As I write in 2020, you read in 2021. For those of you who believe that a few pages of a desk calendar can make all the difference, that a raging pandemic will disappear in the face of Big Pharma’s best and brightest, and that tens of millions of Americans will suddenly become disenthralled with the ravings of a petty dictator, I wish you the best and happiest of New Years.
But what if the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn on the winter solstice – visible locally only because the skies miraculously cleared for a few hours on Monday evening – did suddenly readjust the workings of theatre in the New Millennium? What could the performing arts look like and sound like in the upcoming months?
It’s certain that Broadway style theatres, those magnificent temples where we’ve gone to worship in Denver, Los Angeles, New York, and everywhere in between, will not be reopening anytime soon. Professional actors will not be allowed by the Actors Equity Union to enter into performance contracts until vaccinations against COVID are so widespread and accepted that infection rates are near zero. All this assuming the virus stubbornly refuses to accept the results of the election, mutates little or not at all, succumbs to the pleading of science, and becomes an inconvenience we accept like traffic jams and the occasional greasy plate of ethnic food.
It’s equally certain that there are stories that cry out to be told. Love and romance, tragedy and comedy, the ever changing and never changing human condition has spawned storytellers, even in the depths of human despair, for tens of thousands of years. We’ve become accustomed and have taken for granted a traditional model for storytelling during this time: “Let’s gather around the fire and roast a couple of slabs of meat, recount the dangers and excitement of the hunt, then get drunk and fool around.” My tutor in graduate school – Christian Penny – sounded so poetic when he described this moment as “the coming together to share air in the hope that something transforming will occur.” But often enough something transformative did occur and we left the fire pit or the theatre seeing the world in a different light; experiencing our lives from a different perspective; or – at the very least – highly entertained with a smile on our faces and really looking forward to fooling around.
The sharing of air is potentially deadly now and likely will be for the remainder of 2021. Not even the best and brightest scientists know for how long a vaccine will prevent infection; or if it will even prevent a successfully vaccinated person from unknowingly transmitting the disease to others. Masks and social distancing will be with us for a while, meaning that the gatherings around the fire or sitting in a cramped theatre or even sharing the solemnity of Christmas Mass or listening to the intonations of Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur with other souls, cheek by jowl, must be experienced differently.
How will it be possible to recreate this fundamental human desire to share and experience the magic of a story when we are unable to inhabit the same space? What’s it going to feel like in a house of worship – be it church, synagogue, temple, or theatre – amidst empty space and silent bodies with faces nearly completely covered? The early days of Steamboat theatre were occasionally like this when the heat failed in the Cameo Playhouse and only a few hardy audience members, scattered about with mufflers and scarves, showed up for an enthusiastically performed – if poorly written – Western melodrama “Slightly Northwest of Oak Crik.” It just wasn’t the same entertainment value for either audience or performer, only slightly better than pornography really.
Performing artists have attempted Zoom and YouTube with some expensive and vigorous efforts applied to very skillfully written and performed material. But I think it all falls flat compared to real bodies in space. There’s just something so magical about watching dancers leaping about to an internal rhythm, grunting and sweating; singers and musicians whose powerful voices and instruments vibrate the very air against our skin; and actors whose looks can pierce our souls. How can we come close to replicating these experiences?
I recently saw a low budget indie film “The Sound of Metal” about a heavy metal drummer who loses his hearing. He spends the film searching for what was lost before accepting a calm stillness living with what he has. This is what performing artists can create in our lives: power in stillness; a moment when everything stops and we’re waiting and holding our breath to see and hear what happens next. When we enter a theatre or house of worship we suspend our disbelief: the cheap red wine really is blood; the Ghost of Hamlet’s father can rise and speak. We also give in to a suspension of time and space, living and experiencing in the moment a story being told as if for the first time, even if it’s hundreds or thousands of years old.
We’re learning a hard and painful lesson never, ever, to take these feelings for granted. As we cling to American Democracy by the last remnants of our hard bitten fingernails, we must remember that really nothing can take the place of live performance by skillful storytellers using music or voice or movement (or all three for you triple threats in performing arts schools) to create those transformative moments that shape our lives. If the performing arts do anything, they open us to moments of vulnerability and shared humanity in real time. They give us the opportunity to experience empathy and catharsis through stories told in our faces through the most powerful of mediums: the human body in all its beauties and imperfections. Performing arts remind us that we are not broken. The memories, and moving shadows on a screen, are all that we will have for a while to remind us that we are not broken. “Remember me,” says the Ghost of Hamlet’s father. Hamlet replies, “Ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat in this distracted globe. And thy commandment all alone shall live within the book and volume of my brain.”