There is no “return to normal,” says Alex Poots, artistic director of The Shed in the interview below. But there is a return.
Of all the theaters that the pandemic forced to shut down in New York last March, the Shed looked to be among the unluckiest. It had just recently opened a mammoth $500 million, eight-story building in midtown Manhattan for which it was still raising money, and just starting to build an audience. But a year later, it is now one of only a handful of performing arts venues that have just announced live, in-person, indoor programming starting April 2nd, in response to New York state’s relaxing of restrictions.
“An Audience With…”, will feature singer and cellist Kelsey Lu performing a new opera called “This is a Test.” on April 2; the New York Philharmonic, April 14 and 15, soprano Renée Fleming, April 21, and comedian Michelle Wolf, April 22.
“After this long period of shut down, I felt very inclined to lean in on joy,” says Poots. In our interview, he talks about how the task force on which he served figured out what it would take to reopen safely, what The Shed did to respond to three “tsunamis” – the pandemic, the economic collapse, and the racial reckoning – and the sliver of a silver lining to this past year.
Q. Why were you and the others allowed to reopen in April?
I believe we were chosen for our flexibility. We have flexible seating. Our four concerts in April will take place in The McCourt, an 18,000-square-foot space with 115-foot-high ceilings that can seat up to 1,250 people, but will only be seating 150, socially distanced. The Shed also has a state-of-the-art MERV ventilation system. If the regulations change, and the capacities increase (as they have with restaurants), it would be very easy for us to increase the seating if we can sell the tickets in time.
I was lucky enough to be brought on quite early to be a member of New York State’s Task Force for Flexible Spaces, back in June. It expanded to include other flexible spaces. The six of us — Harlem Stage, BRIC, St. Ann’s Warehouse, Park Avenue Armory and the National Black Theatre — met every week or so to develop a set of thoughtful guidelines and protocols over months and months.
We closely examined every facet of a production, identifying areas of contact, gathering, and other interactions that needed to be re-configured before safely putting on a show. For example, having the artists remain masked for performance except if they’re singing or speaking or playing brass or woodwind instruments.
We recommended requiring a number of Covid-compliance officers to be on-site and available during the duration of rehearsal and performance. Another consideration we discussed was the amount of time needed to cycle out the air in an indoor venue between two-a-day performances or double-billed acts and what would be required to safely make that happen given the constraints of scheduling and production. By the end of last year, our Task Force was ready to go. We were able to demonstrate that we could keep audiences and artists and crews safe for carefully calibrated indoor events.
Q: You’re reopening after a year. How did you and The Shed adjust to the pandemic and the shutdown of physical theaters”?
I would say that there were different stages to that. At first, we thought we’d just have to postpone things for four weeks, which was wholly misaligned with the reality of what was unfolding. It then became increasingly clear that this was going to take much longer. By summer, we had to make deep budget cuts and to lose some of our dear staff. We’d only just launched 11 months prior to the pandemic, but in a crisis, you have to look to the future and find a way through,so that you can come out the other end, hopefully ready for a new reality.
I did not believe there would be a “return to normal” – that expression. It was much more ‘How do we take this time to recalibrate ourselves?’ There wasn’t just a health tsunami; there was an economic one and a social reckoning. So how does a cultural organization respond to that and be relevant?
Q: How did you?
We leaned into the mission, which is about commissioning inventive new work across disciplines, with an emphasis on urgent stories of our time. We asked ourselves how can we and others support those artists who try to advance the canon and their art form? And we have expanded our mission to include other like-minded producers and presenters.
Our original plan was to spend three or four years building our identity as a commissioning center, before collaborating with like-minded organizations, because if people don’t know who we are they don’t know who they’re working with. But as Spring and Summer 2020 unfolded we felt that circumstances had changed and there was a priority to not only produce and present our own work but share our facility and organization with other producers committed to inventive new work.
We kept our commitment to planning our second Open Call program, which supports and develops the skills and talents nearly 30 local artists from the five boroughs of New York – performing artists, visual artists or pop artists and invests in their new work and presents this in our primary spaces at The Shed over eight weeks this summer.
Q. When and how did you resume offering work to the public?
We started a new digital commissioning series in April 2020 called Up Close. This program commissioned new works online from a diverse roster of dancers, musicians, poets, singers, videographers, djs, and other artists. Each new work was presented online to the public for free and Up Close remains an ongoing program for our institution.
We invited Claudia Rankine, Phillip Youmans and Taibi Magar to transform our play ‘Help’ into a film broadcast. Originally written by Claudia Rankine [based on conversations with white men about their privilege and dominance — their whiteness — in airports.] The pandemic closed it down after the second preview. Together with the creative team and my colleague Madani Younis, our chief executive producer, and Tribeca Film Festival’s Jane Rosenthal, we all thought carefully about the difference between the screen medium and a live in person experience. Phillip took Claudia’s play and developed a cinematic version called ‘November’ which expanded the lead role into 5 leads. ‘November’ was shot both in a theatrical environment at The Shed and on various locations around NYC.
Because of the minimal resources we had, the brilliant young director and editor Phillip Youmans conceived a film schedule shoot of four days and edited it the following week, in time for its public broadcast the week before the 2020 presidential election – the subject matter was heavily leaning on issues that were being discussed in the election. We were trying to create something more televisual. This film premiered on our website and was also available to stream for free to the public.
Physically, we reopened our doors in October last year with a powerful exhibition by Howardena Pindell under the guidelines for museums and galleries. [which is running through March 28th]. We were grateful to commission and present Pindell’s first video work in 25 years and safely have visitors back into our space again.
Q. What do you think will theater be like going forward, when audiences can fully return? Will the pandemic period alter (temporarily or permanently) what was going to be the trajectory? How much will digital theater play a part in any change?
When you say “theater” do you mean things that go on in theaters or the art form of theater?
If we’re looking at the art form, I think you have to break that down into commercial theater and not-for-profit theater and I don’t think there’s the same answer to both, because there are different conditions around each. The experience of turning ‘Help’ into ‘November’ made us realize the power of making work that is both for the stage and the screen. Over five thousand people saw the broadcast, while the live version was for a 500 seat theater. I do believe that going forward we will commission some new works for the stage and the screen.
Q: When I talked to you for American Theatre Magazine when The Shed was opening in 2019, you said “I’ve gotten a sense all through my career, either an artist will feel constricted within a discipline. Or the place where they’re working on their art is restrictive. Once every five years, they want to do something that’s not being hindered by the environment.” Taking this perhaps too literally, I’m wondering whether, in your conversations with artists this past year, has it been your sense that the shutdown of physical spaces has in any way freed them up?
I know that for so many artists the economic fallout of the last year has been shattering. There are so many people who are really suffering and it’s impossible to underestimate that. For those who are able to ride the storm, there is a somewhat prophetic quote from the writer Arundhati Roy:
“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.
“We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
For those who are able to there are opportunities at moments of great change in history, that’s always been the case.