By Ivy E. ’23
Almost every institution in America has been affected by COVID-19 in some way, but the theater industry has been hit especially hard. Theater is not known for generating large profits, and it usually relies on packing many people into one room. COVID-19 closed all Boston theaters, and cancelled in-person shows and auditions. Even virtual auditions are hard to come by. “If you look at the auditions in Boston right now, nothing is happening,” said Winsor drama teacher Mr. Johnson.
While many smaller theater companies in Boston do not have the resources to interact with audiences, some larger ones, such as the Huntington Theater and the New Repertory Theater, are working to maintain connections with audiences through unconventional ways. The Huntington Theater recently launched a program called “Dream Boston,” a series of short audio plays where the listener only hears the dialogue and sounds. The “Dream Boston” plays have a variety of plots, from police encounters to first dates, and all are set in a post-pandemic, reconnected Boston. These short plays are transporting, making audience members feel like they are living in a future Boston, where it is possible to interact with people without staying six feet apart.
The New Repertory Theater, a Watertown-based theater company, is taking a different approach to connecting with theater-lovers by holding “Watertown Historical Moving Plays.” These plays are in-person and socially distant, and they focus on Watertown’s history and important monuments. Audience members are led through Watertown by an actor, and they get to learn about the history of the town while still experiencing theater.
COVID-19 is not all bad news for Boston theater, however. The restrictions from the pandemic have also given Boston theater companies the opportunity to think about equity and diversity in the theater world. For example, Company One theater has been vocal about its allegiance with the Black Lives Matter movement, stating on its website that members use art “as a tool to work toward justice.” Mr. Johnson mentioned that the artistic director for the New Repertory Theater, Michael J. Bobbitt, recently spoke about ticket pricing at a seminar. The New Repertory Theater sells subscription packages, which lets people buy tickets for many different shows at once. However, Bobbitt points out that these packages require people to have a large sum of money all at one time. Many lower-income families and individuals do not have access to this amount of money. Mr. Johnson said that the COVID-induced hiatus has allowed the theater community to examine their structures for built-in racism and inequity.
Because the pandemic has been so hard on theater, some companies have begun to focus on helping struggling actors and theater companies. Stage Source, a non-profit, is working to provide financial assistance to actors and non-profit theater companies. Stage Source’s Theater Community Benevolent Fund, started in 1997, is turning out to be crucial to Boston theater during COVID-19. Stage Source has embarked on a huge fundraising effort to help struggling Boston actors and theatrical institutions. “So many people are in difficult straits right now,” said Mr. Johnson. Olivia S. ‘23, an avid Winsor theater student, agreed: “Lots of people’s careers are completely on hold at this point.”
As the pandemic is nowhere near over in America, the future of theater is very uncertain. Important realizations and conversations have come out of the shutting down of Boston theaters, but theater is still in trouble. COVID-19 has made it extremely hard for theater companies to stay in touch with audiences, but they have been improvising and trying new ideas. Although Boston theaters are closed, companies are finding creative ways to keep theater alive. As Olivia said, “if you haven’t seen any theater for a while, see what’s going on in Boston. Try to immerse yourself in a different world and support local theater companies and actors, and enjoy yourself!”