by Brittany Crowell

Theater is going through a difficult time right now.  Just this past week, we have witnessed the shutting down of many beloved establishments in the theater community, including UCB’s physical home, Shetler Studios, and the Secret Theater in Queens.  Broadway producers have had to fight for a seat at the table with the state’s talks of re-opening strategy, and many artists are finding themselves in a position where their usual form and outlet has disappeared, and with it, their means for support.

As the industry has been navigating this difficult time, it has made me think back to a question I often ask myself – is theater essential?  As someone who has dedicated most of her life to the form and the industry, my search has been mostly focused on finding my way to the answer “Yes,” however, there are many factors and additional questions to take into consideration when truly exploring the essential nature of theater.

In the winter of 2017, I was privileged enough to have the opportunity to travel to Belize and Guatemala and experience the amazing rainforest, caves, and Mayan ruins.  I spoke with many guides who took an interest in my work in “theater,” but mostly from a point of inquiry as to what the industry offered, rather than from a knowledge of the form itself.

A cave in Belize.

Edgar, a Shakespeare enthusiast who showed my group around the Mayan ruins at Tikal, had so many questions about theater and soaked up all of my stories, telling me regretfully that they didn’t have theater offerings in the area.  Most of Guatemala and Belize labored off of the land or worked grueling hours in the tourism industry.  Edgar told me that many didn’t have electricity in their homes, and while there was music, dancing, and visual art, their access to traditional theater and film was more limited.  Carlos, our guide through the caves of Belize, joked with me that the only film he saw growing up was ‘Rambo,’ but that he watched it over and over again and he and his friends would fight over who got to personify Rambo when they went into the rainforest to enact new endeavors, in what struck me as a very theatrical form of “play.”

Returning from that trip made me think a lot about life in New York and the meaning of essential.  I went into 2018 hoping to consider my environmental footprint and trying to lessen my screen-time and re-prioritize my focus and gratitude onto smaller moments.  Unsurprisingly, the charms and draws of the city’s life, pace, and cultural offerings distracted me and only now, with the coronavirus and the shutting down of everything deemed “non-essential” have I begun to truly reset, am I reminded of my 2018 inquiry and able to give it renewed attention and focus.

In a recent conversation with producing collaborators, we asked some important questions: Is theater essential?  Does it meet the needs of artists?  Do audiences actually need theater now?  Can “theater” be virtual?  When we re-open, what will the need be, and will theater be able to listen?  Will theater be able to meet it?  While I want to believe that theater is essential and can continue in the time of COVID-19, I recognize that I work in an industry rife with prohibitive ticket prices, that prioritizes “exclusive” experiences, and is in need of communal, non-distanced experiences to survive.

Joseph Haj, of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, said it best in his recent statement on behalf of the theater (you can view the full clip at the top of this post).  He said that theater in its truest form could not be done from a distance, that it involved “gathering people together in a shared space to enjoy a shared experience.”  He also gave one of the best arguments I’ve heard for the essential nature of theater, stating that “given the centuries old tradition of telling stories onstage, I would argue that theater is not some old-fashioned practice that has survived accidentally, perhaps it has thrived because it is one of society’s proven necessities.”

In his speech, Haj talks about the Theater of Dionysus on the eastern hillside of the Acropolis, a theater built over 2,500 years ago that people of all ages still visit and recognize today.  Having visited Athens and other areas of Greece myself this past October, Haj’s words really spoke to me, and actually made me think further to the Theater of Epidaurus, which was one of the largest recovered ancient theaters in Greece.

The Theater at Epidaurus.

Epidaurus on the Peloponnese was essentially an ancient wellness resort, and the theater was at the center of their regimen. They shared the belief that a collective theatrical experience could heal most mental and emotional ailments by creating a sense of community, fostering empathy, and promoting a group catharsis.  Many of the Greek tragedies were created to help alleviate day-to-day troubles through a recognition that you were not so troubled as Medea, as Oedipus, as Antigone.  The ancient Greeks believed that watching these stories of extreme pain played out in a public and collective setting would give perspective to the community’s own troubles, changing the group outlook and attitude, and building camaraderie.

This idea gives me hope in regards to the essential nature of theater.  As Haj outlines in the video, “in 2017, a study found that patrons’ hearts beat at the same time during a live theater performance … this type of synchronicity has been linked to trust, to empathy, to friendship, the removal of social barriers.”  Haj reminds us that theater is an ancient art form, it has been around for centuries, and it will endure.

With this understanding of theater as essential comes a great deal of responsibility.  A responsibility that we have now been afforded the time and space to contemplate in a larger way.  The questions that we can and should be asking as an industry right now are: How can we bring theater back to a center of healing?  How can we continue to expand our inclusivity of story and artist, and find new ways to reach wider audiences?  How can theater be for the community again, and not just the community that can afford to pay for it, but the all-encompassing, global “community”?   What does it look like to bring humanity together to share in one experience, one heartbeat, to reconnect in the name of community, empathy, trust, and togetherness?  How can we keep the essential nature of theater alive and use it as a tool for connection and healing?