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The Ghost Light: A year in the theater

“Do you think theater will survive?”

Believe it or not, I started getting asked this question long before the pandemic struck. I would be asked to come in and do a Q&A at a college or attend a talkback for a play I’d written, and more often than not, somebody would ask some version of this question.

Sometimes it would be phrased as “What’s the biggest challenge theater faces right now?” or “How do you get young people interested in theater?” but if you listened closely, it all boiled down to the idea that theater was in trouble.

Why?

How much time do you have?

Suffice to say, by the time theaters were shut down a year ago, I was already starting to wonder, “Could this be it? Are we finally done?”

As much time as we’ve spent over the last year hearing people bemoan the loss of human contact and socialization, the fact is, we had built up an entire (albeit mostly humorous) infrastructure of commentary on how much people did not like going out. Netflix and other streaming services had put a large dent in the entertainment industry and that, combined with a culture obsessed with working people to death, seemed destined to transform us all into those gelatinous cartoon humans from Wall-E glued to a screen and permanently immobile.

When staying home became a public necessity, and when that stay extended far past the two weeks we initially anticipated, I thought the war was lost.

We were now embracing isolationism — not trying to ward it off.

People were more engaged with streaming content than ever. Nobody was leaving their house. And surely we would all get used to this, right? And once we did, there’d be no going back. We would have fully transformed into the at-home society.

Do you know that horrible parenting story about the kid who got caught smoking so his parents made him smoke a whole pack? The idea being that once he was done, he’d never want another cigarette again?

By the time, we were a few months into lockdown, I began to suspect that everyone was ready to quit smoking.

People I’d never seen show an interest in theater before were messaging me to ask when I thought we’d be able to open up again, because they wanted to come see a play.

Friends were streaming online theater only to post that while it was a nice substitute, they desperately wanted to be in a room with actors and other audience members again when it was safe.

Speaking from experience, I was in the midst of a theater burnout. I wasn’t sure what my relationship to theater was or if I wanted to continue on with it for much longer. I joked that if I was married to theater, then theater was sleeping in the guest room.

Well, wouldn’t you know, theater moved out on me, and now I call it everyday and beg it to come back, promising that I’ve seen the error of my ways.

I know a lot of people in the same boat.

While nobody would have wished for these circumstances, the fact is, absence is a powerful stimulant for gratitude, and all this time away from making something with someone face-to-face has made me preemptively grateful for when I can have that back.

It’s not just theater either.

I find myself having wonderful dreams about simple activities like eating without a mask in a crowded restaurant or going out dancing.

Truthfully, I am a terrible dancer and avoid it at all costs, but that was back when things like “worrying about how I look dancing” seemed reasonable. Anything self-conscious now seems wildly unreasonable. Life is simply too short.

If my expectation that theater was going to pause entirely and let the void it left do all the work for it, I was mistaken.

After some trial and error, it was inspiring to see actors and directors and playwrights and artists of all kinds making an effort to do something. It was a heartening reminder that we don’t create to win trophies or garner attention or show off.

Okay, I mean, yes, we do it for all those reasons, but–

We also do it, because we come from a long line of revered and respected people known as storytellers, who understood that when things are at their worst, people will look to art.

To comfort them.

To keep them engaged.

To remind them that there’s a bigger world out there even as we were all sheltering in our homes.

Artists were connecting from all over the world for readings and digital productions and discussions about what they do and how they can do it better.

Legendary performers were suddenly available to do things like give free master classes everywhere from Instagram to their living rooms.

Huge leaps were made in discovering how we can make theater more accessible.

Important conversations were started about equity and representation.

We learned that we have so much work to do that might never have been initiated, let alone completed, if we weren’t forced to stop and reflect.

There were so many problems that were getting worse, not better, and while I desperately wish it didn’t take a tragedy of this magnitude to bring about change, change rarely happens any other way.

What I am most struck by is the feeling that I am never going to have to hear the question “Do you think theater will survive?” again.

It had become a frequent echo throughout this year, but I noticed, over the past few weeks, that echo lessening.

Because we are moving away from “Will we?” and toward “We are.”

We are surviving this.

And not because we always have. Not because theater is old. Lots of old institutions crumble. Rome was not a spring chicken when it eroded and eventually collapsed.

We survive because it has suddenly become abundantly clear that we are needed in a way that no other thing can satisfy or fulfill.

And if we can survive this, what can’t we survive?

At a time when every forum and public square is filled with people shouting over each other, theater tells you that you have to sit in a room and listen to somebody else speak.

As I was listening to the ongoing argument all year about what responsibility we have to our communities versus ourselves, I realized that everything I know about existing within a community, I’ve learned from doing and watching theater.

It’s not just the group of artists who gather together to put on a show. Yes, that is its own community. Beyond that, though, it’s the basic assembling of people in a room who have all agreed to spend an hour or two devoted to nothing more than the telling and enjoying of a story for reasons that are specific to them.

It is a tradition in theater to leave a ghost light always on in a space that would otherwise be dark. There’s a history behind it that I won’t bore you with, but the symbol of the ghost light is one that is inextricably linked to the performing arts, and it is one of resiliency.

You leave the light on because you know you won’t have to leave it on forever.

It’s been one year since rehearsals and productions and gallery openings and dance recitals and concerts were all brought to a halt. Many of those projects and experiences will not be returning, but as artists, we know that nothing we do lasts for very long and so much of what we’d like to do or see never comes to fruition.

But we do it anyway.

We spend time and money building sets we’ll one day have to strike. We write novels that will sit somewhere in our computers until we’re brave enough to show them to someone. We teach 30 people a dance, then decide we don’t like it, and teach them a different one.

We make something where there used to be nothing, and when we’re done, we make something else.

And in between, you leave a light on.

Because you know, one day, you’ll be back.

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