Theater Died in 2020. Its Rebirth Will Be Suitably Dramatic.

·18 min read
Jamie McCarthy/Getty
Jamie McCarthy/Getty

Tim Teeman: It’s been nine months, right? My much-loved and trusted paper diary tells me that the last Broadway show I went to see was Six, on March 7. As you could have predicted Naveen—we should tell readers we are regular theater-going buddies—it was a matinee, my favorite time to see any show. Six would be the first opening hit by the shutdown, announced March 12, the very day Six was due to open. That set in motion the cruelty and erasure to follow. Six has been on my mind a lot, because that’s when the frozen-in-time state of theater began, and so awful because this was a show with wit, intelligence, color, noise, and fantastic performances. It was diverse. It was a bolt of freshness. I hope that when Broadway does return that Six has the opening night it was denied.

Since then, as I and you have been writing about in The Daily Beast, the theater landscape has transformed. It has shut down. New York has nada. Theater workers of all kinds are in a waiting game, as is everyone to see when and how the vaccines will change things enough to get Broadway and beyond back on track. Alongside that is the industry debate about racism and change—and how and when that too will happen. And sure, there is a kind of Tony Awards set to happen; any celebration is good I guess. This one seems a little hollow and bittersweet too.

As we are writing this, the coronavirus relief package that looks set to be passed includes $15 billion for cultural organizations, under the umbrella of the Save Our Stages Act. However, President Trump is bellyaching about the amounts allotted to the Smithsonian, Kennedy Center, and National Gallery of Art. Trump is, as ever, seeking to hold all sides to his own idea of a ransom, and in doing so is whipping up a dust cloud of yet more uncertainty into the eyes of those who just need help—urgently.

The Tony Awards Are Postponed. How Will George Floyd and Coronavirus Impact Theater’s Rebirth?

Naveen Kumar: Man, that second week of March seems like eons ago, we’ve been frozen in amber since! Remember the Broadway League’s first official shutdown of four weeks? (Is there a “laugh to keep from sobbing” emoji?) There's been a lot of time for reflection this year, about what theater can and should be, how it might adapt to the moment and to the future. As it has with everything else, the pandemic has exposed the industry’s faultlines and inequalities and really forced everyone to reckon with why it matters. We can get to our feelings about that, as fans and critics who've been able to turn our attention elsewhere for the time being.

But first and foremost, theater is a job for thousands of people who’ve been out of work and struggling for months, without the sort of robust government assistance that arts organizations and artists have received in Germany and the U.K., for example.

With the stimulus money in a holding pattern over the holidays following Trump's objections, we'll see what happens. But there are already questions about how the money for arts relief will be allocated to benefit institutions over artists (and stage hands, crew, ushers, box office workers) who need it most.

Unions—for actors, musicians, stagehands, and others—will be among the most significant players in terms of hashing out a path forward amid financial precarity. As we’ve seen with high profile disputes playing out at the Metropolitan Opera, concessions will have to be made by both management and labor.

It’s a question of spreading out the absorption of losses, with unions working to ensure their overall positions aren’t weakened once long term recovery appears in reach. In the meantime, I think major theater unions like Actors Equity still have to reckon with what concessions, if any, they’re willing to make in getting members back to work once conditions are safe.

Tim: Coronavirus has affected people very personally, with actors, off-stage workers, and their loved ones getting sick. The death of Nick Cordero from coronavirus garnered many headlines. Nick Westrate wrote an excellent piece for The Daily Beast about the hardships being faced by the arts community, and the need for government to step in and do something.

As Nick wrote, according to a study commissioned last year by the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Entertainment, theater in NYC is responsible for $1.3 billion in annual economic output, 8,409 jobs, and $513 million in salaries. “Very few actors work on Broadway for an entire year. There are a few, absolutely, mostly in musicals. They are most likely ensemble members who make a Broadway minimum of around $2,000 a week. Those shows do not last forever, and neither does a performer’s contract. Shows close, have limited runs; actors are injured, or replaced. The financial life of an actor is an inconsistent patchwork. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a New York City actor has median income of $72,000 a year: a working-class wage in this town. That number is even lower for Black and Indigenous actors, and for all actors of color.”

Naveen: Organizations like Broadway Cares and The Actors Fund have raised considerable cash to help folks in need, with a constant drumbeat of readings and reunions and broadcast specials. The community and fans rallying in support of each other has been great to see. But all this shines especially stark light on the fact that American theater is largely dependent on the largesse of donors and patrons who can afford to support it.

That’s why we get something like Tina Fey’s NBC special One Night Only, a somewhat cringey and entirely shameless commercial for a subset of Broadway shows (Mean Girls, Aint Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations, and... Jersey Boys? which hasn’t been on Broadway in years) that represent its basest and most palatable form: familiar material that doesn’t ask anyone to think too much and raises the pulse only as high as Frankie Valli’s falsetto. If theater needs to make an argument for its essential role to civil society (to democracy, even!), that ain’t it.

Tim: Maybe, but right now with Broadway not operating at all, I think any reminder of its existence is valuable—and NBC have been particularly good at doing this. The Today show a few months back did their usual Halloween dress-up, and this time it was inspired by Broadway shows.

It felt very apposite and moving: the Today show and Broadway are both geographically near each other, and in pandemic times the small-scale-meets-big-message idea was practical and effective. It wasn’t just an excuse for showtunes and dress-up: the anchors made clear the parlous financial state Broadway currently finds itself in, and the need to support it and its workers. That took all the anguish of critics and cultural commentators, and placed it straight on the breakfast tables of Middle America.

A bigger issue is a question of leadership, how theater is going to open safely again, and who’s going to be deciding what and when. Get ready for the battle of the Broadway League and the various unions, and all their pandemic experts. There will be a lot of chefs in the reopening kitchen. They may be driving towards the same goal, but with very different sets of priorities and people and interests they are fighting for.

Naveen: In Berlin, anyone can pay the price of a movie ticket to see a wide variety of often bizarre and challenging (state funded!) shows that frequently force them to question their values and the government that pays the artists. A lot of wealthy patrons in the U.S. don’t want to spend a few hundred bucks on dinner on 9th Avenue and a night on Broadway to then have their values thrown into question. But, as we’ve also seen, some audiences do want to be dominated and undone. And if they haven't already seen Slave Play (now the most nominated play in Tony history), hopefully they will when it inevitably returns to Broadway after the shutdown.

Jeremy O. Harris, who wrote that play and keeps collecting hyphens in his artistic life, has been vocally advocating for the Biden administration to create a Federal Theater Project. While we're looking toward a recovery plan, there's precedent as part of the New Deal for vigorous government support of the theater industry and its workforce. I would, as the kids say, absolutely love to see it; surveying the industry and its priorities now, I think it would take an earth-shattering paradigm shift. I’m not sure how many deep pockets who produce and support Broadway agree. It’s also a tough time for me to muster that much faith in the U.S. government, even with a new administration.

Tim: You have written some brilliant pieces for The Daily Beast—for example, on “We See You, White American Theater, #Bway for BLM, and the first Antonyo Awards—about the challenges facing theater when it comes to reflecting true diversity on stage, and off. Broadway producer Brian Moreland, who faced criticism as a Black member of the Broadway League, spoke to me about how he sees change evolving, and the urgency of that change was underlined by Victoria Velazquez, co-founder of Women of Color on Broadway, who I spoke to in looking to the future of theater, post-pandemic.

Naveen: It’s been encouraging to see some of the big non-profits adding and promoting artists and administrators of color to their leadership (like Lileana Blain-Cruz becoming a resident director at Lincoln Center, and Saheem Ali and Shanta Thake associate artistic directors at the Public). Similar moves have been happening at regional theaters too. It’s tough to predict how this will affect what we see on stage in the future, but I’m more hopeful about seeing substantive change come from the top down than I would be by programming for a single season that features more diverse voices.

As you say, Tim, I’ve reported on some of the organizing that’s sprung up this year to draw attention to white supremacy in American theater and compel allies, and potentially bad actors alike, to acknowledge their place in perpetuating it. These largely behind-the-scenes, grassroots groups are also working to lay the pipeline for theater workers of color—not just actors, but designers, stage managers, administrators, and more—to break in and thrive in the industry.

The first step, as two-time Tony nominated costume designer Dede Ayite told me, has been sharing and listening to each other’s experiences with racism, micro to macro, in audition rooms, rehearsals, offices, and everywhere else. Those conversations, and the strength of will behind them to affect change in whatever way possible, are also an encouraging sign. The obstacles, many of them systemic, are daunting. But with so many people speaking out, from marquee names to students (like those performing August Wilson’s work in the fabulous Netflix documentary Giving Voice), it’s tough not to feel at least a small glimmer of hope.

Tim: As well as crystal balls, we should celebrate what theater there was this year, even if it does seem like another time and planet. Some January to March standout openings for me included A Soldier’s Play, which was beautifully acted and directed (and included memorable whooping for Blair Underwood’s unintentional strip-tease), Grand Horizons (Jane Cornwell still owns a little quadrant of my heart), and my favorite production in a cut-short year, Lucas Hnath’s Dana H.

The quality of every element of that, from Deirdre O’Connell’s virtuoso performance to Andrew Boyce’s set and Les Waters’ direction, still makes me hold my breath, and—far beyond anything I saw on Broadway—makes me long for theater for return.

The last big Broadway opening before the close down was Girl from the North Country, which I hadn’t loved on its smaller stage at the Public Theater, and loved when it transferred to Broadway, where it seemed to have found the right scale; a bigger stage illuminated its darkest corners, and the echoes for all its sense of history and lost time. Then there was Ivo van Hove’s West Side Story, which I thought it was an ill-conceived mess, and Laura Linney as Lucy Barton; she’s a wonderful actor, but the production felt lost.

Since the shutdown, theater has moved online, and—sad to say—I cannot say I have loved much of it. I really liked the Apple family’s lockdown stories as imagined by Richard Nelson (I don’t think you did Naveen), although with reservations, particularly when it came to tackling issues of race. And I really loved Michael Breslin and Patrick Foley’s Circle Jerk. Bolero Juilliard was an extremely special celebration of art by that institution’s students, and Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday was a blast too, not least thanks to Audra McDonald, Meryl Streep, and Christine Baranksi singing—virtually—“The Ladies Who Lunch.” Otherwise, a lot of virtual theater has left me cold, underlining what we temporarily cannot enjoy, rather than showing the industry off at its best in absentia.

Naveen: I haven’t been an avid virtual theatergoer. At first, I found the whole range of digital simulacrum too depressing. My nerves and attention span were frayed, and I couldn’t extend the generosity of spirit required by early Zoom plays and archival streams. (Though, I’m with you Tim, it’s a good thing I was on my couch for “Ladies Who Lunch”—the decibel of my screams would have cleared a crowded room.) Mostly, I cued up classic movies and returned to perennial TV favorites (why The Americans is my ultimate comfort series is another conversation). I wanted to escape.

At its best (and for me in this case, worse), theater forces us to confront the moment—the room we’re sitting in, the world, and our place in it. Good lord, did I not want to do any of that! To the extent that TV and film resumed production this summer, most often the goal was to keep the pandemic off screen. In whatever form virtual theater has taken this year, it’s nearly impossible to forget the reason we’re not all in the same room.

The most compelling productions I did see met audiences where we live. The Apple Family Zoom plays bored me to tears because my mind would not willingly go to comfortably outfitted Rhinebeck living rooms. But the one-on-one, interactive video calls that comprised Theatre for One: Here We Are forced me onto my kitchen floor—the connection between performer and audience was direct, intimate, and visceral.

Circle Jerk by the theater collective Fake Friends, which I know you and I both loved, Tim, was definitely theatrical. But it also felt like the invention of a new form. It didn’t see the digital format as a set of limitations, but rather took the substance of internet culture (memes, AI, toxic white gays) and exploded them into something totally new. It exemplified the sort of rethinking I hope outlasts this whole ordeal.

Tim: Despite a severely abbreviated season, the Tony Awards sail on. As I wrote when the nominations were announced October 15 (even if the ceremony’s actual date has become a weird, unnecessary guessing game), Alanis Morissette-inspired musical Jagged Little Pill and Moulin Rouge! The Musical lead the nominations, with 15 and 14 nominations apiece. Moulin Rouge’s Aaron Tveit will win lead actor in a musical because there is no one else in his category.

Slave Play leads the play categories, with 12 nominations (the same number as Tina—The Tina Turner Musical), while The Inheritance has 11. There were only 18 shows eligible, because of the Broadway lockdown which went into effect March 12, just as the opening nights of Tony-eligible shows were peppering the calendar. Indeed, that night the show Six was set to open, and never did.

Shows like West Side Story and Girl from the North Country were deemed ineligible because they did not open by the announced cutoff date of February 19. It was decided that not enough Tony voters got to see shows that opened after that date. Two wonderful shows which deserve laurels of some kind—Freestyle Love Supreme (co-created by Lin-Manuel Miranda) and David Byrne’s American Utopia—chose not to invite Tony voters. Whoever takes part in the Tonys should make as much noise as possible about the economic imperatives at play—and the social and human consequences for those who work within and outside our theaters.

Naveen: Sigh. I feel like Charlotte on Sex and the City begging her fiancé Harry to “set the date!!!” Watching the Broadway League kick the can on the Tonys has become high farce. Nominations were finally announced, somewhat arbitrarily, a few weeks ahead of the election. Meanwhile, the Electoral College has managed to certify a chaotically disputed vote, but the Tonys still can’t pick a date?!

The problem seems to me that the Tonys function as one big broadcast commercial for Broadway, and without tickets to sell, producers and the League aren’t motivated and don’t want to waste precious ad time while stages are dark. But the ceremony is also for the community itself—for the nominees, of course, but also everyone else in and around the industry and fans of all ages.

It’s a bummer the League has fumbled the ball thus far. I think whatever semblance of a virtual ceremony they manage at some point could provide a much-needed morale boost and celebration of last season (however long ago it seems). But if the Tonys are not also a fundraiser for the artists and employees out of work, I will hurl my TV out the window.

Tim: Yes, it really needs to be. As well as the devastation, there have been some uplifting stories, like Edward Pierce, the famed Broadway designer who contracted coronavirus, almost died, and then—in his recovery—made American medical history. He, his wife Pixie, and his doctor spoke to me about his amazing experience. Patti LuPone, who was starring in Companywhen the pandemic began, spoke to me from her Connecticut home about sex, drugs, and the basement videos that so bewitched folks a few months back.

We should also note the deaths of major gay figures like Terrence McNally (I spoke to Audra McDonald about working with him, and his legacy), Larry Kramer (friends and collaborators spoke to me candidly about their experience of him), and Mart Crowley (members of the cast of The Boys in the Band, original 1968 production and 2018 revival, shared their memories of working with him). As to theater’s grand reopening, one thing I guess we can be sure of is people are creating busily. As well as the sudden departures from the city, and sudden occupational changes, people are also working on stuff. When we can see things again, there may well be a lot to see!

Naveen: On the commercial Broadway side, I hope the practical imperative of catering to tri-state audiences before tourism returns to New York leads to more daring work. I could see a rise in limited runs of challenging plays led by younger, more intrepid producers. Even with stars and small casts to help investors hedge their bets, the playing field could be wide open for experimentation. (Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over is a three-hander and painfully relevant as ever. Just saying!)

But lean times also lead me to believe we’ll still get our fair share of classics and familiar material (Mamet! Miller! Mrs Doubtfire!). To which I say, bring on the Dolly Parton jukebox musical but throw the rest in the trash. And please, for the love of God, let’s take the American Buffalo revival to the curb while we’re at it. I’m a dreamer, Tim, what can I say?

Tim: Dream, dream, dream. Never change. We will not be spoilt for choice. The most fascinating thing, chatting to producers like Daryl Roth, is the sense that—as well as the joy attendant on people who love theater welcoming theater back—the nature of the first wave of theater’s return will likely be tonally very uplifting.

Yes, characters will face challenges, drama will not go soft. But, at least when theater first returns, the general vibe may center hope and positivity, strength and resistance, rather than open-those-veins degradation and tragedy. I guess that’s based on what producers and theater companies think audiences will want to see most immediately. I get that. I also hope that, at the right moment, the cheerleading comes with a hint or two of grit.

Whatever, let’s hope this year sees us back sitting in the dark, safely, and together.

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