When will we be able to attend a live performance? That question is being asked angrily in France, where theater is more central to the national culture. (America has no national theater.) But we should ask that here as well. Broadway remains shuttered, as are indoor theaters and concert halls across the country. Can’t they at least start their engines, if in a limited fashion?
In France, protesters are occupying at least seven theaters, including the landmark Odeon in Paris. The occupiers – largely actors, workers and students – are demanding that France’s theaters be at least partly reopened. They’ve been shut since October following a spike in coronavirus cases.
Australia halted the spread of the virus through disciplined mask-wearing and social distancing. Thus, if you want to see a stage production of Disney’s “Frozen,” you have to go to Sydney. You’re now able to see a live performance of “Hamilton” there, too. Audience members, needless to say, must wear masks.
Some sponsors of live theater fear that their former audiences, glued to streaming services during the pandemic, won’t want to detach themselves. They also worry that once their patrons have seen “Hamilton” on Disney+, they won’t want to spring for a $100-plus theater ticket.
As it happened, many American playhouses bowed to reality and necessity and streamed their productions. Are they planting the seeds of live theater’s destruction? Perhaps not. A 2016 study in Britain found that theatergoers who watched streamed performances patronized live theater more than those who didn’t.
The National Theater in London has been broadcasting plays for free on YouTube. It’s also started its own paid streaming service that anyone in the world can watch, which is providing a tidy source of income.
Meanwhile, fabulous TV from the streaming services got us through COVID-19. “The Crown” or “The Mandalorian” — there was something for everybody.
So, why crowd into a playhouse?
There are reasons. The players in a theater interact with the audience, which makes every performance unique. And the audience is part of the show, its members responding to one another. A good example is the group laugh. As they say in the business, the experience belongs to the collective.
In a videoed production, you see what the camera shows you. Often, that’s a close-up of a single character. In a theater, you can also follow the reactions of other characters on the stage. As Alex Webb wrote for Bloomberg News, “The show was developed with a theatrical audience in mind, so watching it on a 32-inch screen compromises the experience.”
A theater feeds local businesses. People go out to eat or drink before or after. An actual theater district provides customers for hotels and other travel-related activities.
Performing arts companies across the country are starting their revival with outdoor productions. Austen Opera will soon stage the opera “Tosca” at a Formula 1 racetrack. The Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles is about to present the play “An Octoroon” in its East Hollywood parking lot.
The Broadway theaters aren’t expected to open until autumn. New York is trying to keep the heart beating through pop-up events, where artists perform on subway platforms and at similar public areas.
An advantage of outdoor performances is that social distancing is easier in these bigger spaces. But soon, we pray, we won’t have to do social distancing.
None of this can replace the electric moment when the theater lights start to dim and a stage comes alive with real people. The pandemic showed us the fierce human need for communal life. Live theater should again be part of it.