Saturday, April 11, 2020

Peering into the future of the New Play Sector (esp. New England)

Lisa Tucker and Ed Hoopman in The Nature Plays at Mount Auburn Cemetery (photo by Corinne Elicone.)

(I'm usually a very positive person, but I'll warn you that what follows is not my usual glass-half-full view of the world. But there still might be a little water left in the glass when this is all over.)

It's human nature to try to understand the future, and for playwrights the desire to understand the narrative structure of the future is a key to our work. As a playwright, I spend a LOT of time trying to understand how conversations and stories unfold, and as a producer/playwright I study how audiences react to every twist and turn in a play, every quip and sigh by an actor, even how long it takes until the seats at the venue start to feel uncomfortable.

So it's no surprise that as a numbers geek and playwright, I spend a lot of time thinking about stats associated with the COVID-19 pandemic and how this whole story is likely to play out. To make the whole prediction game more complicated, the pandemic also likely to be accompanied by a deep economic recession, after the economy has ground to a halt due to necessary social distancing.

The state of semi-quarantine isn't such a huge shift in daily routine for a writer already used to working from my home office, having phone meetings, and coping with extreme uncertainty about whether the work I write might ever be produced. However, thanks to starting my company, Plays in Place, I've been able to reduce some of that uncertainty, as I land contracts and commissions for new scripts and productions at museums and historic sites. (My non-Plays in Place work is still just as uncertain as ever.)

Like everyone else, however, I've had a number of cancellations and postponements of productions of my work, and I'm scrambling to adjust the four very different Plays in Place projects scheduled for 2020--some are happening, just with different timing. Others remain up in the air.

Sooner or later, this pandemic will come to an end. Either we'll find a vaccine, or else most people will become infected and either survive and gain immunity, or else die. Without a smart response by the leaders in government, we can expect to endure significant suffering. I'm not convinced that the people in charge are as smart as we need them to be, but we'll see. They haven't exactly showered themselves in glory so far.

What happens to theatre when all this ends?  And, what happens to playwrights?

I don't have a crystal ball, and I can't speak for all sectors of the artform. I don't know much about Broadway, but this article from Mark Harris offers some smart thoughts about it.

Don Aucoin of the Boston Globe wrote an insightful piece about the Boston Theatre scene and possible pandemic fallout just a few days, ago, and it's worth a read.

There are a multitude of factors that will impact the new play sector, in New England and beyond, but the biggest is how long the shut down will last. I pore over the stats every day, trying to get a grip on that. At the moment, we're starting to see leveling off of new cases in NYC, and a shift of the curve in Massachusetts. Nationwide, that's making it seem like we've flattened the curve somewhat successfully, but I have a suspicion that the states that were slow to put social distancing and quarantines into place will see a delayed upsurge in cases, and we'll see a bloom of infections in the South and Midwest, within the next two weeks. If that happens, it will slow the relaxation of social distancing elsewhere, because authorities will get nervous.

For safe relaxation of the shut down, we need three things:  the availability of widespread and fast testing (and accurate, centralized reporting), active and strong quarantine of new cases, and fast and accurate contact tracing.  Without those three things, we might relax social distancing rules, but we'll likely see a resurgence of the virus in a second wave. Some people will have gained immunity already, but a large portion of the community will still be susceptible, and this time the virus will literally be everywhere (as opposed to when this started, and it was only in a few hot spots).

Once the shut down is eventually lifted, we'll have to revive the economy. We're in an unusual situation, because this shut down of the economy was an intentional response, so in theory, we can restart it again (if it doesn't take too long for that to happen), fairly quickly. No one really knows if that's true, but we'll find out.

In the theatre sector, however, we have a couple additional challenges. The economic damage to individuals already living on the edge financially is likely to be severe. At the small theatre level, where much of my work reaches the stage, many of the performers and other collaborators barely survive via a combination of gig economy jobs. Those jobs have all dried up. To recover financially, they might now need to ramp up their focus on making money and have less time for acting/designing/directing. Will we see a significant loss of the talent pool to other professions?

At the mid-size theatre level, I expect we'll see some companies fold entirely. Especially companies who held any debt--the loss of revenue for 3-9 months will be too much to bear. Companies at this level who do survive, are likely to see pressure to shift their programming to material they feel is more financially reliable--so well-established titles or else newer work by well-known writers. I'd expect to see lots of Lauren Gunderson plays on stage (and other similarly high profile writers), because her work has such a strong track record. I fear that much of the racial and gender diversity that we've seen growing on stage (maybe not as fast as we would have liked) will now slow significantly, as seasons become more conservative.

Large theatres will face the same challenges. I'd expect to see layoffs at the large theatres, the impact of which will ripple downwards, because often the people working admin and staff jobs at LORT  companies are the same people who run smaller fringe companies. I expect to see programming of new work also tighten up a lot at big companies over the next few years. Smaller shows, more well-known titles.

All of which is pretty bad news for playwrights (like me) who don't already have a strong national presence. Paid gigs will be a lot harder to come by. Theatres are an oddly conservative bunch, when it comes to programming. If the stock market cratering continues, they're going to have a much harder time with fundraising because philanthropy will dry up, or else it might shift to poverty relief programs if the recession drifts into a depression.

For playwrights looking for paid, professional productions of their new work, opportunities are going to become far fewer, and the competition stiffer, as playwrights continue to write new work (and MFA playwrights keep graduating), and writers who were semi-famous are now forced to compete for crumbs with those of us who aren't even close. Theatre productions are going to return--and they all need actors, directors, designers, ushers--but a resurgence can easily leave out emerging playwrights.

I think we can expect to see a steady amount of new play development--places like the O'Neill, Seven Devils, Great Plains, New Harmony, Play Penn, have a good shot at continuing their work, if they can weather the financial storm. Larger companies will still have a desire to have their hand in the new plays world, so might shift that energy to either continuing or expanding play reading and development programs.

Where we might see a boost is at the small theatre/fringe level. We'll lose some small companies, because the skeleton crew that staffs them will need to either get other jobs or relocate to cheaper locations, but the urge to create is strong. I believe that once we become comfortable gathering in public groups again, people will have a strong urge for the connective power of theatre. And there will be a LOT to say. In many expensive cities, we'll see many small storefront businesses driven out of business. Theatre folks are an opportunistic bunch, and if we see a sudden opening up of space and lowering of rent in non-traditional spaces, we could see a resurgence of small, innovative, new-work focused companies. That's perhaps the most optimistic/hopeful part of this whole situation.

I think we'll also see a steady presence of short play festivals at small companies, and perhaps at larger venues, too. Barrington Stage, Phoenix Theatre in Indianapolis, and City Theatre have seen strong audiences over the years for their festivals. Cast size can be flexible, design costs are often low, and it's the chance to work with a bunch of playwrights at a lower risk.

My own work is highly linked with the fortunes of the museum world, but they're facing the same problems as everyone in the "gathering economy" (museums, public art performances, sporting events) of no revenue for months and challenges in fundraising. My niche is small but might be deemed as extraneous by some of the clients I'd hope to bring in as partners. We'll see. I'm fighting to keep it going.

For Equity actors, this all becomes a very challenging situation--smaller casts means fewer jobs and recent changes to Equity eligibility enables people to join with fewer points. Competition for union acting jobs will grow fiercer. One big question is whether this might push Equity actors in cities outside of NYC to demand the creation of Showcase contracts that would allow smaller companies in Boston, Minneapolis, Seattle, Atlanta, to hire Equity actors. It would allow them to keep their skills sharp, while waiting for larger venues to return to normal casting levels.

I so appreciate the creative, powerful, supportive energy of our theatre community that we've seen over the past weeks of this crisis. I'm confident that we'll see more of it, and theatre folks are great at finding ways to create and express themselves. But I think it's also important to go into the coming years with our eyes wide open to the challenges that are likely to face people writing new plays. And maybe we'll find some solutions that will fund and encourage more professional production of new plays. (One can hope.)

I'm curious to see what happens next. I'll keep writing plays, but I might need to hone my skills as a handyman just in case this whole theatre thing doesn't pan out.
Robert Najarian in The America Plays, photo by Corinne Elicone


Donna Hoke said...

I agree with all of this Patrick and see it as pragmatism as opposed to negativity. I do think that small companies--those led by people with day jobs--that come together season by season or show by show will be the first to pop back up. Historically, these have also been the ones most willing to take risk because there is no overhead.

Most importantly, whether or not a company survives is perhaps not as important as whether audience survives. Who will feel comfortable gathering in a large group before there is a vaccine? Who will have survived economically enough to afford the cost of theater tickets? Which subscribers will not resubscribe? And what is the programming that will make them overcome all those things?

Emma Goldman-Sherman said...

I hope you're wrong. I really do. I'm sure you do too. I will add that I think theatre is a vital art that is only vital for the new voices that populate it. I don't think new generations are clamoring to gather once again in large groups to see Shakespeare or the tried and true. I believe and have believed for a long time (long before Corona) that theatre is an in-person art form that moves us emotionally (and that might entertain). As such it is necessary and to be necessary, it must offer its patrons something very special and specific that can't be found elsewhere. An emotional connection in community with a story that is specifically happening in/with/to the audience. I believe that will survive.

Patrick Gabridge said...

Donna, I think your question about audience is an important one, but I think I have hope that theatre is just too intrinsic to our human experience to give it up. Otherwise it would have died with the advent of film, TV, the Internet, etc. I think once we have a vaccine, people will stop being shy of crowds. But that's years out.

Emma--I very much agree that the essence of theatre is its in-person, communal nature.

I think my glass three-quarters full thought is this--it is possible for this catastrophe to lead to a serious political change, that will bring about universal health care, student debt relief, and a lessening of income & wealth inequality. Any of those changes would be very much to the benefit of the theatre business (especially universal health care). If those happened over the next five years, I think you'd see a thriving artistic scene that would surprise everyone.

Christine Foster said...

I have heard some speculation about theatres being only allowed to sell "every other" seat
when the basic restrictions on lock down are lifted. Same with cinemas of course
and concerts. If that were the case the possible revenues for LORT and others would
be badly crimped. Pop up theatre, street theatre, Fringe and your Plays in Place approach -
especially with promenade audiences - would offer more flexibility and that could be a big first
step back.

Unknown said...

Good news from Barrington Stage. There is talk of reprising their 2020 "10 x 10" festival in the autumn, depending on, . . . well, you know. Some bloggers among the playwrights. And they will be paying modest royalties. For a look at the program, go to :

Also many thanks to WGBH for airing a performance from the Huntington Theatre of "Mala," written by and performed by Melinda Lopez. Of course being in the theatre for a live performance would have been preferable, but even a TV version helped this lonely old lady in a motel room eating a deli sandwich and sipping Irish whiskey, whiling away the hours before her brother's internment the next day (no hugs, no liturgy). Melinda's fiercely honest confrontation with love and death was what I needed at that moment.

Patrick Gabridge said...

Christine--I think "every other seat" would be a serious economic problem for most LORT theatres--costs are just too high. For plays in Place, it depends on the project. Outdoor stuff would work well. But Blood on the Snow puts a lot of audience (56) into a room with 10 actors, and that's part of the experience. (That's the project that I lose sleep about right now.)

Patrick Gabridge said...

I was very glad that Barrington Stage is going to move their festival to the autumn. It's a smart move on their part--even in the winter, it plays to sold out houses. I think 10-minute play festivals will continue to thrive--they're usually low cost and can be a good draw.

I was thrilled that WGBH aired Melinda's play. I loved it in the theatre, and it seems well suited to a TV version.

Susan Middaugh said...

Patrick, appreciate your insights, reality check and leadership on this.

It may be time for some of us to switch to other forms of writing. I've written two read-aloud stories for Lucy, my next door neighbor, who is five, and my partner's almost six year old granddaughter, Kenzie. My granddaughter Jasmine, a high school senior, is illustrating the latter. No money, very limited audience, but enjoyable.

Susan Middaugh

Patrick Gabridge said...

Susan, I think we might see a lot of that happening. If the market is so glutted that people can't get productions of their work, they might find other media more rewarding, on various levels.

Unknown said...

Patrick - Thank you for your piece; I appreciate your thoughts, along with those of the other writers. There is a lot to think about as we weather this storm. It's where my heart is just crying out theatre community, community, community...

Katie Doyle
Portland, OR

Donald Loftus said...

Dear Patrick:

I think it is too soon to be able to predict...and the outcome will be largely based on whether or not science and medicine can come through with a much needed miracle, but I am mostly in Emma Goldman-Sherman’s camp. Society has faced a number of horrifying situations in the past (wars, famines, depressions, epidemics) which must have also looked to be impossible to overcome at the time...and did survive it all. Often times, after a devastating period, theatre evolved and even provided a new richness or awareness that was not present before the catastrophe. The evolution may have been driven by what the present-day audience needed after the calamity was resolved. My greatest hope is that human beings also evolve and grow as a result of this current crisis. We entered this period with people more divided, more angry, more intolerant of others than we had seen in decades. I’m hoping that we will come through this with more caring and compassion for each other and that theatre will once again teach us how to behave in the new world. That is asking a lot...but I do think people at some point, will be anxious to hug, and heal and love and grow. Time will tell. It may take years or even decades, but I truly believe theatre in some form will survive and even flourish.

Don Loftus

Patrick Gabridge said...

Don, I think theatre will bounce back very strongly. I just think that the realities of how the theatre business works are going to make for a few very lean years for playwrights.