By Bill Hirschman
“White = a blank page or canvas; his favorite; so many possibilities.”
–Sondheim & Lapine, Sunday in the Park With George
One year into the global and personal tragedies, South Florida theater has embraced the sole gift that the pandemic has given regional artists across the country:
Some call this period an intermission, but based on interviews with a score of local artists, it’s more apt to use technological terms: reset and reboot.
Dancers sharpening their skills in their garage, playwrights penning a half-dozen works, artistic directors conferencing from their bedrooms, all are deep into planning what audiences will see six months from now, two years from now, five years from now.
In this three-day, in-depth analysis, we synthesize what the interviewees and a score of others online answered to a central core of questions: What will we see on regional stages at those benchmark periods, what could happen in the ways theaters operate and what should happen on this canvas to fix what is broken?
Some leaders say they will only tweak an economically stable art form with content similar to what existed a year ago.
Other artists are adamant that this is a fleeting moment for necessary change.
“People keep using the word normal, like ‘I want to go back to normal,’ ” wrote actress-director Sabrina Lynn Gore. “I don’t want to go back to normal. I think that normal should be over and there should be a new normal…. It’s time to move forward (in) how we deal with colorblind casting and how we deal with LGBTQ people in the business and women in the business and how… business practices have got to change with some theaters.”
Performance art always has been evolving, adapting, adopting new technologies and tools. But not since the creation of moving pictures has there been such a potential rethinking, recalibration for theater. There’s the refining of a hybrid cyber art form that barely existed, new expectations, new standards about sexism and working conditions, commitments to a diverse audiences and a yearning for challenging work exploring social issues.
Actor-director-educator Geoffrey Short challenged audiences, performers, artistic directors and their boards. “Come with us in these new directions…because we’re trying to heal and improve…. If we go back to what we were doing, then we’ll never get a younger audience or diverse audiences” needed for the commercial art form to survive as more than a passé subset of a subset.
Nick Richberg, managing director of Miami New Drama: “Our industry is on life support right now…. I sit on a lot of committees where a lot of ideas are discussed, but I am yet to be convinced that it’s necessarily going to translate into a seismic shift in our industry… when people are busy again and working.”
But the resurrection is already happening – not in some sexy, dramatic moment with full musical underscoring, but as an imperceptibly incoming tide.
Initially, most theater companies and artists froze in numbed shock – and then quickly, gingerly began taking steps – preserving scheduled shows for a later berth, reassuring patrons, penning new material, learning online auditioning techniques, juggling budgets at home and in the theater itself.
Bit by bit, initiatives began, starting with passionate but clumsy Zoom-casts, then social distanced events indoors and outside. Theaters began complying with expensive safety precautions required by Actors Equity and city commissions. Companies outlined projects to reach out more thoroughly to the communities they serve to assess their desires. Artists taught and took classes, performed online or in live revues and cabarets. Artistic directors met online to share fiscal solutions and discuss concerns about race.
Temporarily unencumbered by the practical realities of profit-making, they imagined a host of blue sky possibilities.
Many saw a chance to identify reforms for accumulated decades of concerns and criticisms ranging from attracting a new audience to overworking poorly-paid artists to a resistance toward new innovative works to providing only token opportunities for diverse artists to … well, the list is lengthy.
But there never was much doubt that some form of the communal storytelling would re-emerge. The driving need of artists to express themselves and the thirst among their patrons never abated, although some practitioners fell by the wayside searching for a way to reliably pay bills.
In predicting where it goes from here, all of the elements discussed in these three articles – what you will see, who will see it, who will perform it, the financial nightmare, long-time racial issues, and precisely when “normality” will return — every bit is inextricably interdependent. Any discussion of one circles back to the others.
The defining elements are who will be running theaters and who will be sitting in the seats. In South Florida, a majority of companies in 2021 are being guided by people in their late 30s to late 40s with outliers on either side. Only a handful are approaching retirement age or are past it, although they founded their companies and haven’t developed a succession plan. Therefore, the artists and business managers who will be leading regional theater into the future are those who see past the pandemic and welcome the opportunity to re-form the paradigm.
A new crop of leaders will arise, said Nan Barnett, executive director of the National New Play Network and former managing director of Florida Stage, “much more diverse, younger; you’re going to see a lot of women rise to power. The idea of the impresario male, the charming but slightly erratic artistic director… that won’t continue.”
Audiences, too, have been slowly changing, as we discuss later. The current crop of patrons is a different generation with different tastes than the ones who established South Florida theater over the past 30 years. They and the future audience whom theaters want to attract are more open, even hungry for more vital, relevant contemporary work.
“But who knows where or when?”
There will be no watershed moment anyone will be able to look back on, not on Broadway let alone in regional theater. The return, however it will look, will occur over three years in gradated inches, in cautious experiments.
The truth is that while some theaters went into hibernation or a much reduced metabolic rate, most have never stopped operating — planning, conferring, commissioning, teaching, lecturing, cybercasting – just not producing full-length dramas in an enclosed space.
Indeed, some contend that the online and/or filmed paradigms that have flourished during the past year are a segment of the return; they may diminish but they will become part of the overall theater-producing paradigm permanently.
Theaters have and will experiment, such as MNM Theater Company’s filmed Closer Than Ever and Palm Beach Dramaworks’ The Belle of Amherst. Miami New Drama’s unique Seven Deadly Sins was produced in Lincoln Road storefronts. Miami-Dade Auditorium is using a platform on its backyard loading dock like a drive-in. The Arsht and Broward performing arts centers are staging modest productions on their outdoor plazas. Others are exploring nearby amphitheaters usually used for festival rock concerts. Expect much more of this in the coming summer and fall.
Already, some theaters like Island City Stage, the Wick Theatre, Lake Worth Playhouse and shows produced by Ronnie Larsen are performing inside socially-distanced spaces. But most companies are delaying such projects because they can’t break even under those conditions.
Guesses cover the spectrum of when a major segment of the core patrons will be willing to gather in enclosed spaces. Several major companies have penciled-in opening their regular season in the mid- to late fall when they hope (rogue strains notwithstanding) regulations will allow them to fill their houses. Notably, the presenting venues for Broadway tours are slating full house shows locally in late October and early November.
But the Stratford Festival in Canada just announced that it will only present to socially distanced groups in its two amphitheaters this summer, delaying a return to its inside venues to 2022. Broadway producers – at the mercy of Equity and local regulations – predict openings along a range from summer to early next year.
Of course, artistic souls may feel compelled to create in their dining rooms regardless. But the speed, depth, scope, breadth and character of the return is tied directly to the other half of the equation of a communication-based art form: the audience’s willingness to sit in a small room wearing masks throughout the next season and possibly into the one after that. And then there’s the moment when someone next to you coughs.
“It’s going to be smaller at first, even when we get the scientific all-clear because you stay afraid longer than you stay happy,” said Kent Chambers-Wilson, an actor, playwright and past president of the South Florida Theatre League.
“What exactly are we seeing tonight?”
The will/could/would/should questions are central to what you actually see on stages in six months, two years, five years.
The obvious determining factor for three years or more will be reduced operating budgets due to this past year of limping along, exhausting reserves, plus the slow return of full houses of paying customers.
But a unique Continental Divide is emerging: Each company and each artist has had an unprecedented year of time to think about what they want Theater to be without the overwhelming pressures of producing a season.
Many have and are taking the opportunity to explore subtly or radically expanding the thematic guts of their company. They hanker to satisfy artists’ yearning for more profound work, as well as attracting younger audiences (meaning under 60) who seek emotionally and intellectually satisfying pieces that would engage a 21st Century audience.
To that end, artists feel emboldened by the psychological, emotional and sociological changes that the newly-vulnerable audience has undergone, from reminders of mortality to discovering a commonality with humanity globally.
In the eternal conflict of theater as a pure art form and theater as a fiscally self-sustaining enterprise, doubtless, some producers will run for cover, opting for the reliable material whose attraction to a certain audience provided financial stability. The sun will never set on the British Empire nor Neil Simon nor Fiddler on the Roof.
At the other end of the spectrum are company leaders and artists who argue “If we can’t do the kind of work we want, if we can’t explore the art form, then why invest our lives in it at all?” Instead, they subscribe to the Field of Dreams theory of “If we build it, they will come.”
Indeed, some companies, playwrights and artists have been toying with out-of-the-box work in content, approach, structure and theme through cyber-readings, outdoor experiments, serial podcasts, filmed full performances and imaginative outings like Seven Deadly Sins.
Yet, there’s the balancing fear of pushing too far too quickly. Successful South Florida theaters built their audiences with definable niches. Sometimes those audiences have multiple overlapping interests. But companies have watched their audience walk out at intermission or never return if the fare is not what they had become accustomed to at that house. The once-popular Caldwell Theatre in Boca Raton, whose new leadership produced truly superb work, folded in 2012 in part because its calcified audience would not embrace a change in direction. Conversely, boundary obliteration is what patrons seek from Thinking Cap Theatre in Fort Lauderdale and the dormant Mad Cat Theatre Company in Miami.
Still, theater leaders are encouraged to take chances because their surveys show a portion of their core patrons – admittedly a fifth to a third of the normal box office numbers – are hammering down the lobby doors to savor the unique rewards of live theater right now.
The pandemic may directly shape the stories being told. Citing the recent success of off-beat material on streaming services, Chambers-Wilson said viewers “are looking at stories that I know a year ago they never would have considered.”
“Now, on this planet, we have all shared something that didn’t just happen ‘over there’ ”… Now the anonymous ‘anybody’ could be “our next door neighbor, it’s your child, it’s your dad. Any moment you could get that phone call or that email,” he added.
The more adventurous companies are salivating at the opportunity to push even harder within their existing missions, such as Miami New Drama whose Artistic Director Michel Hausmann said he wants to see more of the political, “dangerous” work he was familiar with in his native Venezuela – so that his company can be “a place where we can actually make a difference to improve the community, how theater can help lead the national conversation, the local conversation.”
Further, several artists suggested that the audience also bears a new responsibility to be patient, more tolerant, open-minded and supportive with their money and their attendance as theaters experiment and explore.
But secretly, many companies ramping up live and online experiments don’t expect to break even with any enterprise until perhaps this fall or even next year. These productions in parking lots and cyber-paradigms exist to keep the brand in the public consciousness. On the other hand, with little or no chance to break even, there isn’t much to lose by trying out boundary busters.
“I’ve got a little list.”
South Florida’s wide array of niche audiences means there is no across-the-board answer. Throughout the history of American theater in the 20th and 21st centuries, there has always been an audience for farces and/or dysfunctional families.
But based on conversations with regional leaders and artists, some trends are likely.
—–Perhaps for a year but no more, you may see a glut of plays written over the past 12 months exploring the fallout of the pandemic on inner psyches and close relationships. Only a few will have legs beyond their initial premiere unless they do more than simply depict suffering, survival, resilience. The last thing people are anxious to see is someone suffocating to death in a hospital while their loved ones can’t solve decades of family fissures through their last connections confined to a Zoom link.
—–Bet the farm on a significant increase in plays and musicals reflecting the African-American experience, an uptick in work based in the Latinx community and, perhaps from some of the more venturesome companies, works about what it means to be Arab-American or Asian-American. Look for works by Lynn Nottage, Dominique Morisseau, Suzan-Lori Parks and Qui Nguyen. This is already evident in the cyber works currently featured in staged readings. For much more on this, see the race section in tomorrow’s essay.
—–Smaller casts – trios, quartets, quintets — will focus on the interpersonal relationships and emotions underlying even the most epic titles.
—–Production values will be scaled back, requiring previously passive audiences to invest their imagination where there once were stagecraft special effects. Detailed naturalistic scenery will be replaced with lighting and projections. More intimate productions will focus more on the performances than the spectacle.
—–Large-cast musicals may wait in the wings three years. In their place, expect chamber musicals in which the cast, ensemble and band have been stripped down such as John Doyle’s Sweeney Todd. Orchestras will likely be two to four musicians, or replaced by a prerecorded digitized score. There may be one exception: Companies had large casts rehearsing or opening when the pandemic hit: The Maltz Jupiter Theatre’s How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, Zoetic Stage’s A Little Night Music, the Wick Theatre’s A Chorus Line, Miami New Drama’s A Wonderful World, and Slow Burn Theatre’s Ragtime. The companies had already spent the money to cast them, costume them, light them, build sets, rehearse, and paid the licensing fee. So most are planning to revive these titles as intact as possible once social distancing ends.
—–Expect an upsurge in the already growing trend of relying on new work originating outside New York City. This differs from when local companies like GableStage would produce a critical hit a year or so after it closed in Manhattan. The “fresh from New York” pipeline will likely be bottled up until 2023. But there will be no dearth of options: A tsunami of output from creative minds shut up for months is straining to be heard. One local playwright penned 23 scripts in 12 months.
—–For a decade, the Greatest Generation and the Eisenhower generation have been fading away as core patrons. As a result, the immensely popular fare of the 1950s and 1960s, even the early 1970s has been disappearing from season schedules. Some eternal titles and masterworks unquestionably will survive, but the current “older” core audience now are Boomers who grew up with far more pop cultural options, evidenced by the success of juke box musicals over the past decade. Unfortunately, as this decade moves on, the victims list may include a treasury of classic works. George Bernard who? I think I was assigned some of that Art Miller guy in high school.
—– Some artists, their imagination temporarily freed from restrictions, have added blue-skyed paradigms to the usual menu: much more immersive and interactive material for post-pandemic audiences, more stylistic adventurous productions that might integrate modern dance or masks or puppetry.
—–Expect an increase in works that speak directly to the experience of “young people,” with themes echoing Dear Evan Hansen and She Kills Monsters.
—–During the first year or two, companies may reduce the number of productions. and/or have shorter runs once they can open all seating.
—– South Florida theater leaders have been atypically collegial, but the pandemic has led to much closer relations including regular cyber-meetings to share solutions. This will lead to a significant increase in co-productions such as the Dramaworks-Actors’ Playhouse’s The Belle of Amherst opening next month and Dramaworks-GableStage’s Ordinary Americans last season.
—–Companies operating in “intimate spaces” very likely will be the last to reopen because of patrons’ elevated concerns about sitting next to people in a small space.
—-The total experience of live theater will go missing for awhile. Casualties will range from schmoozing in the lobby to shows with no intermission to the affirming experience of finding that the woman sitting next to you is laughing or tearing up at the same thing you are.
—–The precautionary environment is nearly certain to persist through all of 2022 (that’s 2022) despite vaccinations and a cautious end to social distancing. Expect masks on everyone in the house, on stage and backstage; temperature taking as you walk in; no concessions; quickly moving people in and out of auditoriums; vaccinations required of all artists and staff; obsessive cleaning hourly down to the bathroom faucets.
And finally, expect some continuation of online theater. The Zoomed staged readings that cripple interaction among actors, the clumsily pieced together cyber-plays and the venting-from-the-heart solo works broadcast straight from someone’s bedroom will likely evaporate to a trickle.
But many theater leaders envision cyber-film as a promising revenue stream if the works are well-produced, well-appointed, well-performed, well-edited captures of a show they also will mount on stage, much as Island City Stage has done twice already inn Wilton Manors.
Granted, many are loss leaders designed to keep the company’s brand name in their patrons’ consciousness and to provide a little income to their colleagues. The quality has varied greatly. Even the best, showing flashes of artistry and an abundance of commitment, have almost mocked the hunger of theater lovers for the glories of live communal in-person performance. But the solid ones are improving such as MNM’s Closer ThanEver and the Island City Stage shows.
Indeed, locals like Dramaworks’ Producing Artistic Director William Hayes see projects like his The Belle of Amherst as viable indefinitely to reach a much wider audience, from invalids in Boca Raton to students at Julliard to a theater lover in Idaho. He dreams of a network of regional theaters working through a central hub making their stage work available both regionally and across the country.
Much as the innovation of national television broadcasting fueled an appetite for live attendance in sports, he expects nationally broadcast theater will attract a larger local auditorium audience – including a younger, more diverse one.
On the other hand, some other artists thinks the pronounced shortfall from the live experience is so frustrating that the potential audience will be too small to be worth the investment of $5,000 to $20,000 to film a modest show. Indeed, some of the local experiments to date have attracted several hundred people to a production, but not even close to the four-figures and up of a full in-house audience.
Despite that, artistic techniques are evolving quickly past the emotionally disconnected Hollywood Squares layout of Zoom and clumsily pasted images of actors physically emoting at each other from across the country. A few like Richard Nelson’s new Apple family play produced by the Public Theater on You Tube used the restrictions to underscore their theme. But mostly, core patrons see them as insufficient substitutes that they’ll settle for – for the time being.
Still, the cyber-democratization of affordable resources means that young inspired artists are producing their own innovative visions with these hybrid paradigms. Younger artists are taking the reboot as an opportunity to develop a new art form with an audience bringing fresh expectations to new tropes and approaches that should not be directly compared to the live in-house presentations.
Yet, there’s a catch. The finest filmed work by those having produced it for a decade – say the National Theatre of Great Britain and the Stratford Festival in Canada – dazzles with their display of technical, intellectual and performance artistry; check out the National’s Frankenstein. But the vast majority never touch you like a live performance.
(Tomorrow in part 2 of 3, we’ll look at how concerns about race may change what you see and how it’s presented, as well as what to expect about who the audience will be. On the third and last day, we’ll examine how the finances of theater may change and how this may affect the careers of theater artists.)