Last week, Trinity Repertory Company announced that it would not produce in-person theater until late next year. While all of us have watched the hoped-for timelines for live entertainment get pushed further and further back, many theater organizations are still anticipating a safe window in winter or spring to begin performances again. Other theaters around the country have already gone ahead with outdoor productions, but with temperatures cooling, that option won’t be on the table for long. Actors’ Equity Association has given a handful of indoor productions a greenlight, but with serious restrictions and obstacles.
When Trinity announced that they were going to stay dormant for the year, it was a punch to the gut for many of us who look to the state’s most prominent theater for leadership, not only because there wouldn’t be shows to see, but because the news came with a significant number of lay-offs at the company. The theater has its own community of staff and supporters who are now the victims of the ongoing crisis that has hit the arts sector particularly hard.
In terms of leadership, it was also alleviating to see a theater make a choice with safety at the forefront, when there is murmuring not just in the theater community, but in the business community as a whole, that maybe safety should take a backseat while we roll the dice with indoor activities, even in spite of the outbreaks we’re seeing as part of school reopenings. When conversations were first held about how to make theater safe, it seemed as though the focus was on the audience and how to keep them the requisite 6 feet apart. There was virtually no discussion about the artists, probably because while there might be ways to keep an audience somewhat safe, having actors and crew and front-of-house staff gather together again and again is substantially more risky.
At a time when there are no good answers to any of the hardest questions, it was inspiring to see one of Rhode Island’s most esteemed institutions not willing to take that risk.
So what does a year without Trinity look like?
I’ve had just about every relationship with the theater that you can have to a company. The first live theater I ever saw was their annual production of A Christmas Carol when I was in sixth grade. That show has become a yearly tradition that extends far beyond the usual theatergoers. Last May, I took an Uber somewhere and when I told my driver that I was involved with theater, she spent the rest of the ride telling me how she and her children go see A Christmas Carol every year and have I ever been in it and how do those actors learn all their lines?
The first season subscription I ever bought was for the 2001 – 2002 Trinity season. I had a very smart theater teacher who, in lieu of making us buy textbooks, had us purchase a student subscription, reasoning that we’d learn more from seeing theater than reading about it. The first production of that season was Noises Off, where director Amanda Dehnert made the brilliant suggestion to have the audience go backstage to watch the second act rather than spin the set around. That meant that while I had decent seats for Acts One and Three, my Act Two seats were fantastic. The following year, I saw another production that would forever change the way I thought about theater. It was Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, another one with Dehnert at the helm, and it was more touching and more innovative than anything I’ve seen since — anywhere. It was also a testament to what Trinity and other regional theaters like it could do that the behemoths on Broadway so often can’t — consistently take chances, surround you in the story, and support local talent while you do it. It also gives you the chance to check more than a few boxes on your theatrical bucket list. Trinity is the reason I’ve been able to see the majority of Shakespeare’s canon, including all three parts of The Henriad in rep. When I was younger and couldn’t afford to see a tour, let alone make a trip to New York, I could see all the plays that were a hot ticket for the cost of a rush ticket.
My first job out of college was working in the box office there, and it is still one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. If you aspire to be a playwright, I highly recommend working in a box office. Aside from being able to meet a woman who assured me that she was Susan Lucci in disguise (She was not.) and did we have tickets for A Dublin Carol starring William Petersen (We did not. People flew in from Japan to see it. We, as a country, always underestimated CSI.), it was also a place where I found I was treated very well despite being at the bottom of the totem pole. It was also the first job where I didn’t have to lie about doing a play to get time off, because a lot of people there were aspiring artists even if their position in the company wasn’t an artistic one, and everyone was very understanding when I needed a weekend off to do the worst production of Deathtrap ever. That was also Curt Columbus’ first year as artistic director and it began with the best Chekhov production I had ever seen up to that time — his translation of The Cherry Orchard. That record held until Curt directed his translation of Uncle Vanya years later. In his tenure as artistic director, he’s overseen seasons that have included ground-breaking musical interpretations like Ragtime and Paris By Night, and a commitment to producing new and contemporary work alongside fresh perspectives on the classics that offer a balanced year of theater every year. Since the start of the pandemic, Curt’s been hosting an interview series on the Trinity Facebook page every Thursday, and for my money, they’re some of the best digital content being produced locally.
When I started writing reviews for Motif, I was nervous about being a theatermaker who was now going to be serving as a critic for artists I’d been watching for years, some of whom I knew personally. After my first review of a Trinity production came out, the most positive feedback I received was from the people working on that show. They probably didn’t agree with everything I said in the review, but they let me know they were happy to have me be a part of the critical conversation about it. It was generous in the way that I’ve always found so many of the people who work there to be, and it’s that generosity and spirit of community that I’ve been thinking about a lot over the last few days.
The suggestion that theater needs to justify its existence at a time when so many industries are on the verge of extinction is still wildly insulting, but it’s also perplexing. I feel like I, alone, have written dozens of pieces that dealt with, either directly or indirectly, what theater does for both your academic and emotional intellect. How it helps create empathy at a time when we need it more than ever. Or that it’s just fun. Even if “It’s fun” was all we could say about it, wouldn’t that be enough? The Marvel movies don’t have to justify why they exist. They exist because they’re a good time. And Trinity at its best is a damn good time.
It’s not about every show being a knockout — any of us who do theater would have to tell you that we strike out more than we hit a home run. What it is about is that moment when you walk into the theater and take in the lingering smell of sawdust from a set that won’t be there in a few weeks, eavesdrop on the various conversations, bump into friends in the concessions line, hang out in the lobby before and after the show to catch up with someone you haven’t seen in awhile, having dinner before at a local restaurant (ask any restaurant owner how much they value the theaters around them, and you’ll see how the economic justifications for theater existing are more far-reaching than even some politicians are aware of), drinks after the show, and the overall experience of going to the theater. The think pieces you’ve seen popping up all over the place about how all this isolation could be affecting us negatively? Theater is the cure for that. As someone who, more than once, has gone to the theater by myself, watched the show, and left without speaking to anyone, I still felt as though I had participated in some sort of age-old and perpetually grand social invigoration experiment.
We use cultural markers more than we realize as we think about our lives. I associate every break-up and personal victory with whatever show I was doing or seeing at the time. A year that’s already felt lost is only bound to be harder to wrap our head around without those opportunities to commune and celebrate a ritual as old as cave drawings and Greek festivals while we leaf through a program and wave to someone on the other side of the room.
As summer turned to fall this year, the lack of theater in the area seemed more pronounced than ever, but I can only hope that means when we are able to gather again we take in the things we took for granted and find a deeper appreciation for the people who make it happen.