Submitted by Don and Peggy Doman.
“Theatre is a series of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.” – Tom Stoppard
Imminent disaster is almost always just around the corner for most live theatre companies around the United States. It’s probably always been that way . . . and that’s in good times. COVID-19 has drained the bank accounts of both local stage productions, traveling productions, and Broadway itself. This is not a “one off” type of happening, the wolves have gone pounding at the doors of theatres three times in the last century and probably reaches back to the time of Shakespeare and beyond. The Spanish Flu, the Great Depression, and World War II all threatened live theatre.
The Spanish Flu:
“During this time, theaters including Broadway were kept open and were regularly inspected. Although theaters were spaces where disease could be spread to hundreds of people, the Department of Health noted that theaters could educate the public about how not to transmit the flu and could prevent the spread of hysteria. Many theaters prohibited children younger than age 12 from entering movies or shows.”
The Great Depression:
“The 1930s arrived with bells and breadlines. The number of Broadway people affected by the stock market crash was uncountable. . . The 1929-30 season produced 233 productions. The 1930-31 season was reduced to 187 productions. . . This fall in new productions set a trend that (with the exception of the 1931-32 season) would continue for quite some time. New productions on Broadway dipped to 98 shows in 1939; for the first time since the turn of the century, there were less than 100 shows being offered. – talkinbroadway.com/bway101/5.html
World War II:
A 1945 magazine article which outlined the various goings-on that took place in Broadway theater during World War Two: “Show people will never forget the year 1944. Thousands of men and women from the legitimate theater were overseas in uniform – actors and actresses, writers, scene designers, stage hands – and all looked back in wonderment at what war had done to the business… Letters and newspapers from home told the story. On Broadway even bad shows were packing them in…” – oldmagazinearticles.com/article-summary/1940s_Broadway_Articles#.YHH_OuhKiyI
“Great theatre is about challenging how we think and encouraging us to fantasize about a world we aspire to.” – Willem Dafoe
Live Theatre across the United States and around the world has responded with new techniques and ideas. When we finally are able to open the theatres again, we should see theatre worth waiting for.
“During the pandemic, and mostly strict lock-down in Los Angeles, I have watched myself and others discover new and creative ways to create. For years I’ve taught Improvisation in classrooms, and though it doesn’t translate perfectly into the online format, I have found successful ways of adapting exercises. Students consistently comment on how much improvising takes their minds off the pandemic. And when we’re laughing and having a good time, I think we’re all momentarily forgetting the distance between us. Auditions have moved to self-tape, self record, and zoom meetings with casting and clients. Overall, I am amazed at how we have adapted. Certainly getting back to business as usual is preferred, but creation and collaboration are far from a standstill.” – Jaime Moyer (Jaime has appeared on AP Bio, Disney’s K.C. Undercover, Parks and Recreation, and numerous voice/overs)
“As far as productions go, last year our last live show was in February when we performed 10 short plays by Mark Harvey Levine titled “Dim Sum.” In October and December we streamed two plays that were adapted as radio plays from the original stories of “Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde” and “A Christmas Story.” We opened back up to live performances in February for one weekend of “Night Mother” — limited seating for social distancing, audience wearing masks, temperature checks prior to entering, no intermission, and opening the house 15 minutes prior to curtain. A sponsor generously paid for the royalties/scripts so we able to make a reasonable profit. We are preparing to perform live again in April with 10 performances of an original script written by one of our group (no royalty fee). The landlord of our current venue is doubling our rent next month so the group decided to move to a larger venue in hopes of engaging a larger audience…our current venue seats 36 and with social distancing we limited seating to 20 per show. The location we are moving into in May will cost us more but is much larger so we will be able to have a lobby, storage area, etc., and will seat up to 75. It is located in a larger town about 15 minutes from our current location. We did secure a SBA loan last year which we used to pay the rent at our current location. We have built up our savings account so we are fingers crossed. We did sell out 3 of the 4 performances of “Night Mother” and hope to sell a lot of tickets to our April show to help finance the move etc.” – Ken Armitage from the Panhandle Community Theatre in Pace, Florida
I’ve known Ken since our days in acting class at Clover Park High School in 1962/63. A week after he gave me the above details one member of their acting group tested positive. Their next five shows will be canceled.
A month ago, Oliver Skrzypczynski from Central Queensland Australia asked for permission to use my short story, “Wearing the Mask,” as part of a scene in a local production they are writing about COVID. I granted the request and I look forward to reading the script. – thesubtimes.com/2020/08/21/wearing-the-mask-a-short-story/
Here are some insights from Lavinia Hart, who taught Drama and Directing at Wayne State University in Detroit and now lives in Lakewood, Washington.
“The big question of 2020 and 2021 for theatre artists everywhere is ‘Can it be done?’ Many producers and artistic directors stood with the reality that theatre is an event in which live actors perform with the presence of a live audience. The alchemy that happens between creative reality in the performing space and the willingness of the audience to go along with those performers, with or without the bells and whistles of designers is a kind of magic that is palpable. It’s an event that is remembered and retold in a way that film or television can’t compete.
The irony is that theatre folk are cut from the cloth of ‘never give up’. The history of theatre through the ages is marked with suppression, banishment, not being allowed within the city limits, censorship. The history of living theatre includes working off the back of carts, in the field of produce by Hispanic artists who used theatre for the rights of migrant workers, street theatre, theatre in found (empty) spaces, tennis courts, palaces and fields with giant puppets interacting with human actors.
So when I was faced with making theatre or not making theatre for the last year, I followed the advice of Ruth Gordon as she recorded in her autobiography MYSELF AMONG OTHERS: If you want to work in the theatre you must never, under any circumstance, ever face the facts. We would follow science and still find a way to make theatre during time of covid. I began working for Oakland University in April of 2020 directing THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME.
For 7 months we did weekly design meetings and 3 months of rehearsals, coaching, recording, and re-recording. We worked 100% through zoom. We began with the belief that social distancing would probably be mandatory and that we could handle it with preparation of reduced seating in the house, upgrading the air flow in the theatre and making sure that the acting ensemble of 12 maintained a distance of 3 to 6 feet apart. The leading character in the play is a boy in his early teens who is on the autism scale and makes a commitment to discover who killed his neighbors dog in the middle of the night. It is a Jungian journey of the ‘hero’ as his investigation leads him to painful discoveries about his parents, life outside his home and classroom, and whether or not there is a place for him in society. The autism scale somehow played a part in the design element and concept for recording that was exciting on many levels.
Theatre artists are collaborators. We tackle difficult problems every step of the process. And, those problems are resolved by opening night. It rarely fails. We decided to record all rehearsals of the play and all design meetings. Besides being a team working with a common goal and agreed upon design elements, we would honor the work of designers and crew members as well as the actors. The end-product would be available to the public to see how theatre is made under normal circumstances AND under extraordinary circumstances. The end-product would also be useful in future design classes as examples of process and creative responsiveness.
This project turned out to be the challenge and reward akin to the highest roller-coaster you can imagine. As new restrictions and obstacles grew each week under the tutelage of Dr. Fauci and the experts in departmental and university administration, the safety of all students and participating faculty was without question what brought change after change after change to the project. As a veteran artistic director of a small professional theatre I thought I had already weathered every possible storm. The ‘Curious’ team learned to roll with the punches, take a breath, and ‘pivot’. I remember asking the Chairman of the Department at Oakland University if ‘pivot’ was a term he had made up or was it a term that was out there in the mass lexicon. He told me it was in common usage. It definitely evoked the image of a basketball team – when someone is blocked by strong opposition you pivot until you can throw the ball. Pivoting and running with the ball became the name of the game.
We survived all the changes. A few cast members dropped out of the project because they decided not to continue with the fall semester. Designers kept designing with changes in mind and ultimately preserved designs that were never used but became excellent portfolio material.
The actors became experts with their dialect work. They worked during the summer with the movement coach who wanted them fit for the demands of a very physical approach to theatre. We learned to not grieve when we found that the idea of group scenes rehearsing out of doors and intimate scenes rehearsing indoors with social distancing was no longer possible. We went forward with recording the students in their own spaces at home with siblings, children of their own, parents who forgot they were recording and walked through the background doing chores. We worked in good faith, even with the equipment failures that were inevitable when you have a dozen folks in different locations with different levels of electronic devices. But at last the sound designer had everything she needed.
I never believed that acting or directing was an option when ‘online courses’ came into being more than a decade ago. Departments were rewarded for creating courses that allowed students to register and study without coming to campus. I said ‘NO, NO, NO!’ But following the directing project, I began teaching advanced acting to students at Florida International University. I have come to know the work and the growth of these students because you can’t hide from a camera! They accept coaching beautifully. They are responding with genuine professionalism every step of the way because they’ve made friends with the eye of their screen camera. I was thinking recently that I love being able to work with artists thousands of miles away. Our cultures are different, we laugh easily, there is much less distance between I and Thou – our faces are only a few feet apart from one another as we talk about the inner life of their character and how it is represented in the outer world. Unbelievably, I thought to myself, I’m going to miss this close connection when we go back to our human energy of a dozen people in a room practicing how to lift the spirits of mankind through their chosen art form. I might incorporate a few zooms in the new rehearsal era.”
While actors and directors are gaining insight, reality is always snapping at the heels of local theatres. “This past year has been devastating to our theatre. Fifty percent of our revenue comes from ticket sales and COVID-19 restrictions forced us to suspend production in March 2020,” said Angela Bayler, managing director for Centerstage Theatre. “Celebrate Centerstage is our largest single fundraiser of the year. Proceeds from this will help sustain our company until we can get back to normal programming.”
The last review we wrote for the Olympia area was “The Highest Tide” at the Harlequin – thesubtimes.com/2020/03/11/the-highest-tide-harlequin-play-review-olympia/
The last review we wrote for the Seattle area was “Cabaret” produced by the Seattle Gilbert& Sullivan Society: nwadventures.us/Cabaret-Seattle.html
The last review we wrote for the Tacoma area was “Assisted Living” (a complete production recorded and edited for viewing on the internet) at Tacoma Musical Playhouse: thesubtimes.com/2020/11/19/assisted-living-the-musical-comes-to-tacoma-musical-playhouse-virtual-review/
There’s a romance and power to live theater.” – Joshua Jackson
Sitting and staring at live people perform is almost magical. Books enter your mind, movies can be screened a hundred feet away and life size at the end of your bed, but in a darkened theatre the actors are reaching out just to you. Real people connecting with real people. Theatres are an essential art form . . . an intimate art form. They are doing what they can to survive, but we’re afraid some may not and that is a crying shame. This wouldn’t erase our memories of great productions from the past, but it would mean a loss of the magical what could be.
I would hate that people couldn’t see their own versions of what are still wonderful moments like Portland Center Stage’s thought provoking “Underneath the Lintel”; sitting on stage at Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s presentation of “Cabaret”; seeing two completely different (and both wonderful) versions of our favorite musical “She Loves Me” at the University of Washington and Issaquah’s Village Theatre; the excellent musical review of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” at Tacoma Little Theatre; the painful joy of Book-It’s “Racing in the Rain”; the mesmerizing presentation of The Iliad at Seattle Rep; the bad jokes, humor and children’s laughter of the British pantomimes that are enjoyed by four-year-olds to grandparents at Centerstage Theatre in Federal Way; the surprising captivation of our hearts with “Addams Family, the Musical” at Tacoma Musical Theatre; the absolute stupidity and fall-on-the-floor laughing entertainment of “Attack of the Killer Murder . . . of Death!” by Theater Schmeater; and taking our nephew to his very first play, “Peter Pan” and seeing Peter and Tinkerbell fly across the audience at Sumner’s Main Stage Theatre in Sumner.
And that’s not mentioning the superb Seattle Children’s Theatre. While sitting on his grandfather’s lap, our three-and-a-half-year-old grandson screamed in delight during “The Adventures of Frog and Toad” when Frog went to wake Toad for spring and Toad kept forcefully replying, “Bah!” (which Riley kept repeating for hours afterward) and took a mallet to his alarm clock as the works went springing into the air, and when the birds flung cookie crumbs seven feet in the air. The experienced granddaughters already had their regular routine: Before the performance, they asked for pens to mark up their programs and put vampire faces on all the photos. If theatres close, where will people from young to old experience the intimacy, the humor and pathos of live theatre?
“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts.” – William Shakespeare
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.