Where Theater Goes From Here, According to an Actor, Producer + Artistic Director

It’s mid-October, and Greg Hildreth is happy to hop on the phone for an interview. “What the fuck else am I doing today?” the actor jokes. “In the early days, it felt kind of novel to do things like cook meals at home or hang out on a Saturday. I’m used to having a lot of structure in my day, so to be thrust into the unknown without an end in sight—the novelty, I guess, has worn off.”

On March 12, when every Broadway theater was forced to shutter indefinitely to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Hildreth was starring in the glitzy revival of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company,” which was just over a week shy of opening. His only certainty now is continued uncertainty. 

The same can be said for the thousands of performers, stage hands, designers, and other workers in New York and beyond who make up the live arts sector, an industry among those hit hardest by the pandemic. By its nature—large gatherings in enclosed spaces, many of which are old, with poor air circulation—stage production is looking at the longest and most arduous road to recovery. 

READ: Broadway After COVID-19

However, theater and those who make it are nothing if not creative, and through this endlessly despairing time, innovation has thrived. Take, for example, storied Off-Broadway institution the Vineyard Theatre, whose 2020–21 season is an amalgam of virtual, outdoor, and, eventually, when it is safe, in-person performances under its East Village roof, all of which will continue to push the envelope of the form. (Two of the theater’s final productions to run before the shutdown were the docuplays “Is This A Room” and “Dana H.,” both highly unconventional; the former a word-for-word reenactment of Reality Winner’s FBI transcript, the latter a perfectly lip-synched recollection of one woman’s violent kidnapping.)  

“It’s been very inspiring to see artists responding to the current moment but also to what’s possible artistically, technologically, when we’re not able to gather together,” says Sarah Stern, the Vineyard’s co-artistic director. “Part of the Vineyard’s mission statement is to push the boundaries of what theater can be and do. It’s something we were always thinking about, even before the pandemic. Now, in this space, it absolutely raises that question: Is it theater if it happens online; if we’re not physically gathered together; if you can’t see the reaction of the audience; if it survives forever as a recording; if it’s not ephemeral?

“Access is a problem theaters have had for a long time,” she adds. Stern finds the increasing democratization of theater is a silver lining to this fraught moment. So, too, does Rachel Sussman, a Tony-nominated producer who hopes the tough experiences and lessons learned will be applied when—to borrow a trite turn of phrase—“this is all over.”

“We’re not limited to 41 theaters on Broadway or the major nonprofits that typically get the most visibility. All of the content has a platform online and the potential to be seen and amplified,” says Sussman of virtual productions, which are most commonly free to view or donation-based, and frequently lure A-list talent. “We’re learning in the digital space that price and proximity are no longer barriers to entry. I’m curious to see how live theater—and in particular commercial theater—will reckon with that when we’re live again. And I hope we will interrogate the structures that have upheld it as a white and elitist art form.” 

One cannot discuss the current state of the theater without also acknowledging the intersection of race and the pandemic. As protests surged across the country over the summer, the theater, like many industries, finally began to examine its systemic racism, an introspection made possible in part by the pause causing strife for so many.

READ: Broadway Responds to Black Lives Matter

So many of our BIPOC colleagues have gone on record talking very openly and honestly about the things they feel have not worked in this industry or have perpetuated racism in this industry,” Stern says. “That’s an area where, I think, nothing should be the same about it when we return to our physical spaces.” 

New BIPOC resident and artistic directors have been announced at Lincoln Center Theater, Second Stage Theater, and others, and there are forthcoming initiatives to continue dismantling the historically white industry when it returns. 

But, like all moves toward justice, it will take time and continued focus. As Hildreth says, “The fact that the Broadway League is at least taking steps to acknowledge the inequities that exist in our industry is commendable, and there’s obviously a lot we as a community need to continue to be aware of and work for. That is a good thing that’s come out of this.”

Though virtual theater puts Broadway and Off-Broadway to shame in terms of accessibility and inclusivity, nearly everyone who either makes it or watches it can admit it can be a rather pallid alternative to the real thing. 

Some, like Sussman, believe it’s still worthwhile. “This, for me, is all about setting expectations,” she insists. “If we go into a virtual performance assuming it’s a sad substitute, that’s exactly what it will be.... There’s so much opportunity for innovation! If we are able to move from static and rudimentary Zoom readings into interactive and engaging work that doesn’t shy away from but rather leans into the digital aspects, there’s potential to create deep connections through storytelling online.” 

READ: How to Add Virtual Theater to Your Résumé

But others, like Hildreth, feel that online theater only serves as a reminder of what we’re missing.

Early on, I was doing all sorts of [virtual] cocktail hours with my friends, and I would always leave with a little emptiness afterwards,” he recalls. “It’s like a vegan brunch. I’m here for the cheese and the eggs, man! That’s kind of how Zoom theater feels. It’s very sterile. For a while, we were rehearsing [‘Company’ online], because we thought we were coming back to the theater soon. I would leave just completely depleted. So, for me, it’s better to be patient rather than try to chase this thing that doesn’t make me feel fulfilled.” 

Patience, though, is increasingly difficult to maintain, particularly given new rulings from the Equity-League Health Fund (the insurance provider for members of Actors’ Equity Association) that members would have to work more in order to qualify for insurance—a minimum of 12 weeks for six months of coverage compared to the previous year’s 11. 

The Broadway League has also announced that all Broadway theaters will remain closed through May 2021, though it is widely understood the shutdown will extend through next summer and into the fall. Many feel the dissemination of instructions from industry leaders has left something to be desired. “Transparency is something we are all craving right now, especially living through such unprecedented times,” Sussman says. “I'm eager to see if there are better ways for us to share information with one another in an effort to be more collaborative in planning this return.”

But when the theater does finally raise the curtain again in those 41 Broadway theaters and beyond, there are glimmers of optimism and, as one successful political campaign so persuasively argued, even some hope. 

“There’s a tremendous opportunity now, both in the short term and for theaters creating plans for long-term change,” Stern says. “All our theaters are going to have less money; many theaters won’t survive. But the mistake would be to then say, ’OK, we all have a lot less money and we all need to now double down on those operating models of commercial partnerships and raising ticket prices and premium tickets and all that. It should be the total opposite. 

“Theater and democracy go hand in hand,” she goes on. “They were born in the same moment for a reason.”

This story originally appeared in the Nov. 12 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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