It is impossible to make theatre that does not somehow speak to the world in which it was created. Even if the piece intentionally ignores its context, that decision in and of itself is a nod to its time.
In an opinion piece for Austin Monthly, writer and educator Bryan C. Parker wrote of his intentions to plan for online learning, the best option. He acknowledges that people are worried online learning without a physical return to school will negatively impact students; they cite a lack of socialization and hands-on learning in science an arts courses alike. However, Parker notes that while these are appropriate concerns, the world we are currently living in would not allow for the same kind of engagement even if students go back to their schools. They will need to socially distance and have minimal social engagement even if they can see each other. They will likely be barred from group projects in order to ensure safety anyway. Parker does not advocate school cancellation; he just believes that school should continue online in order to reduce the most profound risk of losing a student to the virus or asking them to endure losing someone else. Following Parker’s thought process, it seems that theatre, as physical and active as it typically is, would do better to protect its students and engage with an adapted form of theatre online. Just as Parker is asking that education reflect the reality we are living in, so to should theatre respond to the current global state. Broadway is not onstage, because they are protecting their patrons and artists from medical and financial chaos. Many believe theatre cannot be theatre if it is not in person; but, nothing is in person at the moment, and this must mean something.
Roger Ellis, a music theatre assistant professor at Northwestern University, explains that the reason he loves to teach improv lies with the core of its intrigue: preparation for the unknown and “the courage it takes to remain present when one cannot control the outcome.” If anyone could adapt to the trepidation inherent in this moment, it would be theatre artists, who are trained to produce greatness when the pressure is on. This, of course, does not mean adaptation to a virtual format without the sanctity of a stage, will be at all easy. This is a call to action, says Ellis, for the theatre to once again build a space for artistic expression and rebellion when we have been stripped of one. For example, teaching students to act through a screen, is not remiss.
For a while, but especially now, screens are part of our lives. So are lack of access to WiFi, the frustration of shared devices, and virtual friendships. So, why not tell these stories? The Kane Repertory Theatre in Ontario is asking for playwrights to submit their work for readings and they prefer writing that could be performed over Zoom. This conversation feels important to them and ripe for innovation.
Award-winning playwright Jeremy O. Harris explains that we are drawn to “spectacle” these days; , the kind that is “necessary for us to get to catharsis.” We are protesting in the street, on social media, through conversation, and we are engaging with cultural symbolism. It is all “live,” all simultaneously planned and spur-of-the-moment. Theatre is very much alive and well, and Harris recommends we listen to our own theatrics when they arrive unexpectedly.
The best thing we can teach students is to protect their communities, use their voices, and live in the moment.