My on-line physical therapist (which must be an oxymoron) has me doing these balance exercises where I tilt from one side to the other, gradually lifting alternating legs higher and higher until I achieve some sort of balance on one foot, usually for about three seconds. While she convinces me that this will help turn me into an efficient and elegant creature of locomotion, more often than not I feel like one of those rolypoly Bozo the Clown toys of my youth that you could bat, swat or push and it would never fall over.
I mention this because the roly-poly wobbly Bozo is about the best metaphor I have for the state of theater right now. “Hamilton” is coming back to the Pantages, but “Hamilton” (despite its triple digit ticket prices) got nearly $50 million in PPE funds to weather the pandemic. Smaller theaters, even with government support, have not been so lucky (retrofitting HVAC systems are a major cost) and so, many of the 99-seat theaters are going the way of other small businesses and closing for good. The state of the cinema is analogous: “Black Widow” crushes (as the kids say) an $80 million dollar opening weekend, while independent serious films hope for a slot on Netflix or AppleTV.
Finances are not the only reason for the wobbling. In my June column I talked about how theaters “flipped a switch” after the 1918-19 Flu pandemic, and how producers were hoping to do the same now. Well, it turns out that that switch has a dimmer control on it. Rising Delta cases and the fact that, as one potential audience member put it, “people can’t be trusted,” has significantly slowed the rush to a theatrical “normal” - new or not. Two well-reviewed off-Broadway shows, Lucas Hnath’s “Dana H.” and Tina Satter’s “Is This A Room” have hedged their bets on their move to Broadway by splitting the rent on the Lyceum Theater, with each show taking part of a week’s performance schedule.
Culturally, every new play on Broadway this fall, except for the two above by Hnath and Satter, will be by a Black writer (TimeOut/NY, 7/2/21). That’s a real step forward. The step back is that the seven plays, “Pass Over,” "Lackawanna Blues,” “Chicken and Biscuits,” “Thoughts of a Colored Man,” “Trouble in Mind,” (a revival from 1955), and “Clyde’s” are all underperforming at the advance box office. As I write this, The Center Theater lists its season, including Jeremy O. Harris’s “Slave Play,” but tickets are not for sale. The Geffen has announced that its 25th Anniversary season will open on September 14, but the best I could get out of its website was to “notify me” when tickets become available.
Wobble, wobble. Take a whack! Economists agree on one thing: uncertainty is bad for business. If it is bad for business, uncertainty is worse for a collective and collaborative art like theater, which has more to worry about than a “fear of jerks” (NYT, 5/26/20) in the audience who won’t follow rules about masking or social distancing.
Producers are now openly talking about a devastating flu season in late fall, and the effects of climate change. Is anyone driving up to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this summer? Other open air theaters from the Public in New York to theaters in the Midwest have been rained out more often with each passing summer. The smaller the theater, the bigger the impact each of these issues has to the bottom line.
Theater does not happen in a vacuum. These are insecure, uncertain times, and we hunger for clarity and direction. My fear, if history is an indicator, is that the solutions will come from the wrong place and the wrong people. Perhaps we should get more comfortable with our anxieties... and our lack of balance!
Check out some of our favorite Bard books and articles:
Read Louis Fantasia's Introduction to Playing Shakespeare's Characters: Monarchs and Madmen
Released in 2019