COVID-19 | How to Birth a New American Theater

by Jesse Green, Maya Phillips, Laura Collins-Hughes, Elisabeth Vincentelli and Alexis Soloski
LA Times
September 11, 2020

When New York City shut down on March 12, its theaters were preparing for a busy spring season: big names on Broadway, Tony Awards mania, millions of dollars in sales and of course a smattering of thoughtful, important plays on smaller stages.

That’s all gone.

A cause for grieving, yes: especially for the thousands of artists out of work. Playwrights awaiting their breakthroughs no less than producers awaiting their windfalls instantly faced a future that had literally gone dark.

But what if the end of the business-as-usual party were actually the start of a new dream of what theater could be in New York — and by extension in the rest of the country? It’s not as if the shotgun marriage of art and industry that for decades decided what and whom we see onstage had produced an equitable, or even a sensible, result.

Just the opposite, as the Black Lives Matter movement and cultural offshoots like We See You White American Theater have pointed out. The racist assumptions, lordly practices and bad compromises that have favored some voices and squelched others at every level of production amount to what Jamil Jude, artistic director of True Colors Theater Company in Atlanta, has called “a gross case of malpractice.”

And then there is the garden-variety malpractice of an industry perpetually at odds with itself. As the increased violence against Black Americans has laid bare the inequities of creative access, the collapse of the economy has forced us to notice just how badly organized the business part of show business has been.

Things clearly had to change — and with the enforced pause of the pandemic, the opportunity has now arrived in the nick of time. If ever there was a need, and a moment, to fix the theater, this is it.

So for the six-month anniversary of the shutdown, The New York Times asked its theater critics — as well as dozens of people who make theater every day — what those fixes might look like.

Some of their ideas are pie-in-the-sky. (Profit-sharing?) Some are small-bore. (No more couches onstage!) None taken alone, or even all together, will effect an immediate, magical change to full equity, inclusion and financial stability. And even the biggest, best innovations will be difficult to sell in an environment that lacks concerted vocal leadership from those in power. It may be up to artists themselves, working from the ground up, to make change happen. 

But it’s worth noting that the American theater has remade itself during disaster before. The Depression led to a flourishing of socially conscious (and often government funded) drama that produced a golden age of playwriting. In the aftermath of World War II, the regional theater movement arose to make the art form more responsive to local audiences and less fixated on profit.

Likewise, in the six months since theaters went dark, we have already seen that theater can arise from the ashes of the world’s (and its own) failures. In some ways it has even thrived. Artists in their lockdown apartments, whether next door in New York or anywhere in the world, have been creating new work online and delivering it to anyone who wants to watch it. This new ecology of all-access production has reminded many of us that the human need to make and share stories, not just to sell them, is immortal.

Even so, especially at moments of great change, it needs to be midwifed. As the actor and playwright Nikkole Salter has said of this moment, “Ask women who have given natural birth: There is a time to breathe and a time to push.”

This is a time to push. And here are some ways to start. JESSE GREEN

 


Too many playwrights who emerged from the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement have been forgotten. They deserve a second look. By Maya Phillips

Class, it’s time to review the syllabus. Shakespeare, Ibsen, Williams, Miller, Pinter: If the history books have taught us anything, it is that theater loves a singular image of brilliance — and that image is often of a white man.

To build a new theater, we need to break open this canon, making room for people of color to be studied in classrooms and thus, eventually, take their place on contemporary stages.

We have, and will surely see again, the plays of August Wilson and Lorraine Hansberry. We are well-acquainted with Suzan-Lori Parks and have just met Jeremy O. Harris. But to expect them to represent the whole history of Black theater is lazy and ignorant.

Embrace Hansberry and Wilson and Parks and Harris, but consider them in a long, rich and largely unknown historical context.

Three points on the timeline: In 1821, William Alexander Brown opened the African Theater, the first Black theater in New York City, and two years later his play “The Drama of King Shotaway” was presented there. It’s considered the first work by a Black playwright produced in this country.

In 1896, George Walker and Bert Williams were the first Black performers on Broadway in “The Gold Bug.”

In 1916, “Rachel,” by Angelina Weld Grimké, became the century’s first full-length play written by a Black playwright and acted and produced by Black people.

I knew of Grimké as a noted Harlem Renaissance poet, but not as a dramatist. Is that because her work was billed as a “race play” and derided as too political?

“Rachel” — about a bright young Black woman who becomes disillusioned with the injustice African-Americans encounter and decides she’ll never bring children into this unjust world — is worth revisiting now, for its lively dialogue, advanced sexual politics and stubborn portrayal of racism.

There are countless others ready for their close-up. New York theaters have recently presented work by Adrienne Kennedy, including a brand-new play, and the Roundabout Theater Company promises to stage “Trouble in Mind” by Alice Childress on Broadway when theaters open again.

I want to hear from May Miller and Ed BullinsLouis Peterson and Lonne Elder III and Eulalie Spence — playwrights of the Harlem Renaissance and Black Arts Movement, moments in American cultural history marked by pride in self-presentation. (Several of them I learned about only through research; I, too, need to expand my education.)

The Black Arts figures were central to the tradition of activist art from the 1960s and ’70s. Agitprop gets a bad rap, but it was a powerful tool of protest against the Vietnam War. So if radical times demand radical means of expression, why not revive the incendiary dramas of Amiri Baraka? Or look further back, to the political plays of the Harlem Renaissance poet Georgia Douglas Johnson, who wrote fiercely about lynching?

We need to look forward, too. Contemporary playwrights of color are plentiful in the pipeline, and they are getting commissions. But they need more than residencies and promises of consideration; they need productions.

Once Covid has left us, let’s see theaters deliver full seasons of work by people of color, and not just fill a slot. Let’s keep track of the commendable promise just made by Lincoln Center Theater — commissioning writers of color for shows aimed at its big, potentially lucrative Broadway house, not one of the smaller spaces.

“The Negro is already in the theater and has been there for a long time; but his presence there is not yet thoroughly normal,” W.E.B. DuBois wrote. “His audience is mainly a white audience and the Negro actor has, for a long time, been asked to entertain this more or less alien group.” 

That was 1926. Things haven’t much changed for Black artists, nor for Latinx and Asian and Native American ones, and every other nonwhite group.

In this time of turbulence, we must rally for a theater that rises to the full force of the moment.

While we’re at it: Schedule more “Black out” nights — discounted performances exclusively for people of color, as Harris arranged for “Slave Play.” This will help make theater welcome, and accessible, to audiences that rarely get to see people like themselves onstage.

 


Experiments in lockdown have made live performance far more accessible, reaching new fans all over the world. There’s no going back. 
By Jesse Green

Streamed theater was supposed to be a tourniquet: an emergency measure to stop the industry from bleeding out while the pandemic made in-person performance impossible.

But something totally unexpected happened. Zoom playsInstagram monologuesYouTube shorts and other hybrids started blossoming on their own terms — and with a few huge advantages.

Those advantages are so important that they need to be part of the new normal. When live theater finally returns, the streamed kind, far from disappearing, must continue in parallel.

Fairness alone demands it. The low-cost, high-impact, huge-reach format allows artists who could barely get past the gatekeepers before to establish themselves on a nearly equal footing with long-ensconced figures.

The same goes for audiences. Anyone with a computer can now see almost anything, regardless of where they live, what their schedule is and whether they have disabilities or differences that physical theaters too often fail to address. A subtler barrier has also been removed, so that people who don’t fit the traditional audience profile — which is whiter, older and wealthier than the general population — need no longer feel unwelcome.

Can we really dream of retracting that access?

Access works the other way, too. Theaters anywhere can now play everywhere, achieving viewership numbers they never dreamed of. Richard Nelson’s “What Do We Need to Talk About?” — produced on Zoom for an eight-week run — was seen by almost 80,000 people. It would have taken a year to accommodate that many people at The Public Theater, Nelson’s home base. Far smaller companies have also seen their audience numbers soar.

Of course, some people do not consider streamed theater to be theater at all. That’s true to the extent you define the form as a gathering in real space of performers and viewers. But let’s recall that intimacy is always an illusion. Actors aren’t really eyeing everyone in the 1,500-seat Winter Garden Theater — they just seem to be. Newly created virtual productions, especially live ones, are already mastering technological and dramatic workarounds that replicate or improve on the intimacy of in-person work. A mega-example: “Hamilton.”

The real problem is (what else?) money. Most online productions have been free or fund-raisers: good for the viewers and the organizations that benefit, not for the already cash-strapped artists who even in regular times are so often underpaid.

But abandoning a format that promises a more democratic reach cannot be the right solution.

So let’s make it work. Let’s use those huge and diverse viewership figures to stimulate support; surely so many eyeballs will make the format attractive to governmental, philanthropic and even commercial funders. Add in modest ticket prices — less than the cost of a movie — and you have the makings of an economy that provides decent pay to artists while engaging a much wider audience and broadening interest in the theater as a whole — including the traditional commercial theater. 

Best of all, this multitrack system might finally uncork the pipeline for new work, letting flow the full diversity of what’s out there waiting. So let’s make streaming theater something more than a tourniquet. Let’s make it a flag.

And while we’re at it: Get the unions and the rights-holders organizations together to hammer out a plan that will finally make Lincoln Center’s incredible Theater on Film and Tape Archive available online to everyone.

 


There is no diversifying the theater without diversifying the audience. The people who keep our society moving must not be priced out. By Laura Collins-Hughes

In theater, there is theory and there is practice, and in fundamental ways the two often don’t meet.

Listen for a moment to the British director Jamie Lloyd, who made a splash on Broadway last season with his glamorous, gutting revival of “Betrayal.”

“Theater is about trying to connect on a very deep level to another human being,” he said in a New York Times interview in December. “We’re trying to learn about who we are and make sense of our existence, make sense of our relationships with each other.

“And that can’t be an experience that only certain people have,” he argued. “Everybody needs to have that experience — or have it available to them, anyway.”

That first bit is the theory. The second bit is what Lloyd has put into practice in London, where his namesake company’s West End productions have become known for movie-star leads and a robust ticket-accessibility program. Last season, it offered young people, job seekers and, startlingly, key workers — we would call them essential workers — 15,000 tickets at 15 British pounds apiece. That’s about $20.

For Broadway and much of the American theater, affordable tickets for essential workers is an idea emphatically worth adopting. It’s not only the right thing to do; it’s the smart thing. There is no diversifying the theater without diversifying the audience, and this would be a meaningful step in that direction.

In the 2018-19 Broadway season, theatergoers’ average household income was $261,000, according to research by the Broadway League. Among those 25 and older, 81 percent were college graduates, and 41 percent had a graduate degree. They spent an average of $145.60 on a ticket.

To a lot of people, no matter how much they love theater, that is an impossible price point — and there is a real danger that the cost will only climb in an industry financially wounded by the pandemic. But becoming even more exclusive would be an act of grievous self-harm.

Corporate sponsorship enabled the Jamie Lloyd Company’s program. Off Broadway, foundation funding has been the bedrock of Signature Theater Company’s longstanding ticket initiative, which last season priced all seats at $35 for the first five weeks of each show.

Yes, the economic landscape has changed. But despite all the pain that this crisis has caused, wealthy foundations, corporations and individuals are still out there to be tapped.

If we have learned anything positive during the shutdown about how our society functions, it’s that essential workers keep it moving, even when the rest of us have to hibernate for the greater good. When Broadway reopens, they cannot be left out.

True, there are ways to score cheap tickets, at least to shows that aren’t selling well. But established schemes are built on the assumption that people have the disposable time to camp out in line, or the flexibility to drop everything if they win the digital lottery for that night.

That can work great for students and tourists — but if you have a tight schedule to juggle, or child care to arrange, you’re out of luck. Which is one reason audiences at so many theaters look the way they look.

It’s time to switch that up, and take care of the workers who take care of us.

And while we’re at it: How about banning the secondary ticket market? Even when it isn’t counterfeit, a $1,000 ticket is a needless obscenity.

 


 Theater Profits Must Be Redistributed

If pro sports can do it, why not Broadway? Pooled resources and partnerships could bolster Off Broadway nonprofits and the artists loyal to them. By Elisabeth Vincentelli

Profit-making theaters need to subsidize their nonprofit cousins. How to pull off such a radical idea? Look to professional sports.

Nobody would ever describe the National Football League, Major League Baseball or the National Basketball Association as a bunch of red-flag-waving socialists. Yet — please sit down for this, theater folks — they split and pool and redistribute large parts of their revenues evenly among their teams to ensure that smaller franchises have a chance against wealthier ones.

Now, theater companies compete for audiences rather than wins over each other, but the industry could still look at the redistribution concept for inspiration. The N.F.L. pools revenues from national broadcast deals, so let’s imagine a similar setup in which Broadway shows are regularly filmed and sold to streaming services. (Forget cannibalizing ticket sales; the opposite tends to happen when a major screen adaptation comes out.) Some of the proceeds would then be funneled into a pool made up of smaller companies and institutions.

Broadway, after all, already uses the nonprofit and Off and Off Off sectors as a kind of farm system, where underpaid talent develops its skills, a bit like the way the N.F.L. exploits college players. A revenue pool would help assuage the unfairness baked into such a system.

Example: The producers of “Hamilton” spent under $10 million to shoot their musical, then sold the resulting film to Disney for about $75 million. (An exceptional figure, I know, and unlikely to be matched.) With revenue sharing, the producers are reimbursed for expenses, the creative team and actors earn nice paychecks, and the rest goes into the pool.

Another way to fill that pot: Create a luxury tax, as there is in baseball. “Teams are allowed to spend a certain amount on player payroll and they have to pay a tax for every dollar they spend above that,” Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College economist who specializes in sports, patiently explained to me on the phone.

So if you’re a producer who wants to cast Hugh Jackman or Bette Midler in your show, and inevitably raise your ticket prices accordingly, you pay a luxury tax, with the money then shared among a variety of recipients.

Imagine what could be done with profits distributed from those pools.

Off and Off Off companies could apply for membership in the pool, the way they would apply to a grant. Membership could last, say, three years. Funds could help pay actors a living wage, create a group health care plan for artists, or subsidize lower-cost tickets for students and underserved communities.

All these would help underwrite successful Off and even Off Off Broadway productions that, for whatever reason, might not work on Broadway. Many of those shows, needing to make way for the next offering in a nonprofit’s season, are faced with either closing while there is still demand or undertaking a risky, costly Broadway transfer, a situation that makes no sense.

An influx of pooled money could help companies nurture playwrights by paying them real money for longer stretches of time. Broadway is not the end goal for daring incubators like, say, Soho Rep, but they still play a vital role in the ecosystem and need financial support.

Or take the Roundabout Theater Company, which can program young writers in its black-box theater, move them up to its Off Broadway venue, then graduate them to one of its Broadway houses — with access to pooled money, it would not need to bring in outside producers for that last step.

Dedicating pooled money to that leap would create support and incentives for the same company to maintain exclusive partnerships, and ideally boost risk-taking from both institutions and playwrights.

And while we’re at it: Let’s take a hard look at the pay ratio between nonprofit theater leaders, whose salaries seem to be climbing, and their rank and file employees. 

 


Sit-down-and-shut-up practices are a recent invention. How about making the experience more inviting? 
By Alexis Soloski

In two decades of professional theater going, here are some things I have been shushed for: coughing, unwrapping a cough drop, reading a Playbill, writing a note and checking texts when I had left a baby at home with a fever.

To attend a play is to commit, bodily, to a communal experience. But contemporary norms ask audience members to pretend our bodies aren’t really there. We are compelled to participate only in approved ways at approved times — whooping during a curtain call, say. Behave otherwise and risk some killjoy in the next row hissing at you to put a sock in it. What’s communal about that?

Who knows what orchestras and balconies will look like when indoor entertainment returns. But however theaters organize their interiors, it’s time to rethink how people fill those spaces. We should adjust the compact between performer and audience and the relationships among spectators, moving from a model where audience behavior is policed toward one in which engagement — in various forms — is celebrated.

Maybe it helps to know that these sit-down-and-shut-up practices are a recent invention. Ancient Greeks wept and beat their breasts. Elizabethans ate and drank and threw stuff. Even into the 20th century, vaudeville and music hall anticipated and rewarded a responsive public. 

But in the mid-19th century, when bourgeois theater rebranded as a civilizing tool and lighting technologies improved, new standards emerged. “Audiences were deliberately retrained in these newly imagined correct modes of behavior — sitting down being silent,” said Kirsty Sedgman, the author of “The Reasonable Audience: Theatre Etiquette, Behaviour Policing, and the Live Performance Experience.” This retraining had obviously classist roots and arguably racist ones, too.

Still, it remains the norm in most Western theaters. Speak up, dress down and, as online etiquette guides will tell you, you disrupt the experience for performers and other patrons. Don’t believe the guides? Just ask Patti LuPone.

I would draw a distinction between behaviors that engage with a work (snapping, clapping), those that don’t (Tweeting) and those that don’t or shouldn’t affect others (wearing flip-flops). Some conduct is obviously intolerable — charging a cellphone from an onstage outlet, masturbating (allegedly) during “Betrayal.” But we have created a culture that shames even benign participation — laughing, crying, taking a selfie as the lights go down. A compulsive rule follower, I’ve still been scolded hilariously often, sometimes for doing my job, sometimes for having a sore throat. (This was pre-Covid; coughing mattered less.)

The playwright Dominique Morisseau has included a program insert at her plays, reminding audiences: “This can be church for some of us, and testifying is allowed,” she writes.

Susan Bennett, the author of “Theater Audiences: A Theory of Production and Reception,” has suggested that theaters look at theme parks, interactive museums, sporting events and even video games to imagine other forms of engagement. Closer to home, theaters can adopt some of the ways that immersive shows allow audience members more freedom of movement and behavior.

Here’s another thought: theater for kids. I’ve logged a lot of hours at children’s theater over the past six years, mostly as a civilian. During these plays, kids wriggle, they giggle, they chat and stamp and sing along. Performers manage. So do kids and parents. The show goes on.

When theater returns, we should demand more tolerance of other people’s pleasure. Sedgman playfully suggests that instead of offering a handful of “relaxed” performances, designed to accommodate audiences who aren’t necessarily neurotypical, theaters could instead make most performances relaxed and designate a few performances as “uptight.” 

There’s a lot of talk now about accessibility and ways to make theaters available to people of different abilities, races, ages and buying power. One idea? Acknowledge that not everyone enjoys themselves at the same volume and in the same way. Let’s make delight and not obedience the new normal.

And while we’re at it: If we allow eating and drinking, couldn’t we make concessions much, much better and not quite so soul-crushingly expensive?

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