Exercising your empathy muscles
“It’s a very strange time to run a theater organization,” said Michael Barker, managing director at the Westport Country Playhouse. “I’m not an optimist as regards our nation’s public health policy but I am when it comes to working in the theater.”
In this pandemic era of uncertainty, with re-openings of entertainment venues dead last in the list of essential businesses, will the theater ever get back to what it was? Broadway might - might - resume after Labor Day. Meanwhile, Connecticut theaters wrestle with ideas on not only how to open but how to do so safely.
How to deal with social distancing as audiences sit cheek by jowl? Will there be wellness tests at the entrance with everyone submitting to a temperature reading? Or, more likely, will we just have to wait for a vaccine? Or, heaven forfend, will we get so used to quarantining that we become our apps, staring at screens, robotically isolated?
“We won’t do anything that will put people in danger,” said Barker. But if we‘re playing to only 10 percent of capacity, there’s no way we could produce shows. Once we get through this, however, once we figure out a way to live with or overcome covid-19 with a vaccine and effective treatment, theaters will come back. I hear people say they need it in their lives. In the meantime we look to support from the government, from foundations, philanthropists, our corporate community.”
Vital to a non-profit theater’s existence are its subscribers. “They tend to stick with us, no matter what,” said Baker. “It’s really humbling. One of the reasons they come is to see stories of people who are not like them, that make them uncomfortable. People want to know about other people. Again, I’m an optimist.”
Not everyone is that sanguine. In an interview in The Guardian, trans-Atlantic producer Sonya Friedman warns, “Theater is incompatible with social distancing. Most theatres need to sell 60% of seats just to survive. The shortfall is not sustainable. If we want theatres to re-open, they will, for a time, until another solution is found, still need financial support.”
Not quite a death knell but close. “Certainly some of our institutional theaters will not make it through,” said Barker. “I hope when that happens, our reaction is to say those were really important and now we have to figure out a way to make this sector a little healthier. We have to make people understand that theater is valuable as itself.”
Theater has been counted out many times over the centuries, but the Fabulous Invalid has always rebounded. As a March article in The Atlantic by Professor Daniel Pollak-Pelzner reminds us, “Elizabethan theaters were frequently shuttered in London during outbreaks of the bubonic plague, which claimed nearly a third of the city’s population. . . . London officials . . . worried that people flocking to town to ‘see certayne stage plays’ would be ‘close pestered together in small romes,’ creating the means ‘whereby great infeccion with the plague, or some other infeccious diseases, may rise and growe, to the great hynderaunce of the common wealth of this citty.’”
Except for bear-baiting, Londoners had few alternatives: no movies, no streaming, no television. That we have those now, that we’re able to see the likes of John Malkovich, Ralph Fiennes, Sally Field and Bryan Cranston emote on the Internet is just not the same as encountering them in a theater, sharing spaces and emotions and the very air with the performers and hundreds of spectators. Humans are social mammals who yearn to congregate.
“A video capture of a theater production is not good enough,” said Barker. One of the reasons they come to the theater is to see stories of people who are not like them, that make them uncomfortable. We want to know about other people.”