“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.”

Listen to Rob McLure, playing the title role in “Mrs. Doubtfire” until that new musical was felled by the pandemic: “Theater is the culmination of everything we’re craving — more than the singing and the dancing and this great American art form,” he said. “It’s a bunch of people telling a story and a bunch of people receiving a story. We’re craving the collective experience of being human. And that’s what theater is.”

Or Patti LuPone of the aborted revival of “Company”: “The arts are not superfluous. They are an inherent human right. Games and storytelling have been our life’s force for as long as they’ve been writing on walls.”

Or Rob Ruggiero, artistic director of TheaterWorks in Hartford on the new normal: “The need to commune, to connect, to tell stories is not dying, not going away. This is a long, not short game, with a transition period wherever people gather in close proximity. It’s going to be a process. For a little while, we’ll have to find new and creative outlets other than putting people together in a tight space. Theater is all about live energy. No one is looking to permanently replace that with a virtual thing.”

That “thing” includes a recent screening of “Next to Normal,” the Pulitzer Prize musical produced at TheaterWorks. Scheduled, in a different production, to start Westport’s 2020 season, its title and subject matter (a bipolar woman confined to her memories) is surely a metaphor for these times, eliciting feelings of pain, pleasure and isolation.

Despite gems like the National Theater’s telecasts of their repertoire (available on YouTube), electronic reproductions are transitional and can not substitute for live theater. “If the playhouse burned down tomorrow or we ran out of money and the endowment was decimated, if everything went badly and they just had to close, I believe people in the Westport area would rebuild the Playhouse” said Barker. “That unmediated distance between you and the performers and you and the design and you and the staging is unreplicable in any other form that I am aware of.”

Barker quotes an artistic director who starts every show with a “welcome to the empathy gym, where you come to work out your empathy muscles that the rest of the world is telling you aren’t important.”

For Barker, theater is like the very air. “How do you survive as a human being in life if you don’t take time to empathize with other people? We’re in the empathy game. Empathy is even more important now under the leadership we have. Theater can change the world. It has and I believe it will.”

Norwalk resident David Rosenberg’s column on the local theater and entertainment scene appears monthly.