Musings on Theater in the Time of COVID-19: What to Do?

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Collage by Lisa Curran.

What to Do Now?

By Ed Friedman, Actor, Playwright, and Co-Founder, Lifetime Arts

I wrote something for this month’s “EdTalks” on the Lifetime Arts blog, but now, what I wrote just seems unimportant. There will come a time, hopefully soon, when “culture change” will be more deserving of our attention.

There’s an old joke I tell about myself. I have such a hard time making decisions, so much so that when someone asks me what my favorite color is, I say “plaid."

These days that indecisiveness is compounded by being thrust into a situation that has no precedent, for which there is no handbook, and has no end that anyone can see. The future is always a mystery and not knowing is always part of the equation in trying to figure out your life moves. But this is off the chart unknown.

I don’t know where to put my mental energies. There’s a part of me that just wants to escape to Turner Classic Movies™. But then that starts to feel indulgent and I have to feel like I’m doing something, to be part of the solution. I open up my email and I’m bombarded with messages from companies telling me how much they’re doing for their customers, and agencies who are offering innovative alternatives to the service they usually provide.

I see tips on how to work, exercise, sleep, not be depressed, make art, consume art, and connect with other people. I’m sure that these are offered with the best intentions. But they come followed by messages about our government leaders unable to come together for the good of the people, doctors predicting medical triage decisions resulting in the death of elders, and the implosion of the stock market.

How does one make art at a time like this? Does it have to be about the virus and its effects?

There are artists out there sharing their work, their art, and their thoughts about what their art means to them and what it could mean for us. The writer,  Augusten Burroughs, posted a thoughtful video to his Facebook page  about the power of writing and how any of us can harness it.

For me, it feels a little crazy to write about a life that seems out of reach right now. But I have to feel that at some point we’ll get that life back again. For me, maybe it’s too soon to write about the effects the virus is having, partly because we don’t know what all the effects are yet. I also feel like there will be some great stories that will emerge from all of this - uplifting and funny; sad and even tragic. We’ll all have stories, and they will all need to be told.

After I wrote that I saw an article by Arthur Brooks in The Atlantic. One passage, in particular, jumped out at me:

“Start by acknowledging that you do not know what is going to happen in this crisis. Next, distinguish between what can and can’t be known right now, and thus recognize that gorging on all the available information will not really resolve your knowledge deficit—you won’t be able to turn uncertainty into risk by spending more hours watching CNN, because the certainty you seek is not attainable. Finally, resolve that while you don’t know what will happen next week or next month, you do know that you are alive and well right now, and refuse to waste the gift of this day.”  

To me, not wasting time means not wasting the opportunity to create something.

Then the question arises, if we’re trying to write NOW for the theatre, are we writing for what theatre is now or sometime in the (hopefully not too distant) future?  

Why can’t we do both? That idea satisfies my indecisive nature.

We first have to acknowledge there are many theatre makers who are working hard to keep the medium alive in any way they can, some more successfully than others. I recently saw a zoom version of a play that was scheduled to be produced by a professional company in upstate NY. It was a traditional comedy/mystery, and I could see how a production of this piece could be an audience pleaser. However, watching eight actors, with one additionally reading stage directions, resulted in a disappointing viewing, because this piece was not written for this medium.  

Right now we have screens and people on screens, so let’s write for them, and not pretend we’re all in a theatre.  A recent example is Richard Nelson’s What Do We Need To Talk About? Produced by the Public Theatre, streamed live and available on YouTube.

I don’t like to think that this is the future of theatre so I’ll continue to write for in-theater gatherings and hope that some of my work will be staged. However, while most of us are sheltering at home due to the pandemic, there are many thousands of people who were homebound before the current crisis. These folks will not be able to go to the theatre (or anywhere else for that matter) when this is all over. Could it be that there is a silver lining to this that more homebound individuals who are getting accustomed to and comfortable with using the internet out of necessity-to connect with medical professionals, friends, and family will continue to create for those in perpetual quarantine. It’s very possible we’ll have a new audience to write for, who will receive our work through a (not so) new medium.  

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“Theatre takes place all the time wherever one is, and art simply facilitates persuading us this is the case”

- John Cage