In many regions, we’re seeing the first semblance of a return to form for theatres in a year. Festivals are gearing up for outdoor performances that abide by safety protocols, regional theatres are operating at reduced capacities, and with vaccines rolling out over the next several months, institutions like performing arts schools may be able to give students the in-person attention they need. And while there is a sense of a return to normalcy, there have necessarily been some changes in theatre that hopefully will be carried through to future years.
One of the most pressing issues of modern-day theatre when giving it a critical look is its stagnancy. As the century turned over and regional theatres became longstanding cultural institutions, the need to keep the lights on in these monuments of decadent architecture became paramount. With interest in theatre largely dwindling in each passing decade, the largest and most influential pieces of the theatre community became businesses first and artistic pioneers second.
Thus began a reliance on extremely limited repertoires to fill out seasons. Big-ticket titles, musicals, unchanging relics, and anything Shakespearean are the meat and potatoes of the vast majority of programs you’ll find in the western world. And that’s not to say that there is no creative merit in musicals or Shakespeare, but it certainly does make for a narrow spectrum of experience. Jordan Tannahill highlights a multitude of these issues in the aptly titled book Theatre of the Unimpressed, and it is a problem that has seemed to have few theatres willing to remedy. They can either maintain the cyclical seasons to keep the same subscribers entertained, or they can take risks on new theatre and risk their income.
But the nature of the pandemic has forced the hand of so many of these institutions. There is simply no way to pull off the grandiose nature of modern musicals; the latest Broadway hit isn’t making its way from city to city; the funds to secure rights and produce performances in the same way simply do not exist currently. We are poorer, we are sadder, and we are wanting to feel life in us again.
So what can this mean for theatre?
For starters, it can mean a more symbiotic connection between theatre and community. With fresh works from budding and established local playwrights being a much more easily secured resource, there has been a stronger highlight on the works of those within regional theatres’ communities. This not only means more opportunities given for new works but also can mean more representation on the stage. Issues that come directly from a community can be explored on a platform they are not always given.
It also can make for new audiences without some of the risks that may have been previously posed pre-pandemic. While a fresh take on seasons and programming could be a turn off for some more rigid subscribers, it is certainly a draw to those who otherwise may have turned their attention away from regional theatre’s offerings- and with so many of us so starved for the experience that comes from live performance, even those missing their theatrical mainstays are likely not to disparage new offerings after such a long drought.
It is a time for great changes in theatre. There is little that artistic institutions can do currently except adapt to our ever-shifting “new norm”. And while that may be a struggle much of the time, there is certainly some good to gleam from these adjustments. Many of the measures taken by theatres may only be in the need of self-preservation for the moment, but if there is one thing that can be learned from the year of theatrical experimentation, digital performances, and this new beacon of altered seasons, it is that theatre can- and deserves- to change.