Theater Artists Answer the Question, 'What Now?'

Arizona Theatre Company resides at the Herberger Theater Center in downtown Phoenix.
Arizona Theatre Company resides at the Herberger Theater Center in downtown Phoenix. Visitor7 via Google Images
I dreamed I was at the theater.

It was intermission, and I was standing in the Herberger Theater Center lobby with all the other theater critics. There was Chris Curcio and Kyle Lawson from the Republic, and Christopher McPherson from the Gazette was there, wearing shorts. Max McQueen from the Tribune was whispering to Pauline Yearwood, who wrote for the Scottsdale Progress. Kerry Lengel and Michelle Hoffman, both Republic critics, stood quietly by. I knew I was dreaming because none of us is writing about theater these days. Also, some of these people are dead.

“How’s your mom?” Betty Webb from the Tribune hollered at me through her white cotton face mask.

“She’s fine!” I yelled back. “I liked your new murder mystery!”

Betty glanced at the crowd behind me. “I guess we should go back inside.”

But we didn’t. We all just stood there at the foot of that glossy marble staircase, clutching our notebooks and looking scared.

The next day, I called my friend Quetta Carpenter, who’s an assistant professor in the theater and dance department at the University of Texas at Austin. I told her about my dream, and she didn’t laugh at me.

“The bigger question right now isn’t ‘When do we get to go back into the theater?’” Quetta said. “It’s ‘What’s happened to the theater while we were sheltering from the bombs?’”

Where the coronavirus pandemic is concerned, Quetta thought, we were at war, still hiding from the bombs. “But we don’t know how many bombs there will be or what they’ll destroy.”

She wondered if some of the destruction might be to the viability of theaters in general. Would post-crisis audiences rethink the need to gather in public to watch people pretend to be other people?

I thought she might mean all the livestreamed theater productions I’ve seen commercials for. I confessed that I thought that was weird watching a play on my laptop.

“Everything that makes theater special is ruined by putting it on the internet," agreed Quetta. "Acting is about live heartbeats in a room. Breathing bodies. Without them, there’s nothing.”

She said that lately, she felt like one of the musicians on the Titanic. But she wanted to see the bigger picture.

“We’re all trying, bless us. But the thing we teach actors is being present in a room with another human being. People are doing play readings on Zoom, and they’re all disastrous. You can’t do it. Everyone talks at the same time; you can’t hear the voices or your cue. It doesn’t work.”

But she got it. Creative people needed to create, or they’d go mad. Quetta, who’s been workshopping her adaptation of Shakespeare’s three Henry VI plays called The Henry Sixes, told me about a colleague of hers, a woman in her 70s who hates technology. “But she’s making this video series where she’s just doing things like standing in her kitchen, making her meat sauce.”

Quetta worried about her contemporaries. “The union knows theater people have to work a certain number of weeks to get health insurance. Will they honor that? Theater budgets will be affected by closing early. We’re all thinking about making great art, but a lot of us are a step away from financial ruin.”

She wondered what she would do this summer. “I usually spend it getting my arms strong enough to lift a broadsword,” she said. “I’ve done the Illinois Shakespeare Festival every summer since forever, but it’s been postponed to 2021. I have no job this summer.”

We hung up. I couldn’t stop thinking about live-streaming theater, so I called Ron May, the founder of Stray Cat Theatre, and asked him about watching plays on a device. What was that like? I asked. Did he think it sort of defeated the purpose of live theater?

Ron said he’d only livestreamed plays a couple of times. Most recently, he’d watched the filmed production of The Legend of Georgia McBride from Arizona Theatre Company, where he works as patron data relationship manager.

“It actually looked really good, like it was staged to be filmed,” he swore. “It was much more sophisticated than someone sticking a camera at the back of the theater and hitting the record button. I saw a filmed play from an out-of-state company once, and it looked like some junky recording someone’s mom did. But, yeah, watching a filmed play wasn’t like seeing it in person. It was more of a ‘this will do’ thing than a permanent replacement. Watching Georgia McBride was actually kind of comforting.”

I told him Quetta’s theory about theater artists going nuts, not being able to rehearse and create and design and perform. He agreed.

“It’s why Facebook has become a public access fever dream,” Ron laughed. “People doing musical podcasts and at-home cabarets is an impulse. They have to act or sing, or they’ll go crazy just sitting in a room.”

Part of the problem, Ron thought, was that no one knows how long this moratorium on theater art will last. “Just when you think you know when it might theoretically be over, the deadline changes. Now it’s May or June, so a project you were planning for summer may not be happening. It completely sucks.”

I asked Ron about what happens once things return to normal, if they ever do. People coming back from a crisis might prefer the distraction of a giddy musical or a silly comedy to the kind of dark, edgy stuff that his Stray Cat Theatre typically offers. He disagreed.

“I think the people who come to see us are the people who come to see us,” he said. “I don’t think this crisis will change them into people who no longer want to be challenged by theater.”

Like all the other local theaters, Ron has shuttered Stray Cat for the rest of the season. He said he knew that kind of decision, combined with the inevitable recession, would have a nasty impact on theater arts Valley-wide.

“We saw it in 2008,” he reminded me, referring to the last economic downturn. “That one took out a lot of middle-tier companies like Actors Theatre of Phoenix. Big theaters and small theaters got pummeled. This one feels like it will be worse. We’ll start seeing casualties in the next several months.”

Scarier than thinking about when and how theaters will come back, Ron admitted, was thinking about the bigger picture.

“We can talk about plays and theaters closing and all of it,” Ron sighed. “But what we’re really talking about is ‘Am I going to catch this stupid thing? Am I going to die tomorrow?'”
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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela