The pandemic has given theater artists an opportunity to innovate like never before, their innovations (like digital theater) are here to stay — and these are good things, because the entire field of theater is in need of rethinking.
These are among the conclusions of “Emerging from the Cave: Reimagining Our Future in Theater and Live Performance,” a 42-page report for the Sundance Institute by Jesse Cameron Alick, the current associate producer of Vineyard Theater. Alick interviewed 76 “arts workers” and noted a consensus of four key changes needed for a more vigorous future: 1. More collective leadership, 2. More “holistic support” for artists (“even before the pandemic, it was almost impossible to build a career in the field without the safety net of a second job or inherited wealth. “) 3. More digital theater and hybrid futures, and 4. more collective engagement in big conversations, which Alick labels “field ideation.”
These are needed because, many of those interviewed agree, theater has lost its way:
● Many expressed deep skepticism when it came to issues of racial equity and the commitment of institutions to addressing them.
● They believe live performance institutions in the U.S. and in Europe have lost their identities, and are putting themselves into competition for the same projects and the same artists.
● They see American theater particularly as a space of silence and rules, as opposed to a space of risk and play.
● They believe large institutions, in an attempt to reach national relevance, have failed to make deep investments in local communities and local artists.
Excerpts from the artists are sprinkled throughout the report. (More complete summaries of each interview are available by clicking on the photographs of the individual respondents in the report) with Alick summarizing their views.
In the section on Digital Theater and Hybrid Futures, Alick concludes: “New Media technology is here to stay,” During the pandemic, he points out, it took a wide variety of forms “from concerts on Twitch to Zoom plays to music video storytelling projects to TikTok-inspired Shakespearean interpretations…this moment has also led to the rejuvenation of old forms such as radio plays.”
The result, observes Hana S. Sharif, artistic director of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, is that the pandemic “jumped us five years into the future…we’ve been doing virtual work, but we’ve been doing site-specific work, we’ve been doing creative placemaking, and I’m committed to that continuing.“
Playwright Lynn Nottage discusses the need to eliminate “the tyranny of the proscenium” — to allow the artists to determine the space they need for their work, rather than theater administrators determining the work that gets produced based on the needs of their individual spaces.
But Alick notes “this year made it clear as well that technology isn’t a panacea – there were also many barriers it created,” especially to the poor and communities of color, who lack equitable access.
“During this last year, we were left with so much time to think and consider,” Alick writes. “It’s time to face these lessons that were so hard earned. Defend that knowledge as we go forward. Don’t forget it. Don’t give up on it”