By Bethany Rickwald
July 7, 2020

 

The theatre community has been particularly hard-hit by the fallout from COVID-19 and the precautions that have been imposed to protect us from its spread. As Anne Midgette put it in a recent Vanity Fair article, “The absence of performances, combined with the tanking economy, have threatened or eliminated their three main sources of revenue: private donations, corporate and foundation funding, and ticket sales.” It goes without saying that ticket sales are of utmost importance to any theatre’s business model, so it’s clear that the decision made by most of Theatre Forward’s 19 theatres to postpone or completely cancel their current seasons will have a significant financial impact. 

Yes, this is a tragedy for theatre and its creators, but with organizations everywhere, many of which are doing vital work, asking for donations during this crisis, why put theatre at the top of your giving list? Why is it vital at a time like this, when stages are dark anyway, to prioritize funding for theatres?

“Theatre…is going to be so important to the rehabilitation and the connection…of the globe,” said Tony nominee Ashley Park (Mean Girls, The King and I) in a video for Theatre Forward. At the time, she was speaking solely within the context of the COVID crisis, but as the equally dangerous racism crisis comes to a head in cities across the U.S., the sentiment has become increasingly true. 

In the case of Theatre Forward’s members, theatre venues and the art they house will serve as rallying points in their communities. Comprising a network of nonprofit theatres located in 19 cities across the country, Theatre Forward’s member institutions are perfectly positioned as places where people can begin to come together and truly reconnect in safe and carefully monitored ways ─ not just through live performance, but through classes and community gatherings as well. D.C. member theatre Arena Stage, for example, has been among the institutions supporting their communities by opening their doors to protesters – even going so far as to provide water, hand sanitizer, and other supplies.

Regional theatres, in the words of Hallie Flanagan, national director of the short-lived Federal Theatre Project, “have common interests as a result of geography, language origins, history, tradition, custom, occupations of the people.” 

Established in 1935, the FTP was one of only five Federal Project Number One initiatives sponsored by the Works Progress Administration ─ a fact that itself signals the importance of the arts to communities experiencing crisis ─ and Flanagan’s plan for using regional theatre as the backbone of the FTP proved especially prescient. In fewer than four years after the FTP’s founding, works created as part of the project played to 30 million people, and the program can be credited with jumpstarting the careers of preeminent artists such as Arthur Miller, Orson Welles, and Elia Kazan. It also gave voice to underrepresented artists with initiatives such as the Negro Theatre Unit – which gave rise to future organizations like the American Negro Theatre that shepherded the careers of artists such as Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, and Ruby Dee.

Though the FTP only survived until 1939, it continues to teach us that something powerful happens when people with various backgrounds – but a shared community – unite. Theatre Forward’s 19 theatres are vitally important artistic linchpins that play a similar role today to that of the FTP in the 30’s. In her eulogy for the FTP, Flanagan said that her program had been “the beginning of a people’s theatre in a country whose greatest plays are still to come.” History has proven her right. And as we look toward the possibilities that lie in store for Theatre Fordward’s member theatres and their artists, it’s evident that the same potential lies in those institutions today.

Even ─ perhaps especially ─ in this unprecedented time, people are ready and willing to realize that potential. Countless videos featuring theatrical performers doing what they can to bring a little light into the shadow of Coronavirus have gone viral in the last few months. No doubt you’ve seen Tony winner Brian Stokes Mitchell honoring essential workers with an apartment window serenade ─ or perhaps you’re among the more than 12 million people who have watched the cast of Hamilton performing on Zoom for one little girl ─ or maybe you’re one of the more than 300 thousand who’ve encountered an adorable British family’s reworked rendition of Les Mis’s “One Day More.” It’s undeniable that there’s something about performance that makes us feel encouraged and less alone.

As Broadway star James Harkness of Ain’t Too Proud put it in a video for Theatre Forward, “people always go to the arts for solace, expression, joy, escape.” This era of necessary social isolation is no time to allow the balm for the soul that is artistic expression to run out – especially when, as in the case of theatre, that ointment not only heals, but makes each of us a better citizen of the world. 

“The magic of theatre is that it connects people together,” Ashley Park continued. And whether you’re considering how to navigate daily life following the COVID-19 lockdowns or how to heal racial fractures in your communities, nothing will be more critical than human connection: connection to classmates through a screen, connection to fictional characters in a play who teach us empathy, or, one day, sharing an intimate theatrical moment side by side.

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Featured Photo: Courtesy of American Repertory Theater. Pictured is a talk-back after a performance of the World Premiere, The Black Clown in 2018. Photo Credit: Maggie Hall