Theater is a lagging art form. Unlike music, crafts, and dance, theater does not take root in a society until it reaches a certain level of stability. As my undergrad theater history professor somewhat flippantly, but very effectively explained, “If you’re being chased by a bear you don’t stop and make a play.” We’re not exactly being chased by bears in summer 2020, but the general premise still applies. We’re not running, we’re hiding. And while isolation is a fantastic environment for writing a novel or composing a symphony, it’s impossible for theater.
Theater artists don’t matter right now, and that’s okay.
Reassessing The Art of Assembly
Back in April, I wrote a response to Nicholas Berger’s The Forgotten Art of Assembly, in which he argued that theater artists should stop making during the pandemic. I insisted that, while his argument was compelling, there was plenty of innovative and creative work theater artists could develop while in isolation. I then proceeded to create some of that work. It wasn’t very good. Even this blog, which was originally intended to to focus on life as a playwright in New York, shifted to more immediate issues: sexuality, spirituality, anxiety, TV reviews, weddings. Essentially, I wrote about anything other than my work in theater, because my work in theater hasn’t been relevant since March.
It turns out Berger was right. The one thing that makes theater great isn’t the live element or the creative problem-solving or the experimentalism. Theater is great because of immediacy. Because you can experience a direct relationship with the performer. Because we’re together. There’s nothing like assembly.
Theater is Reflective
Theater, unlike poetry and music, is a reflective art form. That means that time is required between the thing that is being explored and the exploration. You can write a song about being in love while you are in love. You can’t write a play about the relationship until after it is over. I learned this in graduate school, and I believed it to be true. But when the pandemic hit, I forgot it. This was a mistake. Because nothing of quality can be written about what we are experiencing right now until we know how it plays out and we have time to interpret and gain insight.
Theater Matters, Just Not Right Now
My initial resistance to Berger’s thesis was natural. Theater artists have a perpetual chip on our shoulders. It’s not just entertainment, we insist, it’s culture. It’s ART. As if the word art alone were justification for anything. I’ve spent hours trying to explain to family members that there’s more to what I do than creating various iterations of Mama Mia! for them to dance to. So when I was told we didn’t matter, I became defensive. But the truth is, right now, no one needs playwrights. We need doctors and policy makers and religious leaders. We need music, movies, and television.
But there will come a time – who knows how long from now – when we need playwrights again. Because someone is going to have to look back at this time and make sense of it. Someone is going to have to reflect on and interpret this era and integrate it with cultural narrative. Someone is going to tell our stories and we, as a society, will have to assemble in order to process and grieve together. This ritual has always been essential to society. But only after the bear is dead.