Building an Invisible Theater
There is a lot that scares me these days. There are a lot of things to worry about: the coronavirus itself, the economic fallout, my own financial insecurity. But beneath all this, something deeper is unsettling me. People relegated to their own boxes interfacing with screens as a substitute for deep connection seems like a dystopian nightmare. I’ll admit, I feel slightly guilty for being fixated on the cultural repercussions when there are people’s lives at risk, but at this time, the way we experience our lives and engage with each other is still important. The theaters are closing, concerts are illegal, there are no more rock shows or dance parties: it’s vital that we stay home, but it’s incredibly painful to be locked away from all of the things that make us feel alive.
I was getting caught up in the despair, but after a day or two of grieving, I started to discover something astonishing: the artists of New York City were getting to work. Artists of all kinds began to stir, but especially theater artists. Theater is an art form that explores what it means to be human within a given set of circumstances, and theater artists are experts at expressing and connecting—even if we cannot gather, we need these innovators to help us process our new, albeit temporary, reality.
And the result of their efforts has been quite magical. We have all been thrown into a new DIY theater space. Some of the efforts are scrappier than others (though no one has perfected the technology yet), but all are immediate. There is something deeply spiritual about the act of gathering, and in its absence fostering community has never felt more important—loved ones are reaching out more often, old friends are reconnecting, and then, of course, these new, virtual spaces are emerging. I have sat, in my two weeks of self-isolation, in virtual rooms with these artists, and have not only experienced the moving adaptations of live performance art, but have also spoken with the creators and curators themselves.
As soon as there was a whiff of the theaters closing, the arts community turned toward each other, asked for and offered help and solidarity. Over videoconference, Noel Allain, co-founder and artistic director of The Bushwick Starr, said, “it didn’t take long for all these different Slack channels … to just jump up for people talking about different ways that we could help each other.” He said that it’s all very collaborative, and it seems as if competition between companies has been eliminated, to a certain extent. Everyone is sharing resources and knowledge, and Allain is inspired by it. “There’s just a lot of cross conversations, a lot of support. It’s really heartening,” he said. “It’s a nice thing to see right now… how much people are coming out for each other.”
The art of storytelling has always been resilient—it isn’t the art that is at risk necessarily, it is the theaters themselves. Within a system that already has individuals and companies in a tenuous place financially, this kind of hit to operating budgets and employment is dangerous. People are rallying to ensure that the theaters we have come to rely on for important work are still there waiting for us when we are allowed to gather again. Meghan Finn, artistic director of The Tank, was touched when “one artist, as soon as there was word of Broadway closing, immediately started a fundraiser for The Tank,” and this doesn’t seem to be an isolated experience. Indeed, this kind of solidarity is what the New York theater community is all about. It’s a “two way street,” said Finn, “I think right now artists are coming together to try to support us because they know what this means, but I also think we’re trying to come together to support them.” Many companies are committing to paying their artists through April, or keeping them employed as long as they can, while also doing their best to pay the artists they showcase on these new digital platforms.
Theaters are also focused on how to stay involved with students during this time and adapt their education programs to the closures. Lenny Banovez, co-founder and artistic director of Titan Theatre Company in Queens, is heartbroken over the thousand kids that were going to see his company’s production of Romeo and Juliet this spring, so he is constructing new educational packages. With these packages schools will be able to capture some of the tour experience: see a produced reading of a Shakespeare play, use provided study materials to discuss the work, and then (Banovez’s favorite part) the student “will have two New York actors that they just watched do a staged reading…and they’ll talk for an hour about the play, answer questions” over videoconference. The Bushwick Starr is focusing on ways to keep their educational outreach effective as well, experimenting with handheld video to produce the plays that students from the Big Green Theater project have been working on since January.
Driven to find new ways to tell their stories, artists are problem-solving and figuring out new creative mediums. Many of these artists are questioning what the adaptation from flesh and blood to pixels actually means for the work. I spoke to Susannah Simpson, an independent performance artist in Bushwick, who has been rehearsing an embodied triptych on motherhood for months now. She has moved her rehearsals to virtual platforms and will be performing in AUNTS WPA, an Instagram Live event for dancers and performance artists. Her work is typically very intimate and benefits from close connection and common breath with the audience; Simpson says that she is “working with new materials, and so I will definitely be building something, not just that I’ve never built before, but with supplies and in ways that I don’t know—it’s a mystical moment.”
Three powerhouses of the NYC theater scene—Lauren Miller of The Bushwick Starr; Jessica Almasy, co-founder of the new work collective the TEAM; and Theresa Buchheister, artistic director of The Brick—have come together to start “an avant-garde microfestival” called Out of an Abundance of Caution. The Tank has created CyberTank: “an e-home for e-merging artists.” Both of these venues are regular live-streams, with a host facilitating between different feeds from different locations with solo or duo performances. Another way companies have found to adapt is creating a Google Hangout or a Zoom call with individual actors calling in to do a collective play reading for a silent audience of onlookers. Shanta Thake, Senior Director of Artistic Programs at the Public Theater, expressed that The Public’s goal is not only to get “the incredible content of our professional artists into homes across the country, but also [to] inspire people in their homes to create work and to be able to use theater as a tool for healing, for conversation.” The company has launched the Brave New Shakespeare Challenge; each week, it will share via social media a different passage or scene from Shakespeare as a prompt for followers to join in, create, and use Shakespeare’s words to engage with one another, from their homes. Titan Theatre Company isn’t jumping into any new productions. Banovez feels right now his job is just to listen, to “have the conversations, and try to feel better, and figure out what we want to do as artists.” He has launched Creative Conversations, a weekly video chat gathering of 10 artists and two facilitators to start those exchanges.
The spaces these artists are creating are pure of heart -- they’re mostly donation based and are accessible in ways that traditional theater can rarely achieve. The TEAM’s Almasy describes this “invisible theater” as being born out of a need to create and ultimately share. All of these events feel raw, and honest. Though they are on digital platforms, there is something about them that taps into the ancient need to communicate, to gather, to explore humanity through text, performance, movement, and sound.
One of the beautiful new aspects that these artists are finding is the increased intimacy of the work. It sounds antithetical, being farther away creating more intimacy, but through the digital portal we are spending time in more homes than we ever would have. Simpson was virtually doing a practice called Authentic Movement with the other performers in her piece, and she emphasized that it was taken to another level by being “bedroom Authentic Movement. Everyone was in their bedroom, and I was like, ‘this is so beautiful,’ trying not to get distracted by the beauty of the composition, ‘and very, very intimate.’” As someone with a self-described “technological aversion,” she is finding that this new portal (or maybe it’s the heightened need for connection) has allowed people to witness each other more closely and unflinchingly. The Tank’s Finn noticed this, too. She finds a “certain amount of peace, even thinking about these artists that you see every day in a live space, now in their home environment, and that’s a new part of them, that’s a new side of them you’ve never seen, so there is an opportunity for artists…to express themselves from a space they’ve never done [before].”
Almasy feels us reaching toward each other, and toward art, in a new way right now. She describes this “reach” as the new “lean-in,” but an incredibly earnest version of the concept. After watching the preview for Out of an Abundance of Caution’s Twitch stream, she felt the work “start to touch that spiritual place that theater touches” for her. “We were still transcendent, we were still somewhere else, the poetic was fighting through the wires.” The Bushwick Starr’s Miller feels herself and other members of the community, both artists and enthusiastic audience members, “watching each other a little more closely,” partly because there is this new void left, and partly because we don’t have to be as frugal with our schedules: “we can channel surf!”
Some of these artists are asking themselves for discoveries they can carry over to the physical space whenever they are able to reopen their doors. Buchheister and Almasy both hope that the informality, and the loosening of the “rules,” will be drawn from the virtual theater to corporeal theater. Buchheister mused about how some of these new digital arenas are letting us break from the convention of sitting quietly in a dark, stuffy room. “It was sort of fun to be able to just freely converse about the art while it’s happening, which is something new about this form because that’s considered ‘rude’ in the theater,” but on digital platforms it’s “encouraged and fun,” she said, referring to the advent of chat windows and the opportunity to talk to whoever you’re sheltering with, or even on the phone with, about what you’re experiencing. She hopes this experience might open channels for the audience to be more comfortable actively participating in the piece they are consuming.
Ultimately, though, perhaps the greatest potential these isolated times have for theaters, performers, and the art itself is that we might not take them for granted in the future. Physical distancing has the capacity to reignite a desire for live performance, for experiencing something collectively, for breathing the same air. The Public Theater’s Thake is as wistful as the rest of us. “I’m remembering almost every moment I’ve ever had, all these incredible concerts, shows, walks in the park! The value of seeing one another is so important, and I’m hopeful that we’ll all come back to that.” The curators for Out of an Abundance of Caution, so eager for our reemerging and reconvening, are hoping their festival culminates in a big event where the artists and audiences can meet, in some cases for the first time, to “celebrate with each other in real time,” according to Miller. She wants us all to remember that there’s going to be a time when this is over, and pondered, “How do we learn something from that experience, and how do we celebrate that experience?” I, for one, am looking forward to that party.
Because try as we might, we aren’t in the same room. Noel Allain’s musings on our current theatrical isolation capture the heart of the situation. “This ancient experience of people gathering as a group to engage with ideas and in this format that is entertainment and also is emotional but also is intellectual, all those different things that you get from watching a good piece of performance. It’s a loss. It’s definitely a loss,” he said, adding that right now live theater is “something we could use, really. It’s the tragedy of this moment … I could use that kind of salve.”
Acknowledging that we still need to innovate and keep projects afloat, to “keep the work going, and keep sharing it,” Allain said that nonetheless he keeps going back to the idea that he’s “not sure how to recreate it.” And I agree—I think it’s all true. I think we’re discovering and unlocking new facets of performance. I think we’re dedicating time and artistic energy into creating new forums for expression that can last beyond the pandemic. And at the same time, I respect and grieve the temporary loss of these physical gathering places.
Theater draws together, theater explores, theater reflects. We need theater now, just as much as we always have. It’ll look and feel a bit different for a while, but stories will be told.