This is one in a series of stories marking the two-year anniversary of the COVID-19 shutdown. The full package is here.
For 24 months now, I’ve half-joked that many of American Theatre’s stories and special issues could simply be titled: What the hell is going on? Among the many losses visited on us by the pandemic and its aftershocks has been any sense of certainty, of time and events moving forward along any kind of predictable course. In immediate practical terms for the work of this magazine, this has meant trying to keep track of a dizzying array of projects and people as they stutter through a clogged theatre industry pipeline, as well as monitoring institutions (including our own) as their brave public faces barely conceal that the already attenuated nonprofit revenue model teeters on the verge.
On the verge of what exactly is the larger question, and that points to one of the ways these two years of COVID-19 and upheaval may have marked us all, for worse and possibly better. It is helpful to be reminded that our former certainties were never so certain after all, and in fact often reified an unjust and inequitable status quo. And in all spheres of life it is worth keeping in mind the existential questions of why we do what we do and who for. On the other hand, to wake up each day facing indeterminacy and existential questions is unsustainable; at some point we humans must forge some rough semblance of shared expectations, practices, structures, and commitments, though we do well to interrogate all of these with some regularity—indeed, to build self-interrogation into our practices.
The hope, if we can call it that, of this moment is that out of this forced process of self-examination, and amid the wreckage of many of our old expectations, we can forge genuinely new models that are more responsive and equitable. The possibility of that future is something I can glimpse, and I hope you can too, in the pieces we’ve put together for a special package to mark the two-year anniversary of the COVID-19 lockdown. These include a roundup of cancelled or postponed shows; an epic report on the remarkable journey of this season’s most-produced play, The Chinese Lady; a report on understudies and swings, folks for whom “the show must go on” is a daily reality; first-person accounts of two unique and timely docutheatre pieces, Coal Country and America in One Room; and the text of “Lock Up Tha Theatre,” a piece performed by Ayla Xuân Chi Sullivan as part of last month’s “Jubilee for a New Vision: A Celebration of Trans and Gender Non-Conforming Artists,” held at New York City’s MCC Theater in partnership with National Queer Theater and the Dramatists Guild of America. Theirs is a prophetic vision we need to keep ringing in our ears, and in our consciences, long after this moment of extremity is a memory:
I have seen so much death this year and in my life to know
Our theatre is dying not because of the world but because of us
We are killing our art every time we plot our careers over our people, over our city
We are killing our sacred craft every time we network for clout and shock and fair weather coin
We are killing the theatre because we forgot of its spine, its backbone, its morality
The theatre shapes us, we do not shape it
The theatre guides us, we do not guide it
The theatre is timeless, not of a forgotten time or of only this time
The theatre is change
The theatre is chaos
I can imagine an objection to that last line: Surely theatre, like all art, is one way we humans make form and meaning out of the raw chaos of life. But the realization that that chaos is in us, within our art form as much as our messy lives, is one of the dubious gifts of these past two years, as we’ve watched this art form, and our world, both collapse and somehow continue. That we are not ultimately in control of the narrative—that the dramaturgy of the universe is, if not downright capricious, at least incomprehensible—is a wounding truth that guides our work. And our play: Though we cannot hope to close any wound forever, in gathering to laugh, gasp, and dream together in the dark, we can be each other’s healing while we share this stage.
Rob Weinert-Kendt (he/him) is editor-in-chief of American Theatre. email@example.com
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