A year ago, during the first week of March, the Department of Theater and Dance staged a performance of Shakespeare’s “Henry VI, Part II” in Pickard Theater. One week later, students returned home for spring break. One week after that, Bowdoin moved all academic and student life remote for the semester, and all Broadway theaters went dark.
In the year that followed, the theater world has reckoned with what it means to tell stories and create performance art while physically separated—something typically regarded as antithetical to the spirit of live performance.
“We took a direct hit. I was on leave in Boston with my theatre company. Everybody was thinking it was a two-week delay,” said Professor of Theater Davis Robinson in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “It was a long, slow realization that this [pandemic] was not going to end this year.”
Robinson’s show with his company, Beau Jest Moving Theater, shifted rehearsals to Zoom and is still awaiting a time when they can stage their performance in a live venue. Many theaters have had to move their work onto remote platforms and completely redesign their seasons. Some have had to halt their operations altogether.
“If I would have thought I wouldn’t work [regularly] for a year, old me would say, ‘Oh, in that time, I’m going to write 15 plays; maybe I’ll start my own theatre company, maybe I’ll go to the moon,’” said Visiting Assistant Professor of Theater Sally Wood in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “None of that is happening. It’s real—that kind of fatigue that everybody’s talking about.”
Despite the obstacles, live theater has persisted where it is able—both on screen and onstage. Anita Stewart, Executive and Artistic Director of Portland Stage Company and current adjunct lecturer in theater, has had to completely reevaluate the capacity of professional theater to adjust to different standards and regulations.
“We are a live theatre—the work that I can produce online is nowhere near as wonderful as the experience of being in a space with an actor who’s actually stepping through a performance, and there’s no going back,” said Stewart in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “My goal became to try to—if at all physically, humanly possible—keep that going for Portland Stage Company, and it’s been a real trek to make that happen.”
As a “union house” and a professional theatre, Portland Stage must refer to the rules established by the Actors’ Equity Association. Due to the Association’s complex approval process, in what would have normally been an eight-show season, Portland Stage has only been able to put on two performances thus far and is still awaiting approval on two more.
“Talley’s Folly,” one of the approved shows, was performed in October of 2020 and directed by Wood. Though staged for a live audience, the process of creating the performance deviated dramatically from a typical rehearsal procedure.
“It was like sleeping with an old lover,” Wood said. “You remember it and it all makes sense. You know exactly what’s going to go on, but yet it just feels so weird. Something is different.”
A new heating, ventilation and air conditioning system was installed before rehearsals could begin, and everyone in the rehearsal room was required to undergo weekly testing for COVID-19. Only Wood, the actors, the assistant director and stage management team were permitted to be present, and everyone was required to remain six feet apart at all times.
“We talked a lot about how to try to recalibrate people to relax a little bit. We had to work a lot harder to reset the heartbeat in the room,” Wood said. “One day, I had zipped out early and I was watching people come out of the audience. And as soon as they hit the door that led to the lobby, it was like ice water—because [when] they got out, there was no more sound. Nobody was talking, and it was horrifying.”
During this time, theater—and the system upon which theater has been established—has been challenged, and the values and standards of equity within American theater are also being called into question.
“At the same time that the pandemic was hitting, the Black Lives Matter movement also really came to the forefront,” Stewart said. “That, for our industry, has been something that everybody is taking really seriously.”
Robinson hopes that this realignment of values will result in lasting change for the industry.
“Big [theater] companies are trying to diversify their boards, diversify their seasons, diversify who gets to tell the story, who gets to direct the story [and] who’s writing the stories.” Robinson said. “Most people in the industry are saying, ‘We’ll be back different’—not waiting to get back to normal, but back better.”
Robinson also views theater as a processing tool for many people and a way to understand otherwise incomprehensible events. Theater artists anticipate a resurgence of storytelling in the decades following the pandemic, coming as a necessary mode of sorting through the current state of the country and the world.
“When I think what this pandemic has done, and the four years of Trump and the continued murder[ing] of Black people, I just think that [this] is an incredibly complicated time to be in. Theater and film are the things that are going to help us understand what we’ve just been going through,” said Robinson. “We’re waiting for those storytellers to resurface. They’re going to help us make meaning out of it.”
The entire year has seen great loss in the theater community—loss of life, loss of income and loss of hope. However, Wood believes that the years that lie ahead hold the promise of regrowth for and rejuvenation of what it means to tell meaningful stories.
“I think that even though we’re going to lose a lot of theaters, I think that theater will survive,” Wood said. “And hopefully, like the phoenix rising from the ashes, it will find a way to morph into something even better.”