Pandemic Will Be “Devastating” for Future of Live Theater, Says Professor

By Tom McLaughlin

Make no mistake, says Ken Elliott, the impact of the novel coronavirus pandemic on the theater world will be “devastating.”

Elliott says what makes the crisis especially difficult is the uncertainty that hangs over the industry.

“As far as I know, nothing like this has happened since the English theaters were closed due to the plague on various occasions in the 16th and 17th centuries,” says the associate professor of theater and chair of the Department of Visual, Media, and Performing Arts at Rutgers University–Camden. “To put that in perspective, it was something that Shakespeare had to deal with.”

According to Elliott – an accomplished director, producer, and actor – what makes the crisis especially difficult is the uncertainty that hangs over the industry. The pandemic, he says, has thrown actors, directors, designers, stagehands, and everyone who works on the shows out of work without notice, and without any notion of when productions will start up again. Major theaters are cutting the salaries of their staffs, if they are able to retain them at all.

“Of course, the many businesses that depend on and support the theater, such as restaurants, hotels, taxis, and many others are hurting as well,” he says.

On Broadway, Elliott continues, the word is that theaters may be dark until fall 2021. He guesses that many Broadway shows will not reopen at all; two shows that were in previews when the theaters shut down, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and The Hangman, have already announced that they won’t.

On a brighter note, Elliott isn’t so sure that the newness of social distancing will affect the behavior of performers.

The Rutgers–Camden professor explains that theaters depend on ticket sales for income; many nonprofit theaters have little or no endowment and some will simply not survive. These theaters may have to rely more on contributed income, such as grants and donations, and fewer Broadway shows will open because investors will be leery of the prospects of commercial productions.

He notes that, thankfully, there is some support for the arts in the recently passed CARES Act; the National Endowment for the Arts will distribute $75 million in funding for arts organizations across the country to help them survive the disaster.

When social distancing guidelines are finally lifted and life returns to some sense of normalcy – whatever that looks like – Elliott says there is still no telling how quickly people will feel comfortable about sitting in a crowded theater. He notes that, in particular, elderly Americans – a high-risk group for the coronavirus – make up a large percentage of typical theater audiences and will rightly be reluctant to put themselves at risk.

“It seems likely that there won’t be a sudden ‘all-clear,’ and I worry that many may feel it is just not worth the risk for many months to come,” he says. “The prospects aren’t good.”

On a brighter note, Elliott isn’t so sure that the newness of social distancing will affect the behavior of performers. He imagines that there will be some elbow bumps in lieu of handshakes in some productions, but the depiction of social conventions will most likely depend on the context of the play. However, he does envision that there will be a lot more hand-washing backstage.

On Broadway, Elliott says, the word is that theaters may be dark for nearly four months and reopen in mid-July.

As far as the art of storytelling goes, Elliott is curious to see how playwrights treat this still-unfolding “dystopian period.”

“I’m sure it will generate some exciting theater,” says Elliott. “But I also think that audiences may be weary of hearing about the pandemic by the time it finally ends, and may wish to move on.”

The uniqueness of this disruption, he adds, makes it difficult to compare it to anything that has happened in our lifetimes. For instance, he notes, the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 90s was horrific, causing the deaths of countless theater artists, but bad as it was, it didn’t directly cause the theaters to close.

Moreover, less than two days after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on America, the lights on Broadway were lit again, but it was much easier for shows to recover from a two-day hiatus than it will be from a year-long closure.

“Casts will need to be reassembled and rehearsed, which can’t happen overnight,” he says. “Many shows just won’t make it.”

He notes that, at Rutgers–Camden, the Department of Visual, Media, and Performing Arts was in the midst of its production of Anything Goes when face-to-face classes were halted. The initial plan was to resume rehearsals in September and open in October, but now everything is up in the air.

“Theater depends on actors and audiences gathering together at a specific time and place for a communal experience,” he says. “There’s no telling when that can happen again.”

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