The reopening long shot

Theater is immersed in uncertainties. Here are the eight most worrisome.

It’s been quite the terrifying year for us connected to the performing arts. An absolute scary time that began in mid-March 2020 as theaters went dark, lit only by their ghost lights. And now it seems we are closer to what we have missed and craved: live theatrical production with live audiences.

Bridges are being fabricated to span the “before times” and the “now times,” toward a future when we as a species can live with COVID-19 as we do with the flu. And as precautions and guidelines and vaccinations proliferate, theatermakers and theatergoers are beyond excited as the prospect of live theater production seems closer than ever.  

Vial of COVID-19 vaccine. Graphic: DC Theater Arts.

But there are still many unknowns. The theater world is immersed in an inventory of uncertainties. Here are eight we think most worrisome. We made it a list because they are so hard to hold in one’s head all at once.

Even if there is live theater indoors like before, will audiences come back? Sobering research last year found a high proportion of DC-area theatergoers reluctant to return to live theater—a pattern of trepidation that showed up as recently as a week ago: “Despite vaccination, theatergoers won’t fill seats soon, says new study.”

Even as some jurisdictions and unions are okaying isolated live indoor performances, will the CDC ever give a go-ahead? Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s go-to guy for epidemic cred, has been vague on that. At a National Endowment for the Arts event where he was the honored guest, he spoke from what appeared to be a prepared text for five minutes or so, did not stay for questions, then seemed whisked away. What he said was that there is no date certain yet for returning to live performances but possibly this fall, assuming vaccinations for herd immunity and continued mask wearing.

Speaking of the government, will the performing arts ever be bailed out of the COVID crisis? As we’ve reported, there’s already a federal funding free-for-all that is anything but “for all.” And what of the arts workers whose livelihoods vanished? Economic uncertainty has been endemic among theater making institutions and individuals for so long, there’s a real question as to how long local live theater will take not only to reopen but to recover.

Outdoors, aerosols containing the coronavirus will waft away fairly quickly. Indoors, everyone’s lungs share the same air. So how long will outdoor venues be the optimum option? There is lots of guidance for indoor performance. The NEA issued a report in January called The Art of Reopening (and an earlier June 2020 “tip sheet”). The most recent CDC guidance for indoor gatherings came in March, with but hazy applicability for live theater production:

Avoid large events and gatherings, when possible.
Consider the level of risk when deciding to host an event.
Promote healthy behaviors and maintain healthy environments to reduce risk when large events and gatherings are held.
Be prepared if someone gets sick during or after the event.

And that’s not counting expert recommendations for installation of robust ventilation, filtration, and carbon-monoxide-monitoring systems to keep the air changing and virus-free—a cost outlay few theaters can afford. 

Vaccination resistance is a thing. Vast numbers of Americans intend to throw away their shot. As a fail-safe, can and should theater venues require proof of vaccination for all arts workers and audience members? What are the legalities and practicalities of that? Children can’t attend school without proof of many vaccinations. That’s still controversial. And with the partisan divide over mask wearing and now vaccination—plus efforts underway in the private sector to devise a “vaccination passport”—more legal wrangling can be expected. Where this goes for the theater industry is anyone’s guess.

Before COVID, ushers and house managers already had a challenge persuading patrons to turn off their phones. So if mask wearing becomes requisite theatergoing garb for live performance (even for the vaxxed), how well will mask enforcement go? A phone ringing during a show is an annoying interruption. An unworn mask could lead to infection. Phones once turned off don’t turn themselves on once the show starts. A mask worn in the dark can easily slip off unseen. But for mask wearing to be effective, it has to be everyone in the house.

Though there are many myths in circulation about COVID-19 vaccines, a recent study suggests that local theatergoers are not hesitating to get theirs. Still, even for eager-adopter theater buffs, a huge question looms: How long will vaccine immunity last? Federal health authorities can’t yet say; not enough time has passed to find out. Researchers know that antibodies wane, whether from infection or vaccination. And although it happens slowly, it happens steadily. When antibodies dip to a level that is no longer protective, a booster shot may be needed. But with the coronavirus, no one yet knows when that may be, or how to tell it’s time.

Then there’s all the variants—mutations that are hyper transmissible and could conceivably evade existing vaccines. Everyone who’s been paying attention is probably alarmed enough about that epidemiological doomsaying already, but the pertinent question to be raised here is: Could theaters abruptly shut down again? And the answer is: Without worldwide diligence, maybe. Because even if there’s some equilibrium of safely reopened live performance venues, the global pandemic that closed DMV theaters in March 2020—and that is now being curtailed through social distancing, mask wearing, vaccination, etc.—could abruptly arise in new guise and turn ghost lights back on.

However much we worry, let us do it together. Let us also warily look forward: to a resumption of live theater performance indoors. With opening nights and curtain calls and laughter and applause. And table reads and costume fittings and tech rehearsals and dressing rooms.   

In the meantime, let there be careful attention to COVID precautions by all concerned. Let us work together to lobby for rescue funding. Let us donate as if the artform depends on it. (And doesn’t it?) Let us lend a hand to those in need. Let us view and value work being done to be seen on screen. 

But let us acknowledge that we are all living in a world where we don’t know what’s happening next—both for us in the theater and the world at large. If this were a work of theater, we might get wrapped up in the artful mystery and appreciate the suspense. But it’s real life now. We’re in it together. And we have this one chance as the theater community, and theater industry, to get this right. 


Rehearsals in PPE and other big changes to expect when theaters reopen in DC by David Siegel (May 25, 2020)

Can laughter be lethal?: Dr. Linsey Marr on aerosol transmission of COVID by John Stoltenberg (September 21, 2020)

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John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg is executive editor of DC Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg. Member, American Theatre Critics Association.


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