Oskar Eustis, artistic director of The Public Theater in New York, knows firsthand about the coronavirus. Eustis was hospitalized with COVID on March 10, and by the time he was released five days later, everything was shut down. “I came out into a world that had no theater, and it’s a different world,” he says.
Eustis has recovered, but the Public, like theaters all around the world, is in critical condition. After the theater shut down on March 12 management tried to keep artists and actors on salary for a month, but “by the end of April, we had to end all those contracts,” Eustis says. By July, he had to furlough much of his staff.
September is when newspapers and magazines would usually publish their fall theater previews, but this year, there’s no fall season, at least in any traditional sense. So, what is theater going to look like, when the pandemic is over?
The Public Theater has produced some online content. “Just because conditions are hard, it doesn’t let us off the hook; it doesn’t free us of the obligation to try to fulfill our mission,” Eustis says. “So we’ve done serialized radio plays. We’ve done Zoom plays, we’ve commissioned two movies. We’re doing everything we can to continue communicating and making our art form viable.”
Eustis loves reaching audiences far beyond New York — he says he’s received emails from people enjoying the Public’s online content in Kazakhstan. “I’m not likely to want to give that up when we come back,” Eustis says. “That’s exciting to be able to reach that many people.”
But even with that global reach, the only activity at the Public has been when it recently opened its lobby to Black Lives Matter protesters, offering food, drink and bathroom breaks. Eustis sees America facing a “binary” choice right now: “Are we going to embrace with a new fervor our diversity, our democracy, our desire for equity? …” he asks. “I know what side the theater needs to be on, and we need to prove that we mean it. … We have to become more diverse. We have to become more anti-racist. And we have to let more people tell their own stories.”
‘We’re going to go to you’
At Baltimore’s Center Stage, artistic director Stephanie Ybarra says she knows it’s going to be a long time before audiences return in person. But she hopes that when they do, stories will be told in simpler ways, with fewer sets and costumes.
“In Shakespeare’s time it was, ‘Let’s go hear a play,’ not see a play,” Ybarra says. Audiences listened closely. “My ideal version of that sentence today would be: Let’s go experience a story together.”
Ybarra is not sure if this is a brand new chapter, or a return to a time, she says, when theater relied “exclusively on a really good story, incredibly talented actors and an audience that was willing to go along for the ride.”
Ybarra has no idea what will happen after the pandemic, but she hopes the theater of the future will tap into our collective imagination. “We will rely less on the stuff of the stage and more on the physical bodies of the performers and the words they speak or sing and the movement of those bodies,” she says.
Before she moved to Baltimore, Ybarra ran the Public Theater’s Mobile Unit, which brought Shakespeare, with small casts and simple sets, to neighborhood parks, shelters and prisons. That sort of creative thinking is going to be necessary when theater comes back, says Oskar Eustis.
“I think one of the first things we’re going to need to do is not ask people to come to our home, but for us to go out to them …” he says. “To go to where the people live as a way of saying, we’re not insisting you come to us and get into these small, crowded spaces. We’re going to go to you and give you a chance to celebrate and enjoy and feel the solidarity of being in an audience again.”
Change is taking place internally at Center Stage as well. Ybarra is adjusting work rules to make rehearsal periods more humane. Playwrights will be paid during rehearsals. Six-day weeks will change to five-day weeks, and 12-hour technical rehearsal days will be scaled back to 8 hours.
It’s not just about making theater accessible, Ybarra says. “It has a lot to do with transforming our arts and culture institutions into arts and culture and civic institutions.”
Though she remains uncertain about the future, “I have a sneaking suspicion that our artists are going to lead us toward something we none of us could have imagined,” she says.
‘Cultural institutions are the amplifier’
Nataki Garrett runs the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which mixes classic plays with freshly-minted dramas. Garrett believes that the theater of the future will need to take issues of environmental justice into account — including the carbon footprint of the audiences traveling to productions.
“The only way you can get to OSF right now is by some sort of carbon emitting device,” she says. “We really do have to think about the impact of being a destination theater in a destination state.”
Seventy five OSF employees recently lost their homes in the Almeda Fire. Garrett says OSF, and Oregon should both be thinking deeply about their carbon footprint.
“Cultural institutions are the amplifier of the way that society is moving,” she says. “And that could be used in a positive way and it can be used in a negative way, and we’ve seen both in history. I want to be an organization that uses that positively.”
Seeing the Black Lives Matter uprising occur in the midst of a global pandemic, Garrett says, “You know, if you can’t hear that, then you were never trying to listen.”
Garrett, who’s African American, and Stephanie Ybarra, who’s LatinX, have been working explicitly to make their organizations anti-racist, as has Oskar Eustis, who’s white. Recently, a document called We See You White American Theater, was published online with a list of demands for change. Ybarra says there’s still pushback from a lot of theaters.
“We are not at a place where we can wrap our heads around what it looks like to be a collectively liberated field,” she says. “We understand the word anti-racism now, but we are not yet at a place where we could imagine an arts sector or a theater field that was wholly and completely racially just. And it’s a failure of imagination that keeps us from that future. Nothing else.”
But imagination is the theater’s engine.
“It’s our job to try to make the future a better place,” Eustis says. “It’s our job to try to make the theater more democratic, more inclusive, more accessible, more anti-racist. That’s what we’ve got to do. And so, I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to continue doing that.”