It is not uncommon, in these days of electronic patron databases and customer relations management software, to receive an email from a subsidised company after a performance. Such messages have a distinct marketing bent: perhaps to sell tickets to the next production, or the remainder of a season – or sometimes asking for a donation.
More thoughtful companies invite audience members to share their thoughts about the production, or provide additional information for audience members. Companies that have shifted to online theatre programmes, may offer a link to that material.
All this was in evidence in the email I received on Monday from Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, after attending its Sunday night performance of Novenas for a Lost Hospital. Cusi Cram’s new play looks at the life of St Vincent’s Hospital from its founding in Greenwich Village in the 1800s to its closure in 2010. The hospital bears special significance for its role in having treated many of the earliest Aids cases in New York.
While independent, Rattlestick operates out of a narrow upstairs space in a wing of St John’s in the Village, a church that ministered to many Aids patients and their loved ones during this major health crisis. Indeed, the play began in an outdoor courtyard on the church’s property, moved to the theatre proper, and concluded with a candlelit walk past the one-time hospital, ending at the New York Aids Memorial.
The buildings that once made up St Vincent’s have been converted to high-end condominium homes for the wealthy, a sad and painful irony given their history of providing care for those most in need. As the play explains, it was the facility where other parochial hospitals sent their indigent patients, resulting in a crushing debt of $2 billion that precipitated its closure.
Returning to the post-show email with this in mind, it is important to take note of the content that went beyond marketing and communication messages for the theatre company. Also included was a list of links to the websites of the many partners on the production, social service agencies that care for people with HIV and Aids, which almost 40 years on from discovery is still a major health crisis worldwide.
Rattlestick invited those who had seen the show to delve deeper into the work of these organisations, including the theatrical charity Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids, the New York City Aids Memorial, the NYU Rory Meyers College of Nursing, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center, and Visual Aids, which fosters creative works by artists living with HIV and Aids.
This gesture of acknowledgement, support and community extended the work of the play and represented great generosity on the part of the theatre and the production. We see many plays with messages and with real-life elements, but we don’t always have the dots connected right to the vital works that take place beyond the theatre walls. Certainly there are programme inserts or ads that may speak to such links, but in my experience they are rarely so direct, effective and proactive.
Like many productions, Novenas for a Lost Hospital breaks far beyond the proscenium to encompass spaces outside the traditional theatre. But its subsequent message about caring and support fully takes the audience from the theatrical to the real world, and sets an excellent example of how theatre companies can use their resources on behalf of essential causes even when the play has ended.
In the many ways that we speak of audience engagement these days, engaging the audience beyond the performance to encourage involvement should be encouraged. It is not enough to learn about issues and causes through art – hopefully the art can spur us to action as well. And theatres can point us in the right direction to do so.
Saturday night sees the premiere of screenwriter and director Ethan Coen’s A Play Is a Poem, a series of short pieces set across America, from New York and Los Angeles to Appalachia and Natchez, Mississippi. Neil Pepe directs the production for the Center Theatre Group in LA, where it is presented in association with Pepe’s Atlantic Theatre Company.
With his Harry Potter and the Cursed Child well into its second year on Broadway, playwright Jack Thorne makes his Off-Broadway debut on Wednesday with the world premiere of Sunday at the Atlantic Theatre Company. The story of relationships within a book group is directed and choreographed by Lee Sunday Evans.
Eileen Atkins and Jonathan Pryce, with three others from the London cast, reprise their roles in Florian Zeller’s The Height of the Storm, opening on Thursday at Manhattan Theatre Club on Broadway. Jonathan Kent once again directs.
Howard Sherman is a New York based arts administrator and advocate. Read his latest column every Friday at thestage.co.uk/author/howard_sherman/