This is part of a season preview package.
This past spring, as we marked the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 shutdown, I was reflecting on ways TCG had trained for the times we were in. The metaphor of a marathon came to mind: the way an athlete builds the strength to run fast, stay upright, and eventually hit the finish line. For many years, TCG had been facilitating peer relationships within the theatre field, advocating on a bipartisan basis in Washington, and advancing EDI and anti-racism work. When the convergence of 2020-21 events occurred, we were ready and in shape to lead the field through challenging times.
I knew our deputy director, Adrian Budhu, had run five or six real marathons, so I asked him what he thought about the analogy. He replied: “Actually, I’ve run 19 marathons, and yes, there are similarities.” He went on to talk about the daily training, attention to diet and rest—all the diligent, necessary, unsexy work to make sure you’re in shape for the big day. Without that preparation, you won’t succeed.
An out-of-shape non-runner doesn’t wake up one morning and successfully complete 26.2 miles. It’s the ongoing, day-in-and-day-out practice over time that sets the stage. In the metaphorical race of these pandemic times, I think of the years of community building, anti-racism work, and federal bipartisan advocacy that made TCG ready to support the theatre field through the challenges of the last 18 months.
And yet, while we had cultivated some organizational and fieldwide muscles, for sure, we did not have all the answers; none of us had any idea how long and hard this would be.
At some point this past summer, we thought we were finally approaching that imaginary finish line: a time of reopening, and a glorious and triumphant return to live theatre. And then we realized, while the race was still happening, the finish line is still illusory at best.
As we enter the fall season, theatre reopenings are underway. At the same time, the Delta variant has taken hold all over the U.S., hospital beds have reached capacity in some states yet again, and vaccines and masks have become political footballs. And theatres are still in the game of adapting, calculating risk, and being prepared to shut down temporarily if there’s a positive COVID test in the cast (or an extreme weather event, given that climate emergency is more dire than ever).
There’s really no metaphor for this. And, rather than trying to compare this experience to something else that is familiar, why not think about what’s different? What is new? What is next? What has never been tried before?
Thanks to historic federal funding, performing arts organizations were able to survive this uncertain time. The combination of longstanding advocacy coalitions such as the Performing Arts Alliance and the Cultural Advocacy Group, combined with new efforts such as National Independent Venue Association, the Professional Non-Profit Theatre Coalition, and #BeAn ArtsHero, helped bring about a new level of federal appreciation for the impact of our arts sector. Thanks as well to congressional leaders such as Amy Klobuchar, Chuck Schumer, and John Cornyn, alongside a host of other elected officials. That’s different. (And yes, let’s keep it!)
A period of racial reckoning after the tragic murder of George Floyd, as well as movements such as #WeSeeYou White American Theater, encouraged unprecedented changes in funding and organizational culture, and sharpened the focus of predominantly white institutions on racial equity. There isn’t a finish line here. This is an ongoing effort, and we must stick with it.
We are also facing down a climate crisis. The pandemic shuttered theatres across the country, but in some places, wildfires or floods would have shut them down anyway.
Finally, we know that artists are not supported as they must be in our ecosystem. Where is the safety net? Where is the respect for the creative minds and bodies at the center of our industry?
Jesse Cameron Alick conducted a study this year in collaboration with the Sundance Institute in which he interviewed over 70 artists about their vision for a post-COVID world. The study, titled Emerging from the Cave, resulted in four key themes that artists deemed important to pursue next: Collective Leadership, Holistic Artist Support, Hybrid Futures, and Spaces for Ideation.
This fall, TCG will hold a series of online and in-person gatherings to explore “What’s Next?” We will cover topics such as advocacy, resilience, and reimagining financial models and theatres’ role in battling the climate crisis; we will also hold a daylong live event to go deeper into the findings from Emerging from the Cave. We hope you will join us with energy and openness to the possibility of a new future for our beloved American theatre field.
Teresa Eyring (she/her) is executive director of Theatre Communications Group.
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