Theater is great because it is ephemeral. Despite being unable to match film and television in terms of reach, realism, or effects, theater has cultural staying power because of the very nature of the format. The community gathers and experiences a singular event. While a play may run for years, that one performance is singular, existing only in the memories of those few who were in the audience on a certain night. In Nicholas Berger’s beautiful, thought-provoking essay The Forgotten Art of Assembly: Or Why Theater Makers Should Stop Making, he makes a convincing case that, because the core of what makes theater great has been taken from us, we should not attempt to make theater online or through video while in the quarantine. What, then, should we do?
The Importance of Mourning
I agree with Berger that the initial rush to create performances online was spurred by a sense of panic and a need to avoid reality. Before we can begin to piece together of version of theater that works, we need to mourn what has been (temporarily) lost. Berger writes:
We must lean into this pain. We must feel the grief. We must mourn. Mourn the loss of work, the loss of jobs, the loss of money, the loss of life. Mourn the temporary loss of an art form that demands assembly. Lean into the grief. Lean in. Lean in. Lean in.
This is moving, truthful, sentiment. But at a certain point, leaning in becomes wallowing. And by all accounts we’re going to be here for a while. We cannot mourn indefinitely. Or, even if we do mourn, we must not allow mourning to become stasis. We must carry our grief with us to the next step.
Art as Vocation
I’ve written before about treating art as a personal vocation. As a Christian playwright, art is how I work through my struggles with my faith. It’s also how I communicate my relationship with the divine to the secular world. I find it necessary, both because it keeps me spiritually engaged and because it appears to be part of God’s mission for me. All artists, religious or otherwise, are working through something in their art. They have an obsession that keeps pulling them back and back and back. It’s not something that can simply be turned off. So, when the defining factor of what makes theater theater is turned off, theater artists will be compelled to find other avenues to make it.
Innovation, Exploration, and Discovery
Full disclosure: I am the lead writer in a multidisciplinary project developed as a response to the pandemic. The Great Vanishing, developed by The Skeleton Rep, combines elements of film, television, dance, and live performance. It tells the story of a mysterious global happening that is parallel to, though not identical with, the one we are living now.
This project has allowed us to collaborate with artists across the country, whom we would never have otherwise met. We’re leaning into site-specific work, finding the most creative and surprising ways to utilize the space in our own apartments. Because the piece is constantly evolving, it will outlive the pandemic. We will culminate with a live performance that is truly a piece of theater, but that also could not exist without the work we’re doing right now. We are learning to make the lack of assembly as essential as assembly. Because that’s what artists do.
A Time for Gratitude
Now is a time for grief, but it’s also a time for gratitude. Those of us fortunate enough to have our health are asked to remain in a liminal space. These spaces are excellent fodder for discovery. As difficult as it is to be productive during this time, I’m also acutely aware that I will never again have as much free time as I do right now. It’s time to take that screenwriting class and expand my form. It’s time to read that novel sitting on my shelf. It’s time – so much time – to spend with my partner. It’s time to connect, create, innovate and make theater. It’s always time to make theater.