Ordinarily, Paul Daigneault likes nothing better than choosing casts for shows at SpeakEasy Stage Company. Plenty of productions over the years have testified to Daigneault’s skill at matching actors to roles.
But at this unprecedented moment in theater history, his heart just isn’t in that task.
“I can’t put myself out there and have it taken away from me again,” says Daigneault, who founded SpeakEasy three decades ago, leads it as producing artistic director, and directs many shows there. “Personally, I’m really trying not to damage myself by continually setting myself up for disappointment.”
If those sound like the words of one whose confidence was shaken by a meaningful relationship that went sour, well, that’s not too far from the situation now confronting Boston’s theater leaders. No sooner had they reluctantly resigned themselves to the evaporation of their all-important fall seasons than a renewed surge of coronavirus cases nationwide suddenly made even a January restart seem optimistic.
“This whole pandemic has been four months of uncertainty,” exclaims Weylin Symes, producing artistic director of Stoneham’s Greater Boston Stage Company. “All of us attend meeting after meeting, looking for certainty, but every day just brings more uncertainty.‘'
There are tangible ways to measure the damage since the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of theaters in mid-March: canceled shows, unrealized ticket revenue, the human cost of the many jobs that have been lost. (See accompanying story.) But a full reckoning must also take into account the radical disruption of the seasonal rhythms by which the theater world operates — and the creative impact of this unforeseen, unwanted, and maddeningly unpredictable intermission.
As Michael J. Bobbitt, artistic director of Watertown’s New Repertory Theatre, dryly observes: “No one teaches you about pandemic-theater planning when you go to artistic director school.”
In any other year, late July would be a time of gearing up and building momentum for the fall theater season. There essentially won’t be one this year: Globe interviews with leaders of a dozen large and midsize Boston-area theater organizations confirmed that all but Lyric Stage Company of Boston have jettisoned plans for live productions this fall, although New Rep has plans for a production in late November.
The toll of theater closings has been felt most painfully by the staffers who have been laid off or furloughed, as well as countless freelance actors, directors, musicians, carpenters, sound technicians, designers of sets, lighting, and costumes, and other theater workers who have seen jobs go up in smoke. For the theater leaders and staffers who remain employed, the usual summertime routines have been upended. In many ways, the fight for organizational survival has to take precedence over the artistic missions that brought them into theater in the first place.
In a typical late July, a general air of anticipation would suffuse Boston theaters. Preparations would be under way for rehearsals of September productions. The sounds of sets being constructed or installed would be heard; the costume shops would be a flurry of activity. Crucial developmental work for future seasons would be taking place: workshops, readings, the honing of new scripts. Box-office teams would be selling tickets and season subscriptions. The marketing departments would be fine-tuning their publicity campaigns.
And now? It can almost be boiled down to one word: Zoom. “I’ve got Zoom fatigue,” groans Josiah A. Spaulding Jr., president and CEO of the Boch Center, which operates the Shubert Theatre and the Wang Theatre.
Theater leaders like Spaulding and remaining staffers are busy, but it’s a different kind of busy. Days are a blur of video conferences with coworkers or information-sharing webinars with counterparts at other companies in Boston and around the country, looking for clues to a path forward. They make budgets, then revise them, then revise them again. They pore over updates from advocacy organizations. They seek information from state or city officials on health protocols and guidelines on when it might be possible to reopen.
An intensely human business has had to go digital. “When I go in the theater right now, it’s like the Twilight Zone,” says Spaulding. “The only thing on is the ghost light.”
In a normal July, Catherine Carr Kelly would be finalizing dozens of contracts for actors, directors, and designers for the upcoming season. But “normal” doesn’t apply this year for the executive director of Cambridge’s Central Square Theater. “You want to get all your ducks in a row as early as possible, but we’re in this situation where it’s the opposite,” says Kelly. “It’s a terrible way to work, to be honest.”
As concerns mount that their industry will be decimated, local theater leaders are pointing to the $2 billion governmental bailout for Britain’s arts sector announced earlier this month. They are hoping the pandemic will prompt an increase in state funding for the arts, pointing out that Massachusetts desperately needs the kind of economic shot in the arm cultural organizations can generate. “We are an enormous economic factor,‘' says Huntington Theatre Company managing director Michael Maso. “And our part of the economy cannot be allowed to shrivel. It makes no sense as an economic strategy.‘'
In terms of the art form, leaders are closely watching planned August productions by two theaters in the Berkshires. Staging shows in outdoor venues, as Berkshire Theatre Group intends to do, is seen as a potentially promising warm-weather option. Ditto for the idea of limiting seating capacity at indoor venues to enable social distancing, as Barrington Stage Company is preparing to do, although reduced seating is widely seen as financially unworkable long term.
Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, some theaters are using this time to intensify internal discussions about how to build anti-racist theater by emphasizing more inclusive casting, undertaking a more systematic outreach to communities of color, and scrutinizing every facet of their operations in terms of equity.
“We’re looking at how we do things: What are the white supremacist structures that we’re unconsciously part of and how do we make significant changes that last?” says Kelly, of Central Square Theater. “That has been enlightening and challenging, inspiring and depressing.”
Shawn LaCount, artistic director of Boston’s socially-driven Company One Theatre, says it has been “interesting watching the field grapple with equity issues in the way that it’s doing,” adding: “In this moment, artists have a lot of power via organizing and social media and holding folks like myself accountable. That’s a beautiful and important and long-overdue thing in an industry that’s been way behind the curve on equity.”
Inevitably, the future role of live-streaming has also been a hot topic of discussion. Once theater rebounds, can shows be presented simultaneously to a live audience and an at-home audience? And might the online platforms bring productions to audiences that are not just larger but more racially and generationally diverse?
In addition, Central Square’s Kelly says she is using this time to reexamine pricing structures, contending that it makes fiscal as well as moral sense to seriously tackle the “barrier'' that high theater prices pose for many, especially the young. “There could be a big world of (older) people out there who are not going to be comfortable coming back,” she notes. “It’s going to force the issue that has been there for a while: trying to reach younger people. If you’re not able to speak to people under 60, then your viability could be in question.”
Even as they grapple with such questions, some theater leaders are struggling to adjust to the absence of live performance, the emotional payoff that drew them into the business in the first place. The Huntington’s Maso finds it painful to look at the calendar, given that this was supposed to be a pivotal month for his company. Scheduled productions of “Lackawanna Blues” and “What the Constitution Means to Me” were slated to kick off the 38-year-old theater’s transition to a 12-month operation.
“I’m finding it hard, the artist part of me, to be creative, because there’s no opening night,” admits SpeakEasy’s Daigneault. He invokes “Jaws,” saying: “It’s like treading water with that shark swimming around you. There’s that sense of doom. You wake up, and you think you know what’s happening: OK, I have three meetings. And by noon, things are changing so quickly.”
“You start getting excited about the future, and then this happens and you have to put everything on the back burner and start thinking about survival,‘' says New Rep’s Bobbitt. “It becomes frustrating, depressing, maddening. You start thinking not about the art and your mission but about cash flow and keeping people employed.”
For Erica Lynn Schwartz, general manager of the Emerson Colonial Theatre for Ambassador Theatre Group, this month represents a “bittersweet anniversary,” given that two years ago at this time the Colonial was about to reopen with a splashy production of the Broadway-bound “Moulin Rouge!” Another large-scale musical, whose title had not yet been announced, had been slated to make its pre-Broadway premiere at the Colonial later this year, but it had to be postponed after the pandemic struck because it was not possible to do the necessary development work, such as workshops, that typically occur in advance of a live production.
Like other executives, Schwartz is keenly aware that the mass-gathering nature of theater will make it harder for the industry to rebound from COVID than it will be for, say, museums.
“Performing arts in general is going to be one of the last to come back because of these challenges,” she says. “Even if a miracle vaccine were to appear tomorrow and all the lights could be turned on, there’s still going to be a lag time.”
Yet Schwartz brightens as she looks ahead to that day when the curtain will rise again, at the Colonial and elsewhere. “I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like when we first welcome people back after the pandemic,” she says. “It keeps us incredibly motivated.”