The world of theater is simultaneously emerging and retreating, as the Delta variant upends a long-awaited return to normalcy. Comebacks have been replaced with setbacks, and artists have adjusted their expectations accordingly, anxiously bracing themselves for delays and backlogs.
Broadway’s shutdown in March of 2020, with virtually all live venues around the country following suit, led to what the New York Times called a “Great Cultural Depression”: theatrical artists on unemployment, world-class musicians on food stamps, and creatives everywhere dipping into savings to survive. Many had no choice but to quit.
The vaccine, of course, has created some optimism. As has Broadway’s reopening. But Broadway is only one part of the American theatre and the attention it gets belies the artists and theatres across America that make enormous contributions on less-than-enormous funding.
Now, as theatres reopen, we thought we’d look in on theatre artists to see how they coped with the long months without theatre and the current uncertainty, and ask about their expectations for the future.
“Theatre has to justify its existence”
Playwright Alix Sobler is feeling the upheavals of COVID.
When the pandemic hit, Sobler was in the midst of a productive period. She had just returned to New York from the opening of her play The Glass Piano in Florida; she was planning a trip to Toronto for the opening of The Great Divide, her play about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire; and she had planned another trip to Stratford, Ontario for Certain Women of an Age, which she was co-writing with Margaret Trudeau (former First Lady of Canada and mother to its current president, Justin Trudeau).
“It took me a long time to feel the loss of the artistic work,” Sobler says. “We could no longer measure our value and happiness based on [the work or] what we were doing, and that’s something I was forced to reckon with immediately.”
Early in the pandemic, she made social media posts about crushing on her new co-worker, her husband Jason: “I was trying to squeeze some levity out of the terror.”
Then she found solace in more pressing priorities: political postcards and virtual volunteering. “I was focused on actual political activism during the pandemic,” she said, rather than the literary kind.
Sobler had coincidentally written about a pandemic, Last Night at Inwood. For her own post-pandemic play she decided to tackle a different plague: misinformation: “I’d call it the next phase of the crisis.”
Fault Line Theatre, an Off-Broadway incubator of new work, developed Sobler’s play, Hindsight, an exploration of the flood of misinformation that began with the abolishment of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. Hindsight runs until October 23 at the Paradise Factory in New York City.
A play running as the pandemic lingers presents new challenges. It’s not just the safety protocols or logistics—Sobler says they are “not that hard once you’re vaccinated.” Instead, “There’s a level of anxiety that occurs after the fact for those of us who came through it. A new level of scary. It’s not going to be as easy to jump back into regular life as we think it’s going to be.”
There’s also a new kind of pressure: “When you’re writing a play, you always think it’s important. But this has to speak to a moment in a way that’s different because none of us have been in a theater in eighteen months. Justifying our existence in a world that hasn’t seen us for a year and a half is a lot of pressure.”
“Don’t waste a good crisis”
David Winitsky is a multifaceted theatre professional. Based out of New York and Philadelphia, Winitsky is a freelance director and teaches at Cornell University. He also spearheads the Jewish Plays Project, a national festival of Jewish work with a renowned annual competition.
On Friday, March, 13, 2020, Winitsky called his producer and said: “I guess I’m not getting on a plane to Chicago.” As the play competition was gearing up for national presentations, he immediately saw the need to pivot: “We were one of the first to go online.”
In 2020, he also served as the interim director of the Kitchen Theater Company in Ithaca. Here he pivoted as well, staging a video production of Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba for the Children’s Theater of Charlotte.
When reflecting on his busy year, he laughs. “I’m good in a crisis! If you’re in a car that’s spinning off the highway into the median, I’m the guy you want in your passenger seat. In another life, I’m an EMT.”
His advice: “Don’t waste a good crisis.” As the world of theater collapsed, Winitsky saw a chance for institutional shifts. He advised boards: “This is your opportunity, when all the rules are different, and all the things are changing, to make those changes you’ve always wanted to.”
Now, as regulations ease up, Winitsky is returning to Charlotte to re-stage Tropical Secrets for an actual audience. This spring, he will direct Settlements in Philadelphia.
Despite his positivity, Winitsky admits that the pandemic has been draining. First there is the re-planning of productions, which “takes a lot of energy.” Also there is the pandemic itself: “What’s difficult now is the ongoing uncertainty, the length of the uncertainty.”
“Everyone was telling us we were not essential”
“Before the pandemic, I would have defined myself as a traditional theater-maker,” says Tova Wolff. “I love a script, I love a stage, I love a pretty traditional understanding of the relationship between stage and audience.”
Wolff, an actor turned director, was the associate director of the national tour of The King’s Speech—the play based on the movie—that kicked off in January 2020.
In March, the plug was pulled while The King’s Speech was at Hartford Stage: “a devastating blow to every artist and creative soul who made that show possible.”
In February, Wolff had launched a small non-profit organization, Refracted Theater Co., with co-founder Graham Miller. Her attention during the pandemic turned solely to Refracted in the form of an audio-immersive theatrical series called The Swell and full-length plays in green spaces around New York City.
“The pandemic has forced me as an artist to get uncomfortable, to work with forms that didn’t exist before,” Wolff explains. “We were nimble.”
Their most recent piece, I Couldn’t Tell You Why, by Harrison David Rivers, was a work about a young queer man’s relationship to his father. It was produced in partnership with the OPEN CULTURE program of New York—a city program in which streets are closed to vehicles to become dining and theatrical destinations. Wolff directed the audio portion that the audience heard on headphones while watching a movement-based interpretation of the play performed on 47th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenue.
Refracted is relocating to Wolff’s hometown, Chicago, where Wolff believes the long-term goals of the young company will be better supported.
“Every day over the past eight years I have fought to make a life for myself in New York. Recently I have come to the realization that life doesn’t have to be a constant fight.”
Wolff is looking forward to the “incredibly creative and resourceful non-profit theatre landscape of Chicago” that fosters true community, distinct from the “theatrical empire” of New York City “with Broadway at its helm.”
“I really don’t take theater for granted anymore. A part of me took comfort in the fact that theaters have been around for thousands of years and couldn’t possibly disappear overnight. But the doors closed.
“Everyone was telling us we were not essential. But the work we create, I believe it is essential.”
Providing strategic support
In many ways, these struggles are not new. Theatre artists have always faced desperate financial questions. The difference now is the extra layer of difficulty added by the lingering pandemic. The surviving cohort of artists need support as they search for a new marriage of tradition and innovation.
We see a number of ways in which the philanthropic community can support these artists and organizations:
- Unrestricted grants to parent organizations is strategic and almost always tax-deductible: consider Fault Line Theatre, The Jewish Plays Project, and Refracted Theater Company.
- Project grants make the development of these plays—and the technical and production costs that go into bringing them to audiences—possible.
- Establishing fellowship grants for playwrights and directors can mean the difference between working two or three jobs to make ends meet or working to make art.
- Purchasing blocks of tickets for students or low-income audiences directly impacts the theatre as well as providing a rich cultural experience for people who might otherwise never witness a work of modern Jewish creativity live on stage.
As larger operations like Hamilton resurface, it is important to remember that every large show started as one hungry artist’s idea. Many of the shows that are too big to fail began as fragile productions in smaller venues. The support of the philanthropic community may make the difference between the curtain going up or staying down.