Theatre During COVID

Businesses are suffering as we spend most of our time secluded indoors. Of course, we should all continue to limit our outdoor activities, wear masks, and social distance, but that doesn’t mean we can’t mourn the effects of quarantine. 

I’ve been especially saddened by the lack of theatre, a business that’s been largely forgotten by financial relief efforts during COVID-19. Theatres have either been prevented from opening or are allowed to open with impossibly strict guidelines that don’t allow for financial stability. To make matters worse, they've been largely exempt from stimulus efforts, because they're non-profits. Given all of these setbacks, how has theatre tried to make it work?

To start, the theatre needs donations. The Globe Theatre and Royal Albert Hall in London feared possible closure if they weren’t able to secure an influx of donations, government intervention, or some miracle performance season. These theatres are historic monuments to the arts, and to see them close would be a greater tragedy than anything Shakespeare could have imagined. Luckily, it seems these fates have been postponed.

As a theatre lover, my worst fears are The Phantom of the Opera closing and Broadway being replaced by movie theaters. However, theatre fans haven’t been wallowing in “what-ifs.” Instead, they’ve found a new way to experience the arts: the internet. Theatres and actors everywhere have innovated new ways to bring the joy of theatre to our homes. The most popular method is streaming archived performances from prior years. 

You can watch a different Shakespeare play every week from The Globe Theatre. Opera Philadelphia has also started their own streaming service packed with content, and The National Theatre streamed a critically-acclaimed play each week, from A Streetcar Named Desire to the production of Frankenstein featuring Benedict Cumberbatch. I was able to enjoy plays I hadn’t been able to see in-person from the luxury of my couch (Although I had some critiques of Streetcar – sorry, Brits, the Americans have a stronghold on that one.) 

These recordings kept me going for a while, but I missed the thrilling live experience of musicals and plays. I know I’m definitely not the only one; actors have missed being on stage as well. Musician Seth Rudetsky has revived his show, Stars in the House, where he brings Broadway (and Broadway adjacent) talent together for reunions, Q&A’s, and even play readings over Zoom. Rudetsky has also started concerts with stars like Norm Lewis and Jessie Mueller. It's nice to hear people sing again – a sliver of hope. 

Even more akin to live theatre is the Old Vic in Camera series. The Old Vic stage, a London icon, has selected a number of socially distanced productions that they stream through Zoom links and online ticketing. These shows are actually performed live, even though they aren’t in-person. 

Months ago, I woke up at 5 a.m. to buy virtual tickets to a play called Lungs. It felt a little silly to spend money on something I’d be watching in my living room instead of in London, but I was excited. Unlike so many other streamed events, this was live, in-the-moment, and actually staged! Well, sorta.

I had seen this play before and remembered it being very intimate – two actors, no set, just them. Going into this streamed edition of Lungs, I thought the actors would be able to touch, assuming they had gotten tested prior to the show. But no, the performance was staged with strategically placed Zoom boxes. The actors would “kiss” from six feet away; I enjoyed it, but it didn’t feel quite right.

I’m making a big deal about not being able to see musicals and plays, but I know people have more important worries about their financial situation or health. I know my sadness is less critical in comparison, but I think it’s important to recognize our mutual sadness and disappointment. I feel as though, without theatre, I’ve lost a small piece of me that’s now just drifting indefinitely. When will it be back? 

For me, going to musicals was a slice of hope, of guaranteed joy that broke up my mundane student life. I believe that humans are capable of a small amount of magic, and I’ve only ever seen it when sitting at a theatre. Without it, life has lost just a little bit of its glamour, which is why all of these attempts at “live” theatre seem to fall a little short for me, though I appreciate them. 

But I believe we can get it back, just not right now. Until then, I’ll make due with YouTube videos and cast recordings and the hope that everything I love about theatre will still be there when we come back. Someday the Olivier’s and Tony’s will be more than an announcement, and kicklines will be shoulder-to-shoulder. Until then, I will continue to stream and support from afar.