As counterintuitive as it may sound, the early days after it becomes safe to open theatres post-pandemic might be a very good time to start a theatre company.
Think about it: small gatherings – and intimate audiences – could have a leg up on work in large venues. Real estate may take some time to recover and so unconventional spaces could be more easily, cheaply and creatively made over as temporary venues than before the crisis set in.
Existing companies, particularly those that own their venues, may be grappling with accumulated debts and cash-flow problems that make it slower for them to recover.
At the same time, those starved for live entertainment will be searching for options. The arts media will be eager to write about the first works to emerge as the performing arts are revived. The economic hardships visited upon so many will linger, so affordable options will be much in demand.
All of these factors combine to suggest that in the wake of pain and loss, there could be a new generation of theatre artists who can quickly gain a foothold provided they are entrepreneurial and nimble enough to seize the moment whenever that moment comes, hopefully sooner rather than later.
This isn’t to suggest this work will somehow become competition for major institutions and commercial theatre, or to wish those models ill. But new companies may have more room to get a head start than they would in normal times.
In change, there is always opportunity for new models and new voices
Recent graduates from drama schools often band together to self-produce work, and while countless ensembles surely disappear without a whisper, this is also where new theatre emerges. In New York, companies such as Bedlam, Fiasco and Elevator Repair Service had to start from the ground up, each establishing their own style and building their own followings over time. Going further back, it’s worth remembering that the acclaimed Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago began when friends from university began producing theatre while maintaining untheatrical day jobs.
In the same way theatre artists have had to move online during lockdown – despite the limitations of isolation and knitting streamed video into a cohesive whole – the same burst of new activity could emerge in the post-pandemic world.
Admittedly it will be a highly uncertain landscape, but also one in which there is potential to make a mark. The focus will be on text and performance initially, rather than physical production, because economics won’t immediately support new groups creating physical materials that become obsolete after six to eight weeks.
We need all manner of theatre to come back and challenges will remain for some time. But in a field where so many are out of work so much of the time, even under normal circumstances, ad hoc and self-generated opportunities will be more essential than ever, especially if the field is forced into a realignment by necessity rather than choice.
In the US, this could yield the most significant generational change since the rise of Broadway theatres at the start of the 20th century and the rise of regional theatres in the 1960s.
What has brought us to this point is devastating. How we emerge from it will be difficult and slow, and often terrifying. But in change, there is always opportunity for new models and new voices, and so those who are new to the field or disenfranchised from the existing routes may have the very best chance of breaking through in a new dynamic, as opposed to trying to storm the gates as the establishment revives.