A Director’s Note on COVID and the Theatre

At the time Sophocles was writing Oedipus Tyrannos c. 425 BC,  Athens was at the tail end of a plague that killed between 75,000 and 100,000 people. Thucydides, himself a survivor, recounts the details in The Peloponnesian Wars. Students of history will appreciate his description of people desperately fighting a “novel” disease, failing to contain it, and ultimately adopting any talisman or ritual behavior, however ridiculous, to protect themselves. Eventually the plague ran its course, and life resumed as usual. 

This production is inspired by the recognition of the need for decisive action in the face of a societal transformation that threatens the very essence of the theatre. Lockdowns that were supposed to last for two weeks to “flatten the curve” and prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed persist, as does the attendant hysteria, despite the flattening of the curve, and the failure of hospitals to be “overwhelmed.” The Entertainment Industrial Complex, the purveyors of all of what passes for entertainment in our culture, have passionately embraced the narrative that this Chinese virus is so unprecedentedly dangerous, so deadly, that we must decimate our economy, the arts, sports, and education to protect a vanishingly small number of people from dying of (or with) a disease from which 99.74% of those infected recover. This, despite ample evidence that masks are ineffective, and that draconian “social distancing” and other “safety” measures are doing more harm physically and psychologically than the disease which the measures are designed to fight. And so, like a postmodern cargo cult, we wear our Magic Masks and perform our Rituals of Ablution and Sanitation in the hope that maybe, the Angel of Death will see the mark of our virtue signaled clearly on the lintels of our homes, and pass us over. The narrative that all of this is unnecessary and downright dangerous is suppressed, and we have been propagandized into believing that those of us who reject the Approved Narrative are anti-science “rat lickers” who care not at all for anyone but themselves. This serves only to aggravate an already poisonous atmosphere in America, polarizing citizens along political and ideological lines that really have nothing to do with science, and everything to do with determining the extent to which a population can be frightened into submissive compliance with anything anyone in authority tells us we must do, despite our misgivings and principled objections to the violation of our liberty.

This production is more than a commentary on, or response to, the Chinese virus. It is, quite literally, an act of resistance. Although we are told that “it’s not forever, it’s for now,” there is no reason to believe this when cast against the backdrop of contradicting information that the “experts” have been force-feeding us since the beginning. At the same time, we are being subjected to an incessant obligato of messaging that is quite opposite of “not forever, just for now.” This messaging is preparing us for “The New Normal,” the implication being that our ways of conducting life and business formerly will no longer be operative going forward. 

The problem is that the New Normal is destroying the Old Theatre. Increasingly, people are being conditioned to avoid crowds, to be content with consuming quality entertainment from the safety and comfort of their sofas. Why pay $500 for tickets to see Hamilton when Disney will stream it live into your living room? Why endure the hassle of going even to a community theatre if it means having to be masked, socially distanced, having one’s temperature monitored, and having to wait 30 minutes to use the restroom at intermission because nine people are safe standing at urinals, but 11 people are not? How compelling will it be to watch actors attempt to negotiate performances around masks and face shields? How interesting will it be to watch productions in which directors have chosen to minimize physical contact among performers and keep them “safely” distanced? 

The New Normal is changing the way we rehearse and perform, and even how we deliver our content. However, live streaming and slickly edited, multi-camera videos of theatrical productions that encourage our separation rather than our gathering in person are not theatre. The power of the Theatre, what makes it unique, is the living presence of the Actor before a gathering of Spectators. By definition, there can be no Theatre without a live Audience physically present in a space. The same is true for the actors. It is no longer necessary for them to be present either. Consider what’s possible given the current state of our technology: body mapping, artificial intelligence, holography, and virtual scenery can produce spectacular, cinematic effects in real time without a live actor ever having to set foot upon a stage. Actors’ performances can be recorded through body-mapping and reproduced at will, as is the case with film. Artificial intelligence combined with “deep fake” technology and holography already are resurrecting the great stars of the past, circumventing the need to cultivate (and pay) new talent. All of this will be implemented in the name of safety and convenience, with the result that the Theatre as it had been practiced since the time of Sophocles will no longer exist. It will have morphed into a new art form that some may find exciting, but which many will see as empty, mechanized spectacle devoid of the immediacy and humanity that makes Theatre what it is. 

For these reasons, we must recognize that the future of the Theatre is its past. Theatre artists and educators must admit what is happening to our art as it has been practiced traditionally; we should be horrified by what we see, and we must understand that if we do not resist, the Theatre to which we have given our lives will be a distant memory, not unlike the memory of air travel before 9/11. Twenty years later, we are still shuffling about airports in bare and stockinged feet, stripped of our dignity in the endless, meaningless safety rituals that now attend our movement from one place to another. 

Believe the messaging about the New Normal: it will be imposed whether you like it or not. But if you believe in the Theatre, that Theatre is essential, that Theatre is the ground on which we explore the nature of the human experience as a live, in-person community, then stand with us, say “no” to the New Normal. Insist on the right to live in the open, to gather for purposes other than protesting and rioting, to refuse to be suffocated by government mandated garments. The freedom that we have so meekly surrendered will not be restored to us, as you don’t get back easily what you gave up so lightly. The future of the Theatre depends on the choices we make today. Choose wisely.

Image: Pickpik

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