Scholarly Perspectives on COVID-19, Part 11: Improvising Theatre in a Pandemic
March 11, 2021
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This is the 11th and final story in my series on Southwestern faculty perspectives on severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) and coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). Part 1 focused on biology, part 2 on mathematics, part 3 on economics, part 4 on sociology, part 5 on political science, part 6 on psychology, part 7 on history, part 8 on religion, part 9 on art, and part 10 on music.
Colleges and universities often separate the fine arts into individual departments: music, art, architecture, design, film and television, theatre, dance. But any faculty member will tell you that those classifications are fairly arbitrary. After all, many of the visual and performing arts have their intertwined roots in antiquity, and all have been deeply impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. As a “live” art (although, as we’ll soon see, that is a description that’s up for theoretical debate), theatre has been particularly hard hit, with only ghost lights illuminating empty stages or box offices significantly reducing ticket sales to accord with social-distancing guidelines. Consequently, thousands of actors, directors, stage managers, scenic designers, sound technicians, makeup artists, set carpenters, and front-of-house staff have been laid off or indefinitely furloughed. With such closures and restrictions, local economies have taken a hit as well considering that tourism is a driving force for many national and international art destinations, such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Vancouver, and London.
Back in Georgetown, Texas, Southwestern Associate Professor of Theatre Sergio Costola spent the early weeks of the pandemic thinking about how to revamp his courses. Classes such as Introduction to Play Analysis were challenging to adapt in the same way that any lecture or seminar had to be rethought for online or hybrid engagement. But courses with hands-on elements—in which students usually collaborate in person, learn to work with props and technical tools, and depend on close observation of fellow actors to shape their performances—had to be reimagined entirely. Moreover, he and his Theatre Department faculty colleagues Desi Roybal and C. B. Goodman had an additional challenge to consider: they had been accepted to participate in the largest arts festival in the world, Edinburgh Festival Fringe, in summer 2021 with a new piece after a highly successful showing there in 2018, but how would they rehearse and prepare the approximately 20 Southwestern students who were planning to perform given so much uncertainty?
“It’s a tricky question to say how the pandemic has affected theatre [in a practical sense],” Costola reflects, “because the pandemic is affecting the very way we think about theatre.”
Impacts on theatre communities
To understand the impacts of COVID-19 on the theatre community, Costola explains, we must first step back and consider that there are actually multiple theatre communities: high-school drama programs, theatre departments at colleges and universities, community theatres, regional stages, off- and off-off-Broadway productions, and the Broadway and West End theatre districts are quite distinct and have therefore borne the brunt of the pandemic in different ways.
For example, Broadway has suffered major setbacks because travel restrictions prevented attendance by the international tourists who help sustain long-running juggernauts such as Chicago and The Lion King. In London, the West End’s The Phantom of the Opera closed in July 2020 after 34 consecutive years because such an expensive production could not be sustained during the U.K.’s lockdowns. Moreover, closures last March and April meant that a slate of new Broadway plays and musicals and much-anticipated revivals were postponed or shut down without ever seeing an audience. In nonpandemic times, staging a new Broadway musical are phenomenally expensive, costing anywhere between $8 million and $20 million, and, says Costola, “even when a musical is successful, it takes years to actually generate profit.” So the prospect for new Broadway shows repaying their investors and remaining afloat has been especially bleak the past year, with their potential for becoming the latest Cats or Rent even more unlikely.
While Broadway’s future remains uncertain, some regional theatres have tried to support playwrights by commissioning miniplays that could be published online while others streamed live and recorded performances. Others have put on scaled-down outdoor or indoor productions with one- or two-person casts, minimal crews, and socially distanced audiences who were required to wear approved face coverings. Still other regional stages have unfortunately had to go dark, either indefinitely or permanently.
University theatres, meanwhile, do not have many of the constraints of Broadway or American regional venues, and because collegiate theatres share their funding with the rest of the institution and students earn class credit rather than salaries for putting on productions, collegiate drama departments are not quite as financially vulnerable as, say, community theatres. Even better, college drama departments are the ideal community for discussing and learning about the evolution of theatre—including its future. “Colleges can think about questions such as ‘what does it mean to do theatre?’ and ‘what is theatre?’” Costola says. “We can come up with new ways of teaching in the theatre, which means creating new forms of theatre and fostering new ideas that are, in turn, going to give opportunities to new generations of artists.”
Breaking with tradition
To create a new form of theatre, one must first reconsider what defines the work itself. For example, many think of theatre as a space for live performance, but, Costola explains, “The concept of being live and being present are being deconstructed and made more complicated than simply ‘we are in the same place at the same time.’ … The notion of ‘liveness’ does not dictate the thing itself, but it’s how you experience it.” That is, even before COVID-19, many theatres were experimenting with technology, incorporating prerecorded elements, such as orchestral pieces, into live performances. Others had ventured into streaming their live or filmed performances online or in theatres; the U.K.’s National Theatre Live, for example, usually broadcasts prerecorded plays on big screens in live-theatre venues, not unlike how movies are screened in cinemas, and during the pandemic, it has been sharing those productions for limited runs on their YouTube channel. Such experimentation suggests that productions need not be performed in real time with audiences on site to be classified as theatre.
Considering such expanded notions of theatre, Costola and his colleagues at Southwestern spent enormous time and effort researching and brainstorming alternatives for campus productions. Uncertainty about when exactly the pandemic might ease up meant that planning fall 2020 and spring 2021 productions was initially divided among three possibilities: with COVID restrictions, without COVID restrictions, or cancelation. But Costola felt that such uncertainty—and especially outright cancelation—would have a negative impact on students. “So I said, ‘Why don’t we create something that will work no matter what?’” he recalls.
One possibility was to set up multiple stages with screens across campus; only two actors would perform per stage, but they would perform songs while all the screens broadcasted the same media simultaneously. It would somewhat resemble immersive theatre, in which audience members traverse a venue comprising different rooms in which different actors are performing their parts: the entire venue is performing a coherent narrative, but the audience’s experience changes as they change locations and observe (or, in nonpandemic times, interact with) different members of the cast. Another option was for the Theatre Department to collaborate with Athletics in staging a six-day run of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Everybody, a Pulitzer Prize finalist that adapts the 1485 morality play The Somonyng [Summoning] of Everyman; that production took place in early November 2020 in SU’s new outdoor theatre, which hearkened back to the open-air odeons of antiquity.
In addition to imagining productions unlimited by single locations and showtimes, COVID-19 has offered the chance for Southwestern faculty and students to, Costola says, “break down the barriers that we have created in the Western world when it comes to theatre.” With the exception of the American musical, he explains, “It’s traditionally been only in Europe and the U.S. where all the forms of entertainment became their own disciplines, so you have dance, opera, ballet, and stock theatre, while in many forms of Asian theatre, for example, everything is still together”—such as in Chinese operas or the Noh dance dramas of Japan. The pandemic offers an opportunity to reunite those disciplines in Western theatre beyond the musical. Travel restrictions have also allowed artists to return to forms of art that are more connected to their local communities. Therefore, says Costola, “As devastating as [the pandemic] is for a lot of people individually and for the industry, it can also be an opportunity to rethink theatre.”
“As devastating as the pandemic is for a lot of people individually and for the industry, it can also be an opportunity to rethink theatre.”
Only time will tell the pandemic’s enduring impacts on theatre. What new experimental forms will evolve? Will audiences be willing to return to venues in droves, as they have after past pandemics and other catastrophes? And what genres will long-quarantined theatregoers be craving once the curtains reopen: will they be clamoring for raucous comedies, lighthearted musicals, cathartic dramas, escapist flights of fantasy, or hard-hitting tragedies that take on the pandemic directly?
Whatever the future holds, history tells us that enormous creative output was sometimes the result of the plagues of yesteryear; to many writers’ chagrin, myriad articles in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak reminded us that Shakespeare penned King Lear during one particularly virulent outbreak of bubonic plague (although, one might argue, it’s a bit easier to concentrate on writing masterpieces when one can rely on a monarch to supply a consistent paycheck!). History also reveals that even when past pestilences have shut playhouse doors to the public, such lockdowns did not necessarily result in plays that represented those pandemics. Short stories and novels have often depicted epidemic and pandemic disease, but the Bard, for example, makes only passing reference to plague in Romeo and Juliet even though he wrote many of his plays during recurring theatre shutdowns brought about by disease outbreaks. And although there are numerous plays representing World War II or the Great Depression, there are few, if any, plays that represent the 1918 flu pandemic, which infected approximately one-third of the global population and killed approximately 50 million. Only the more recent HIV/AIDS pandemic seems to have inspired multiple theatrical productions, such as the critically acclaimed and popular hits Angels in America, The Normal Heart, and Rent; there are many thought pieces and tomes to be written about why that might be the case, and we will only know in years and decades to come whether COVID-19 receives the same dramatic treatment.
For Costola, the ultimate opportunity of the coronavirus pandemic is innovation and renaissance. In researching and brainstorming how to prepare Southwestern students for the Edinburgh Fringe later this summer—an event whose programming necessarily remains up in the air—the theatre historian and dramaturge wanted to go beyond planning around the pandemic. Instead, he, along with his colleagues and students are attempting to imagine and develop something completely new. “What we need to do is envision a new idea of theatre that we can create,” he says. “It’s not only to convey concepts and allow students to develop skills, but now we have to think about new skills for a new kind of theatre.”
Attempting to do nothing less than reinvent the field is no easy task, of course, and Costola resorts to understatement when he considers the magnitude of the undertaking: “It’s a bit of a challenge,” he says with a laugh. One particular difficulty is getting his students to be comfortable with failure because creating a whole new process for theatrical production will inevitably result in initial hiccups and outright flops until he and his students can figure out best new practices. “It’s changing not only what I’m teaching but what students are going to be producing that I will be teaching in the future because theatre is not going to be the same,” he shares. “But this is the opportunity to really learn together. These are the opportunities we have here that other artists around the country do not have. This is the privilege we have in this situation, so let’s create something new rather than these narratives of doom that do not really help.”
Charlotte M. Canning, “Theatre and the Last Pandemic”
Laura Collins-Hughes, “‘Gotham Refuses to Get Scared’: In 1918, Theaters Stayed Open”
Tracy C. Davis, “Teaching Performing Arts during the Pandemic”
Stephen Greenblatt, “What Shakespeare Actually Wrote about the Plague”
Mark Harris, “How Can Broadway Recover from This Pandemic?”
Helen Lewis, “When Will We Want to Be in a Room Full of Strangers Again?”
Michael Paulson, “‘Godspell’ in 2020: Masks, Partitions, and a Contactless Cruxifixion”
Michael Paulson, “Making Art during a Pandemic: Theatres Seek and Share Mini-Plays”
Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, “Shakespeare Wrote His Best Works during a Plague”