as importantly, we have been publishing and reporting the stories of theatre workers of all stripes, whose livelihoods and life plans have been so brutally disrupted. Some of those stories are represented in this issue, and you can expect to read many more, both here in print and at AmericanTheatre.org. We plan to be here as long as there are theatre artists and audiences who yearn to gather for an ancient ritual that has survived natural disasters, wars, and, yes, plagues. And we plan to meet you here on the other side of this crisis. Till then, you might think of this unwelcome interregnum as a pause, a rest, even a kind of sleep. And in that sleep, what dreams may come?