In a week of injustice, protests and an outpouring of frustration and anger over the treatment of black citizens in America at the hands of the police, this is an admittedly less than essential observation. But it seems worth pointing out that if US theatres had not already been closed by the coronavirus pandemic, a great many of them would have been closed as of early last week anyway.
With predominantly peaceful protests resulting in the presence of heavily armed police on city streets and, as at the time of writing this, a threat by the president to use military force on US citizens, cities already in lockdown or just coming out of it are seeing curfews imposed.
With the country’s largest theatres predominantly located in those same cities – since the protests that began in Minneapolis prompted by the murder of George Floyd have spread nationwide – venues would have shut down first out of concern for patrons, companies and staff. The curfews would have been sure to shutter those that tried to remain open.
This is not said to once again mourn the havoc wreaked by the pandemic, terrible as it has been, but in part to show how those in the arts may not be fully absorbing the physical impact of these most recent events on their creative homes, since they were already disconnected from them.
To be sure, there are theatremakers who have been out in the streets, and damage inflicted on some theatre buildings, but it’s not quite as present as it might have been had performances still been happening, and people sent to their homes for an indeterminate future by the demonstrations.
In the past week, calls have arisen for artistic organisations to state their position on the Black Lives Matter movement, on police brutality, on American racism. Some organisations and Broadway shows did this of their own accord, using social media, press announcements and emails to their patrons.
Companies which were slow to act were quickly called out, prompting even more statements of solidarity with the protesters and Black Lives Matter. Some statements were seen as exemplary, though one Broadway show had to withdraw its simple graphic-designed response, especially once it was revealed that it was a recycled message from several years ago.
It’s worth noting that with demonstrations on Fifth Avenue near Trump Tower and in Times Square, the Tony Awards, originally set for this Sunday pre-Covid-19, would at least have been disrupted and very possibly cancelled.
While US theatres are often limited from partisan political action, that doesn’t hold for commitments to human rights and equality
After all, in this moment, even online awards shows and their substitutes, as well as a variety of online benefits scheduled as replacements for in-person events, have been postponed or cancelled this week, so that they are not viewed as unaware of, or insensitive to, the fundamental national concerns that have boiled to the surface.
All theatres could do in the short-term is express support and, if they failed to do so, undergo a hail of verbal digital brickbats for their silence. However, in the past couple of days, a nascent movement with the hashtag #OpenYourLobby has urged theatres to make their buildings accessible for protesters needing refuge.
It has been rightly noted that the true test of the artistic community’s understanding of, and response to, the thoughts, emotions and action of the past week will only come when they reopen, and that won’t be immediate, since the pandemic has now effectively shut down live performances until 2021, save perhaps for a few outliers.
The only immediate creative response can be achieved in the variety of streaming initiatives that have flourished, but, as many have noted, and especially at a time of racial strife, there is no substitute for face-to-face communication.
Echoing my theme from last week, while theatres will be facing enormous economic obstacles when and if they reopen, they must seize the moment, now more fraught, to both absorb what is being communicated and embody it in their work and in their staffing. While US theatres are, due to grant restrictions, often limited from partisan political action, that doesn’t hold for commitments to human rights and equality.
Today’s Facebook or Instagram posts must become part of tomorrow’s mission statements. That won’t be easy at a time when just luring back audiences will be challenging and essential, and some predict a flight to safe and anodyne work on many stages out of economic need. But theatres must stand for something more than just selling as many tickets as they can. We will see in 2021 and beyond where the community really stands, or if its recent expressions of support were just expedient messages wrought under peer pressure.