Theater

The Pandemic Takes Center Stage: Christopher Simpson discusses keeping theater alive

Christopher Simpson; Photo Credit:  Seth Jacobson

Those of us in the performing arts are finding ourselves facing a new reality. As a member of the theater community, I’m lucky enough to be able to speak with leaders of artistic organizations all over the state about how they’re coping and what their plans are for the future, and I think it’s important we start having those conversations in more open forums, which is why I’m grateful to my friend Christopher Simpson for agreeing to speak with me here in an interview for Motif.

Christopher is the artistic director of the Contemporary Theatre Company in Wakefield. He is also a reputable community leader in South County, and perhaps most important at the moment, he was the first artistic director in the state to recognize the threat of this virus and act accordingly. When this all started, even I was arguing that maybe we were overreacting a bit, and Christopher was the one with the forethought to begin cancelling programming that would put people at risk, and he deserves to be recognized for that.

I was excited to check in with him, and this is what he had to say:

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Kevin Broccoli: First off, how are you doing right now? I know we check in regularly, but all of us are having good days and bad days. How have the days been recently?

Christopher Simpson: Oh man. Hard hitting questions, right off the bat.
Some days are good. Some days are very bad. Most days have an unpredictable mix of totally okay and pretty awful. As a leader of a local cultural institution, I’m tempted to give you a cheerful answer and “put on a positive face” — but I think quality leadership includes a willingness to be vulnerable in public, when necessary. If people are struggling, I think that’s a normal response to something as disruptive as this. I am struggling. But, honestly, this evening is a good one for me, so hey. Live in the moment and take the good with the bad, right? 

KB: You were one of the first theaters to being cancelling programming when all this started. Why was that your immediate impulse when even I was a little hesitant to do the same?

CS: We cancelled our first show on March 12; a few other theaters ended up making the same call, but we didn’t know that at the time. We knew we needed to take the crisis seriously, and we didn’t want our negligence to be responsible for a group of transmissions. We also thought that our decision might influence others around us, and we didn’t want to encourage any further delays within our community. 

That was a scary day, for sure — we thought we might be alone in the decision to cancel. We’d already sold every ticket to that night’s show, so we knew we’d a) have a high risk of transmission if we brought people in, and b) be making a really bold stand by canceling. 

There were two documents — a really thoughtful email from my west coast colleague Max Mathews, and a really assertive Medium article by Tomas Pueyo — that strongly nudged us toward the proactive call. Even so, it was a difficult moment.

KB: What’s the community response been like to the theater being closed?  Are you seeing an outpouring of support?

CS: We’ve heard from tons of our fans and friends, all sharing love. We’ve also had a lot of folks send unsolicited donations or make offers of help. At the CTC, we’ve always focused on the community of people around our theater. In some ways, it’s the thing that excites us the most about our work — how we weave ongoing relationships with the people who frequent our space, and  create a true community of people who know and care for each other. And to feel that hundreds of friends and neighbors are here for us when we need them — it’s a sign that our work has a life of its own. It’s a very rewarding thing. 

KB: Everyone is playing a guessing game about when it’ll be safe to go back into theaters again. Do you fall on the hopeful side of that or are you thinking it’ll be closer to 2021 before we can resume theatrical programming?

CS: I *hope* that we’ll be able to put on shows over the summer, albeit with limited audience sizes. At the CTC we have an outdoor stage on our beautiful riverfront patio, and I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to use it to the fullest extent this summer, to produce work and bring people together in the most positive ways we safely can. But given the costs of producing shows and the necessity of full houses to make it all work, I’d be very surprised if any theater was truly up and running in anything resembling a normal sense before the end of the year. We’re all hoping for a cure or a mutation or a vaccine to provide an easy fix, but until then…

KB: I’ve been saying that for me, there’s a logical progression of making decisions based on information and right now, we just don’t have the information we need to make those decisions. How has this affected you as a leader in charge of trying to make plans for the future?

CS: It feels impossible to truly plan anything right now. We’re all soaking in ideas, possible fixes, hopeful concepts — but there’s just no way to know what’s coming. The CTC has cultivated a great ensemble of actors, musicians, improvisors, designers, directors and more. I have faith that our team will be able to get outstanding work back up on our stage once we have some direction.  But for now… boy, it’s really hard to be sitting here feeling so useless every day. 

KB: Can your theater — or any theater for that matter — survive being away for the longest predicted amount of time? Can any of us afford to be closed for 18 months? I don’t just mean financially, but in terms of the cultural impact of being absent from people’s lives for that long?

CS: Financially, we can do it as long as we maintain enough income to cover the basic necessities of our mortgage, insurance and utilities. For us, that’s about 10% of our normal operating budget. With no programs at all and our staff entirely laid off, we can survive for as long as our reserves hold out and our community remains willing to help us weather the storm.

Culturally, I don’t know what 18 months does to a theater. Actors may have moved on, students will be out of practice, audience needs will have changed, and the logistics will be totally unprecedented. Directors, actors and designers may suddenly feel unfamiliar in their jobs, rusty and out of sorts. That being said, the inspiration will be high and excitement will be magnificent. It’s going to be a once-in-a-lifetime rediscovery of what we love — and that’s something to look forward to! 

Everyone is going to be very, very hungry for immediacy, spontaneity and the genuine delight of watching other people respond in real time to challenging situations. That’s why live theater has never disappeared, and probably never will. There will be a demand, and those who survive the shutdown will have an audience, and probably a lot of latitude to struggle as they get back on their feet, as long as they prioritize the value of sharing with their audience — not just presenting work *at* them. 

KB: If theater enters an on-and-off period where we have to shut down periodically due to the virus returning intermittently, what does that mean for how we put seasons and individual productions together?

CS: I have no idea what that is going to be like for anyone. At the CTC, we’ll hopefully be able to put up improvised theater on relatively short notice, and over the years of practicing the form, we’ve become quite good at them. That will be a bit of a superpower for us, because they are so incredibly flexible in terms of cast, content and style. Furthermore, our musician community will help us get really great experiences up in a hurry.

We’ll also need to be creative in terms of utilizing downtime to digitally rehearse public domain and original works — things where the cost of producing the show is lower so there is less risk. In that hypothetical scenario, if people can be learning shows during a closure and are ready to get it up on its feet really fast, we might be able to see some productions within windows of openness. But it’s hard to imagine getting actors excited for that level of uncertainty, let alone how we’d advertise that kind of schedule… Yeah, there’s a lot to consider here.

KB: How much time a day, if any, right now are you able to donate to thinking about all this before it becomes overwhelming? Do you think it’s smarter to wait until we hear more from the local government before we even attempt making plans?

CS: Oh, god. Some days I can think about it for about an hour or two. Other times I can’t bear to spend even a moment on it. It varies widely. It helps to have brilliant friends, coworkers, board members and colleagues — like you, Kevin — who I can talk to and bounce ideas of off. We’re in totally uncharted territory — we have a lot we’ll need to sound out together before we move forward. I’m totally here to talk to any theater people who want to chat about the future. I don’t have many answers, but I’m excited to try. 

KB: How can people help the theater right now? What are the donation links, and is there anything else they can do other than staying home and staying safe?

CS: Donations are certainly a big deal right now; we don’t know how many months it’ll be without normal programs, and like I said … as long as we can make that mortgage, we’ll be okay … so please help us keep that fund strong, if you can. Anyone can contribute at contemporarytheatercompany.com/donate

Otherwise, please visit our Facebook page — different ensemble members share songs, monologues and other art over there every day or two. Kevin and I are also making artistic director videos under the moniker of “Quick Questions with Kevin and Chris” where we discuss theatrical concepts and ideas, just to keep our minds sharp. People are really enjoying them, so please check those out and maybe post some responses, to help keep the dialogue alive and the inspiration rolling! 

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