Not surprisingly, despite the assurances from the occupant of the White House, COVID is still with us; and likely to be for the next several months at least (in its current form) and always hiding in the background for the foreseeable future. This is, as someone explained to me, only our first pandemic of the 21st century and we’re still finding our way. Our children and grandchildren will be viewing the performing arts through a pre- and post-COVID lens. So let’s give them something memorable to recall as they find entertainment above and beyond Facebook cat videos.
Here’s a good story: it’s Steamboat Springs in the 1890’s. Families are moving in but the community is still very much a part of the Old West. Ranchers, cowboys, and miners abound; men are men and women….well, there aren’t that many who are independent and available (and untainted by the “soiled dove” neighborhood of Brooklyn). Given the overwhelming male population, Steamboat is in the first of its “the odds are good but the goods are odd” stages. Lots of men for a woman of status but none of them are keepers.
Our heroine, Ida Brausen, loses her father to illness and she’s not looking for a replacement father figure to help her build the family’s homestead. Still, the suitors are becoming more and more insistent. So, she chooses the mail order option: buy a husband from Back East and put the issue to rest. Find a man she can rule and get the deadbeats out of her pasture. Since this is a comedy, you can be assured the rest of the story unfolds with a charming and satisfying conclusion, suitable for the whole family.
What’s going to be unusual about this story, is that you’ll never see it any time soon. This story will be airing on the local radio stations and subsequently on social media. It’s going to be an entirely auditory artistic experience assembled by a unique team of local and regional actors and sound technicians. COVID has given us all the opportunity to expand what we’ve been doing in the performing arts into new territories. Once we’ve broken new ground – or, given the history of radio theatre, re-excavated some of the old ground – there will be no going back to business as usual. In Shakespeare’s time, theatres reopened after years of closure due to the bubonic plague pandemics and people returned to normal activities. We won’t have that luxury both because the economics of big Broadway style productions won’t work in the post-C era and because there won’t be the actors available. It’s hard to sell a kid on an acting career when it’s impossible to have in-person learning and the degree will be useless upon graduation.
So Ida and her new husband, Ellis, will be existing in your imaginations as you hear about their arranged marriage, the bad guys who want to break it up for their own selfish purposes, and the heroic rescue at the last minute, aided by a bad tempered mule. The sounds alone will be the key to both setting the atmosphere and supporting the story. This will be a soundscape with a plot more than an audio book. Fortunately, Steamboat in the 1890’s was full of sounds: although the actual rail line through the Moffat Tunnel was not completed for another couple of decades, the train arrived in Wolcott in 1888 and a regular stage route between Wolcott and Steamboat was established a year later.
The air in those days would have been full of the noise of steam engines, stagecoaches, the river running through the center of town, horses, cattle, the sawmill and new flour mill, and – of course – the chugging of the now-silent Steamboat Spring. Naturally, the Old West meant hunting and firearms so the occasional gunshot would have been no cause for alarm. The Brooklyn neighborhood south of downtown was just becoming the spot for fast booze and easy women, since Steamboat proper was banned from selling alcohol. The cowboys began to flock to the area in search of entertainment, refreshment, and the occasional fist fight. It was a loud, exciting time and one that would prove challenging for our heroic couple, Ida and Ellis.
Audio books have been popular for years but audio performance art is new in many ways and there are countless questions. Sound technology is light years even beyond the Radio Mystery Theater days of the 1970’s and 1980’s. But how will new technology work to tell a compelling and entertaining story in the Facebook era? Are audiences so geared toward visual storytelling on TV and in movies that they’ve lost the ability and patience to engage only with what they hear? We usually depend on our sight for information (“believe half of what you see; some or none of what you hear,” in the words of Marvin Gaye ); how can writers explore storytelling in a soundscape only environment? This is going to be an exciting artistic world of potential success and inevitable failures.
Two things will be certain as we clear away the smoke and later when we get our vaccinations: audiences will want to re-engage with performers and performing arts will be changing. There will be no return to what we thought we knew on January 1, 2020. There will be a new normal that remains to be defined by the creatives that began inventing storytelling before written languages existed. In the beginning of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the early hominids were visited by a mysterious monolith that ushered in the discovery of tools. Imagine that COVID-19 is our current monolith, arriving over 50 years later, provoking us to discover new tools for communication and creative storytelling. In Joni Mitchell’s words, “we can’t return, we can only look behind from where we came” as we chart an uncertain yet inevitable path to creating new performance art.