On January 1, 2020, I explored seven possible major theater trends of the new decade, asking: What will the future of theater turn out to be? The future arrived abruptly without warning within weeks, accelerating and emphasizing some of these trends, altering others, and creating some significant new questions.
As 2020 ends, I look back at looking forward, and compare it to the year that unfolded.
“Screens will surely continue to be a major way that an increasing number of people will experience ‘live theater,’” I wrote on January 1st.
Seventy-five days later, screens became the ONLY way anybody was experiencing ‘live theater.’
And (to answer a question I asked) this reliance on screens HAS changed the nature and content of some of the theater being created. The pandemic has spawned, for example, online anthologies of short monologues – Viral Monologues, The Homebound Project, #WhileWeBreathe.
A question now is: How much will the acceptance of theater on screen persist past the pandemic? At the very least, I suspect there will be one permanent result: Following a practice pioneered by the National Theatre and the Metropolitan Opera, theaters both large and small will continue to offer recordings of past live productions online.
I wondered what form “artivism” would take, how much the activism would be off-stage and how much in the art form itself. But I implicitly downplayed the possibilities, linking to essays by prominent artists who in effect questioned whether the arts could change the world.
As it turns out, theater workers’ activism in two different arenas was a central theater story of 2020 – pushes for a racial reckoning, particularly on Broadway, and for government support for the arts. The committed activists behind both movements clearly believe that the arts can change the world as it is.
3. Inclusion: Who will be on stage?
Reflecting on the proliferation of teen-oriented musicals on Broadway, I asked:
Will they accurately reflect the lived experience of teenagers, or continue to rely on stereotypes; and will actual teenagers portray them?
And then I said: “Replace ‘teenagers’ with African-American, Asian, disabled, gay, immigrant, Latino, Muslim, the poor, trans, women, etc. – and the same questions apply: How much will they be depicted on stage? Will the portrayals be accurate? Who will portray them?”
For all the new flurry of words in support of greater inclusion, my question from January remains, and not just because theater buildings remain shut down. Granted, change takes time, and the change being sought now is not just on stage but backstage, and in the front office.
It’s worth noting that in a recent article about the much-praised efforts of the Seattle Theater Leaders (Seattle theater leaders work toward anti-racism), the writer notes: “Virtuous-sounding solidarity statements are OK, but they’re not nearly enough. STL is after concrete action and is currently drawing up a list of action items and commitments written by and for local theater makers.” But then adds: “The list is still being written and STL as a group declined to share a current draft.”
“Will there be any Hamilton 2.0s?” I asked. I meant “original works, told freshly, exploring new territory.” Starting in July, there was literally a Hamilton 2.0 in a way – the film of Hamilton on Disney Plus. Many of the theatrical works being presented online are new versions (either Zoom readings or movie adaptations) of old plays. But there ARE new original works, and they are being told freshly, at least in form — those collections of short monologues lasting just a few minutes each, for example. Will this form of theater continue online post-pandemic; will it start appearing on physical stages when they return?
5.Accessibility and Affordability: Theater for All?
“Some of the biggest theater news that received the least attention over the past decade,” I wrote, “were the concrete steps taken to make Broadway more accessible for theatergoers with disabilities,” such as on-demand closed captioning in real time. I wondered whether this would spread past Broadway.
“And ‘accessibility’ shouldn’t just mean to would-be theatergoers with disabilities. How serious will theaters work to make theaters affordable?”
During this time when physical theaters have shut down, the theater on offer is generally more affordable – often free, with a request for a charitable contribution, or “pay what you can.” The result, according to several studies, is a vast increase of “attendance” by viewers who are new to theatergoing.
And advocates like playwright Jeremy O. Harris have stepped up their proselytizing for more affordable theater when physical stages return.
But it’s a disappointment, and frankly an embarrassment, that so few productions are providing the option of captions, even though it’s far less complicated to do so online than in physical theaters.
That’s why theaters like Irish Repertory Theater deserve a shout-out. It was not only an early and innovative adopter of online theater, it offers its plays and musicals “pay as you can” (including zero) and with dedicated captioned performances.
6. Theater Criticism: Who will drive the theater conversation?
“With the death of so many newspapers, and the elimination or reduction of theater coverage by those that remain, how will theatergoers decide what to see?” I asked in January. “Will it be left to the chatrooms, will new sustainable forms of theater criticism emerge – or will it be left to the publicists?”
Of course everybody involved with theater is struggling during the shut-down, but anecdotal evidence suggests that this period has taken a particular toll on the role of critics in the theatrical eco-system. Fewer critics are writing fewer reviews, and fewer producers are allowing them. Several times, publicists have told me “It’s a fundraiser” as the reason they were not inviting reviews (at a time when most productions double as fundraisers.)
The tough times arguably have boosted the antipathy.
“I expect the next generation of content creators to not care so much about critics,” a Broadway producer wrote earlier this month, calling most critics “random people” and “Internet trolls,” as opposed to paid newspaper staff critics — not mentioning, and perhaps not caring, that there are fewer and fewer of the latter.
7. 2020’s Place in Theater History
In January, I asked “how much will we look to the past for inspiration? What era will we most resemble?” I didn’t realize the answer would be so readily apparent: the eras of theater shutdowns, especially the Plague years in Shakespearean England — In the decade between 1603 and 1613 “the total theatrical closures due to the plague accumulated to a grand total of 78 months,” Shakespeare scholar William Baker has written – and the 1918 influenza pandemic , as well as the Great Depression of the 1930s, when the government subsidized theater and theater workers with the Federal Theatre Project – a solution that an increasing number of theater advocates are hoping the Biden administration will in some way emulate.