by Kitty Felde
As I write this, I’m flying back to Los Angeles from Washington, D.C., my first airplane trip since February of 2020. I attended my first (and second) Major League Baseball game, ate out in a restaurant, toured a museum, even spent time in five classrooms. It was great, but it certainly didn’t feel normal. The mass transit system in D.C. was nearly empty. Downtown and Chinatown were ghost towns. Capitol Hill was bereft of 8th graders on school field trips. When will we truly get back to normal?
And what IS normal?
I talked to a lot of old friends this trip. One thing I noticed was how many people were re-evaluating where they are in this post-pandemic life. I had coffee with SO people who told me they were contemplating their next act: writing a memoir, quitting their soul-sucking job, finding a way to make a difference in the world. Perhaps the one thing the pandemic taught us was how short life can be, how none of us are guaranteed fourscore and ten, how it’s time to start tackling the items on our bucket list.
Another thing struck me as I spoke face-to-face with human beings again: when I asked how their pandemic year was, every one of them began by talking about how fortunate they were. They recounted their blessings. Even those who lost family members or jobs began the conversation by talking about the good things that came of Covid. And every one talked about a lesson from the pandemic or a routine they plan to keep once they return to “normal” – whether it’s online yoga classes or saying “no” to social occasions they really didn’t have to attend or carving out time with the people they truly love.
So what does the future hold for theatre? When will we feel comfortable to sit inside, in the dark, with strangers whose vaccination status is unknown?
Some theatres, like the Fountain, invested in outdoor furniture, built a stage next door to their brick and mortar building, embracing a new way to create theatre. Others are scheduling full indoor seasons beginning this fall. And then there’s zoom performances…
A good friend in Virginia runs a terrific theatre in Alexandria: MetroStage. Unfortunately, after decades of performing in an old lumber warehouse near the Potomac River, her theatrical home was about to disappear. A multi-story, high-end condo would replace the cabaret musicals and exciting new plays that had graced MetroStage.
Fortunately, the city mothers and fathers were trying to brand that end of Alexandria as an arts district. Part of the deal was that MetroStage would remain in the neighborhood, courtesy of a black box theatre they would build for her in the basement of one of the new buildings.
The downside was that she had to raise a lot of money to finish the raw space. And the theatre would have to shut down for more than a year.
Enter the pandemic when every theatre in the world shut down. Her timing was exquisite.
Artistic Director Carolyn Griffin can hardly wait for the opening of her new theatre space. And yet, she keeps thinking about the theatre from around the world that she saw online during the pandemic. Some of it awful, some of it magical. (I still smile when I think about a zoom production of The Railway Children from the York Theatre Royal that was absolutely magical. If not for the pandemic, I never would have seen it.)
Carolyn believes that our pandemic year has taught us that audiences outside of our immediate neighborhoods are hungry for theatre. The homebound elderly need theatrical inspiration. So do kids in schools too poor to afford a school bus to bring them to a performance. Despite that spanking new performance space, Carolyn says her pandemic lesson is that 21st century theatre must embrace 21st century technology, making theatre accessible to more than just in-person season subscribers. Theatre can truly be for everyone.
If Carolyn is correct, that presents a challenge for us as playwrights: we must create pieces that actually work better on the small screen. Not just talking heads in a zoom call, but theatrical pieces that jump off the screen. Twyla Tharp commissioned Misty Copeland and some of Twyla’s dance company to create unique work specifically for the small screen. It was amazing. Dancers in their tiny New York apartments or Inglewood garage bouncing off the walls, avoiding bookcases, seemingly flying on and offstage. It was like watching Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling in Royal Wedding. We have to think outside the box to create this kind of work for the theatre.
And even if we only want to create work to be performed live, onstage, we have to write cheap. In other words, even the “no more than six actors” rule that has reigned supreme over the past few decades is too big. Theatres have held on by their fingernails. Budgets are amazingly thin. Plays featuring two characters – or even one – are more likely to be produced in the next few years. And unfortunately for living playwrights, much of that work will be tried and true titles designed to lure back an audience. We’ll be competing with the famous dead white guys.
Our last challenge is to ask ourselves what an audience wants to see onstage in a post-pandemic world. If the 1920’s are a model, it’s likely to be comedies and lighter fare. I doubt there will be much interest in a pandemic play, but I could be wrong. Look at Angels in America and the AIDS crisis.
But I’m an optimist. I’m going to view these challenges as pandemic blessings for us as writers. They allow us to reassess our own work, our own goals, our own “next act” as we sit down at the keyboard and start writing something new.
I can hardly wait!
Kitty’s second book in The Fina Mendoza Mysteries series State of the Union will be published by Chesapeake Press August 13, 2021. A mysterious bird poops on the president’s head during the State of the Union address. Can our young detective find that bird before the Secret Service, the Capitol Police, and the rest of Washington and hear its secret message?
The future MetroStage