Adapt or Perish: Surveying the Status of the American Theater
What lessons has the American theater learned from the reckonings of 2020, and how will those revelations push the medium as productions look to reopen in 2021?
The American theater has a decision to make.
As we fix our eyes toward a new horizon, and throw our collective goodwill behind the promise of a better year than last, we continue to endure an ongoing pandemic and social uprising, like a double helix, spiraling ever forward, casting more of the same uncertainty about the future of live performance, well-being of disenfranchised arts workers, and, very plainly, Black lives in the arts.
Together over the course of these many months, we have dug down deep to unearth some of the most fundamental questions about what it is we’re all here trying to do: What is a theater company without a season? What is a play without a stage? What is community without congregation?
And what remains so deeply unsettling is that still today, with the hope of comprehensive government bailout so laughably unconscionable, the decision-making few still standing seem doggedly fixed to the notion that these seasons, their stages, and the disappearing sense memory of congregation can be reclaimed once again, if only we continue to wait.
But the same can’t be said for some key and innovative artistic leaders who, quite frankly, are done waiting. In a December panel discussion hosted by Jacob Padrón and the Long Wharf Theatre, Hana S. Sharif, Stephanie Ybarra, and Robert Barry Fleming sat down for a conversation about leading their respective organizations towards a more just and collectively liberated future for the theater industry. I implore you to watch, and re-watch, their conversation. Though still cloaked in darkness, the moments when the future we’re all moving towards can be seen most clearly appear in the spaces these visionary artistic leaders share. Here, I share some highlights from their dialogue:
Hana S. Sharif, Artistic Director of Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, on staying adaptive:
“I keep thinking think about ... this concept of inflexibility … the way that shows up in the institution: you create processes, and you become an expert at the thing that you do, and then by nature of just the schedule it’s very easy to stop questioning what you do and just stay in line and to just do the process … and that slows down the evolutionary process. What this moment has done … it required us to think about who we are and what we do differently ... I look forward to how that philosophical shift fuels the work when we are able to be back on our mainstage. Can we maintain that adaptive, self-reflective, self-assessing muscle? Because I actually think that’s what the 21st century requires of us.”
Stephanie Ybarra, Artistic Director of Baltimore Center Stage, on evolving the model:
“Are we going to come out of this moment with a new model or new models? No. But what if we were in a constant state of evolving our model? What if we didn’t do what we just did … and get so entrenched in it that getting out of it and moving past becomes this national conversation and crisis? What if we were always evolving in some way? And the thing that gives me the most confidence … is the fact that we don’t have to answer any of these questions alone. That we get to do it together and that we are … constantly in relationship to one another, and taking little bites at these very big questions, and working in community together to start to reach for answers … We’ll be fine ya’ll, because we’re going there together.”
Robert Barry Fleming, Executive Artistic Director of Actors Theatre of Louisville, on dispelling the mythology:
“We have to reckon with a mythological narrative of … the lone great hero ... the one cis-hetero man giving a vision of where we’re all going. It’s rooted so deeply in the mythos. One has to think, ‘What’s my relationship to that myth?’ in order to see clearly how I might work in community and collaboration. Because I think that’s the step that for me often gets overlooked. There’s not enough self-awareness to know what’s in the way of iterating, envisioning, imagining. It’s, for me, the lifelong learning in community—being open to what might I find out today, what blindspot might be illuminated today in community—that helps me be a little more available to what is really possible …. We’re not going to come up with it independently.”
Friends and colleagues, we cannot wait any longer. First, because we will never wait out white supremacy. In “A COVID-19 Vaccine Is Here, but Theaters Seek a New Deal,” The Undefeated’s culture critic Soraya Nadia McDonald wrote,“The pandemic has exposed long-standing problems of equity throughout theater and society as a whole.” Fortunately for us, if there were ever a time to take direct, collective action to uproot the way oppressive power moves through our organizations, a pandemic that has radically shifted the way we are able to bring services to market is precisely that moment.
And second, we will never again operate in the theater ecosystem we knew at the beginning of 2020, which means that if we do not begin incorporating our present realities into our long-term stability plans, if we cannot see how our ability to adapt now is going to exponentially enable our ability to stay nimble, stay learning, and ultimately stay vital to our communities, we will perish. If we do not begin centering new voices into the core of our operations, if we are unable to ask difficult questions and live in the thorniness of awakening and reparations, we will seal our fate and cosign our own extinction.
Here’s the best part: we already have the tools. Think back to when we were still in rehearsal for live performances. Remember those collaborative, generative spaces, where there were distributions of power? Remember when each voice in your rehearsal room had a distinct and fundamental role to play? Our rehearsal rooms are designed to encourage risk, and our management systems are currently engineered to minimize it. What if we flipped our management orthodoxy and encouraged risk instead of fearing it? What if we let our artists teach us how their spaces are taken care of—balancing hierarchy, interdependence, and the best idea in the room? What if they were on our boards, in our offices, sharing insights and ideas?
Systems can only change in community—when there is accountability, but more importantly when there is support. This must be a grounding realization for all of the work we are prepared to do as an industry moving forward. Change cannot be engineered behind closed doors, nor can it be scaled quickly and conveniently. Meaningful, lasting, restorative, liberating change will only happen with human beings, standing out on the shifting ground, growing in power and strength one person at a time.
This is going to take all of us. Right now, we need leaders standing arm in arm with Hana S. Sharif, Stephanie Ybarra, Robert Barry Fleming, and Jacob Padrón who have the courage to step into new orthodoxies and make decisions, of which they might not know the outcome, but on the merit that they believe in their people. In this critical moment, our arts organizations have a choice to make: whether they’re going to stay intransigent, jeopardizing the lives of their artists and staff, or otherwise embrace this change and take responsibility for a future many are already trying to realize.
It’s time to decide: adapt, or perish.