Plano — For the past month or so, I’ve been collecting notes for my third-in-a-series article for TheaterJones on theatre artists adjusting to a new life during the coronavirus pandemic. And then suddenly everything changed again. The bystander-taped videos of a white police officer kneeling on a black man’s neck until the black man, George Floyd, died of asphyxiation right in front of our eyes has sparked outrage across the world. Almost instantly, in spite of coronavirus, people have taken to the streets. America, it seems, has woken up to its most potent and long-lasting virus — racism.
In light of our current (and long overdue) raised-awareness of inherent violence against African Americans — which years ago led to the formation of the Black Lives Matter movement and the Colin Kaepernick-inspired Take a Knee protests — it is impossible to ignore this sea-change as I write this article. So many new emotions have come flooding in. I cannot begin to express the massiveness of this moment in time. So I will combine a number of thoughts and feelings behind a single question about continuum: “As a theatre community, what have we learned, and where do we go from here?”
Above all, first and foremost, it is clear that there is no going back. We are in the new normal. Due to the coronavirus pandemic and the wide societal outrage against the racism baked into our country and our culture, we must go forward. We can’t unsee, unexperience, unwake. There will be no “going back to normal.” The world must be rethought. We cannot forget what we have learned, and we must take action. We must seize this dangerous opportunity of seeming chaos and use it to make lasting change. No backing down.
So, what are some things that we, as theatre artists, have learned through all of this about our work and our world as we look to the future? Here are some of my thoughts:
First, theatre is not going to die. It will change form in some ways — we’re making those changes every day in how we think about theatre and how we create theatre. Social distancing is here to stay, at least for a while. And we will survive it all as a strong community working in a powerful and adaptable art form, as we’ve survived wars and plagues and economic depressions for millennia. Some of the best theatre the world has ever seen was created in times of conflict, stress, and repression of various kinds. There are huge creative outbursts happening already. It’s exciting to experience what’s being conceived and written and composed and devised right now — and to look forward to what we will experience when we once again go live and face-to-face.
At the same time, we’ve learned how extremely vulnerable our profession and our institutions are. How can we make changes to bring more stability to our theatres and our artists? Are we in fact “essential workers?” In a May 19 article by Charles McNulty in The LA Times, “25 top theatre minds dream the future: What will the post-pandemic stage look like?” a wide variety of artists express their visions for making a better theatre. They point to how this moment has given us the choice opportunity to improve our theatre in fundamental and necessary ways. They speak out about how we can examine and look toward correcting problems that have long been ingrained in our field and our community. They emphasize how we must come back stronger — with more inclusivity, more parity, more diverse viewpoints at the table, and more ways of thinking about our work and art — a more powerfully engaged and democratic theatre, which is long, long overdue. No going back. (I strongly urge you to read this article, to hear the voices of these inspiring forward-thinkers.)
Streamed theatre and recorded theatre, as forms, are not all bad. They are not anywhere near the same as live face-to-face theatre — that’s a no-brainer — but they have enabled new horizons and boundary-pushing of all kinds. They’ve encouraged us to keep creating, to keep exploring, to keep connecting, to keep theatre alive. Plus, we’re meeting people and working with people we might never have known before. We’re teaching and performing and learning and sharing and collaborating with people in places we might never have gotten to before. We’re enriched by being much more likely to engage with theatre or teaching events which, for a variety of reasons, we might never have been able to participate in before. The technology has been there for quite some time, but this new urgent sense of connectivity was not the norm until now. In a Zoom Shakespeare production I’m currently working on at Collin College in Plano, not only are we experimenting with and combining live performance with a variety of recorded formats, but we also have a professional non-union artist in NYC rehearsing and performing with our cast — what a wonderful opportunity for everyone. In addition, this moment is enabling more people to get in the game, and for theatre to be made on a smaller, more spontaneous scale, while exploring new forms — there are people creating theatre in their closets! All this while we’re establishing a bigger, more connected stage for creative ideas across the world. This is our new normal, and there’s no going back.
That being said, our unions must find innovative ways to work with us at this moment. Not only are our artists struggling financially, but our theatres are in danger of going out of business if they are unable to produce — even if that means producing something over the internet. Change happens fast, and it will be a long time before we can gather safely for truly live theatre. Time enough to think outside the box and look to a new future. No going back.
Accessibility and inclusivity, issues that the theatre, like other businesses, have been grappling with for a very long time, are now in the forefront. If anyone anywhere can log on to an event from their homes, we are at a totally new point with regard to accessibility and inclusivity. Barriers of distance, affordability, and all kinds of access are dropping away. It is, of force, becoming a more democratic theatre. (No going back.) To quote Rebecca J. Ennals, Artistic Director of the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival in an April 7 Facebook post:
“Here's the thing: By Wednesday, I will have seen four shows in a week (School Girls, or the African Mean Girls Play; One Man, Two Guv'nors; Monday Night PlayGround; and Shotz: The Great Indoors.) As a low-income working parent, this is more theatre than I usually see in a month. And it's been either free or much more affordable than usual, plus no babysitting, no commute, and no expensive parking…Can we just say that maybe, when this is all over, we could keep some of this up? For the parents, the seniors, the low-income folks, folks with access challenges, folks in rural areas? I'm still going to see live theatre whenever I can, but when I can't, this is better than just missing out.”
As for our newly normal intensified awareness of racial injustice, we absolutely cannot go one single step back. Enough is enough. We’re so far behind that it’s time to make some necessary leaps and bounds. The theatre must be a champion on this front. We are at our best when we reach out and give voice to a diversity of people, ideas, feelings, and stories. We have always done this, but we must step up even more. A young student of mine recently remarked insightfully (regarding how to work toward solutions for the many issues surrounding racial prejudice and oppression): “It’s a good time because people are finding out that there’s more than one way. There are infinite ways.”
People are talking about acceptance. As another young student of mine voiced recently, “Everybody is accepted in theatre.” ‘Nuff said.
People are talking about listening. In acting we’re taught to really listen, and in the larger world we must also learn to really listen. I recently stumbled on this quote by the 84-year-old actor Alan Alda, (who is currently working to improve communication in our world — check it out!), in a March 12 Washington Post article by Ellen McCarthy, “Alan Alda Would Like Your Attention.” In it, he says “I have this radical idea that I’m not really listening unless I’m willing to be changed by you.” Read that again.
People are talking about empathy. Over 2,500 years ago, Aristotle defined one of the essential ingredients of theatre to be…empathy. This may, in fact, be the most essential element to help us get through this moment and move us forward. We are grieving, we are mourning, we are angry, we are afraid, we are confused. We are experiencing many new things, rethinking our world, reinventing ourselves, dealing with change. And theatre has what it takes to be a leader on this front. Vladimir Meyman, Dallas-area photographer, graphic designer, singer, and actor; was inducted into the Collin College theatre department’s Hall of Fame at a Zoom event on May 23, and in his acceptance speech he made a particularly encouraging and compelling statement:
“I feel this pandemic has highlighted a silver lining for those of us that are creatives. That we get the privilege to create a little more hope, comfort, and reflection during a time when people are in search of meaning and connection. We shouldn't underestimate that power.”
Some young people may be encountering massive disruptions of our society for the first time in their lives. For those of us who experienced 9/11 and other traumatic and world-shattering events, this may not be the first time we have felt a sense of helplessness, nor the first time we have asked ourselves, “What is the place of art at a time like this?” Our experiences can lead us to discover art’s unique power and value in these uncertain times. Among many other things, art can help heal, give focus, offer guidance, express grief, clarify conflict, display the differences between reality and fantasy, inspire hope, point up truth, and connect us all.
This is how we make ourselves essential.
In Shakespeare studies, we talk about the wilderness. In every play there is a stretch somewhere in the middle where characters are in unknown territory. When characters are in the wilderness, they must be in the moment, aware of each move they’re making, each choice. It’s a terrifying, discomforting place to be. But it’s also essential to go to the wilderness now and then to re-assess. To put ourselves in a place where we can take nothing for granted, where we must be awake and aware. It’s an exhausting place to be, but it’s also a healthy place to be, and we don’t know that until we come out of it. And then we are changed. We can only go forward. No going back.
It’s empowering to remember that the scientist who first theorized the ideas behind the space-time continuum, Albert Einstein, recognized the value and importance of all artists when he said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”
» Read Joanne's first column, Space in the Time of Coronavirus, here
» Read Joanne's second column, Time in the Time of Coronavirus, here
» Joanne Zipay is a director, dramaturg, teacher, actor, writer, speaker, and producer. She is best known as the founder and Artistic Director of NYC’s award-winning Judith Shakespeare Company (1995-2015). During her tenure, she expanded the boundaries for women in classical theatre, presenting over half of Shakespeare’s canon, including the entire 10-play history cycle, with groundbreaking gender-bending casting in every show. Joanne received her MFA from the Old Globe Theatre/University of San Diego professional classical training program, and has an undergrad degree from SUNY Oneonta in Education (English) and Theatre. She has also studied with Stella Adler, John Barton, Patsy Rodenburg, Cicely Berry, Larry Moss, and Gail Cronauer.
She has taught at Pace University, City College of New York, Stella Adler Conservatory/NYU, National Shakespeare Conservatory, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Theatre for a New Audience, Dallas Theatre Center, Princeton Repertory Shakespeare Festival, SUNY Orange, Mount Saint Mary College, the Old Globe, and Collin College. In 2008, she directed the Off-Broadway premiere of Timothy Findley’s Elizabeth Rex for Nicu’s Spoon Theatre, and in 2009 she was sponsored by the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of America to serve as Master of Verse for the Richmond, Virginia outdoor summer production of Henry IV Part 1.
Originally from New York, her long career in the theatre has included teaching multiple subjects to students of all ages, backgrounds, and experience levels. Starting as an actor and teacher in Dallas in the 1980’s, she later returned to New York, but has continued to return to the Dallas area in the summers to teach her popular Shakespeare intensive at Collin College, and to direct several shows there, including Comedy of Errors and The Taming of the Shrew. She has just relocated to Dallas once again as of the summer of 2019 and will continue her association as a teacher with Collin College.
Joanne’s words and work are featured in two recent books: Directing Shakespeare in America: Current Practices by Charles Ney (Arden, 2016), and Shakespeare and Gender in Practice by Terri Power (Palgrave/Macmillan 2015). She is also a writer, co-authoring Come, You Spirits!: The Supernatural World of Shakespeare – A Guide for Critical Thinking and Creative Activities (Puck Press, 2016), and as a speaker, she presents lectures on Anne Hathaway and other Shakespeare-related subjects.