An Introduction: The Openings of the Closed, Theatre of the Pandemic, and LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT
About a year ago a friend secured a complimentary ticket for me to see a performance by the Boston Ballet at the Opera House. There was applause when the curtain opened- not applause for what the curtain revealed, but applause for the event of this time-honored ritual that was happening in front of us. The audience was simply excited that the curtain was opening. This experience has reshaped the ways I interact with the moments of anticipation between reality and theatricality, just as the audience takes a nosedive into a new world.
Unfortunately, as the nation seems to be thrown into a tumult that highlights the flaws within our systems, the theatre world is hit hard. How does an art form that relies on the gathering of communities survive something like this? Just as our national policies in terms of healthcare and emergency preparedness come under scrutiny, the steamy bubblings of systemic flaws within the American theatre have come busting out at the seams.
It appears the standard season-subscription model has failed across the board to provide the financial safety net individuals and institutions need to survive a global pandemic, (which is upsetting because the moderate tastes of the elite have dictated what theatres will produce for long enough that it seems we should be getting some return on that investment at this point). Theatrical staffs cannot afford to take a breath as they email ticket-holders assurances which they will later rescind and try to keep their sinking ships afloat. Aging figureheads form their mouths around new words like "livestream" and "Zoom" and pass them on to millennial assistant this-and-thats to fill in all the blanks as generation Z associate this-and-thats dig through archival images to keep social media accounts appeasing the gods of the algorithms. There is a need to be immediate. A need to be incessantly productive. A need for quantity over quality. A need to keep up. To be first. While many of us are feeling the burnout from this mad dash for constant output keenly right now, has this not been an underlying system in the theatre for a long time?
I say with all due respect to those individuals and institutions who have already thrown together streams and online engagements that I believe we have other ways to interact, other ways to create, and other ways to continue our work than we are thinking of. Don't get me wrong-- I think we are coming into a genuinely exciting anti-aesthetic for the coming decade of theatre-- poorly cropped faces reminding us that maybe none of us are really 'good' at filming self-tapes, sweatpants and cats recurring as familiar imagery. But I believe we are doing ourselves a disservice by making innovation and productivity something mandatory at this time. Many of us are experiencing significant losses of income, cancelations of major contracts, and a loss of hours of effort and work. On top of all of this, many theatre artists are experiencing the general anxieties and uncertainties of the rest of the population at this time. While I understand many of us are happiest when we are creatively engaged, I question how fulfilled we will feel after months of thrown together virtual readings and how excited we will still feel with our 2020s anti-aesthetic.
Over the course of the past week, I have been in contact with several local theatres whose shows I was scheduled to review but which have been cancelled or postponed. I have asked them each to sit and generate a writeup of no more than 250 words about the opening moments of their productions. I encouraged them to transport us to the theatrical spaces (or breweries or clubs or halls) they inhabited and help us feel the anticipatory thrills that only the unfurling of a velvet drape, flying of a scrim, or dimming of house lights can provide. I will be publishing their responses daily in the coming week and hope you have the chance to read them in the midst of your day.
This series attempts to do 3 things:
1. To celebrate, preserve, and cherish the works that our city is unfortunately unable to see at this time.
2. To encourage ourselves to think about what theatre as an art form is and what its essential elements are. None of us have lived through anything like this before, so age and experience are not necessarily the qualifications needed to move forward with this query. American theatre has resisted the artistic fusion of performance with digital media for decades (I'm not talking about the projection designs of a national tour, but the innovations of artists like England's Katie Mitchell or Es Devlin, or Canada's Robert Lepage, or South Africa's William Kentridge). Some have found some ways to move forward, but there is not necessarily a 'correct' answer here and we do not all need to follow suit in the same ways.
3. To make space for mourning the loss of whatever we have lost or feel we have lost or fear we may lose right now by encouraging readers to sit with these words and feel transported to a new place.
Let's see if we can't conjure internal applause at the unfurling of an imagined curtain...
First up, a reimagining of Long Day's Journey Into Night by Eugene O'Neill produced by WaltersWest Project and Fort Point Theatre Channel as described by director, Amy West in collaboration with Dayenne CB West and Wanda Strukus.
Opening Night. A quietly expectant audience fills Hibernian Hall. Familiar faces, family and friends, supportive in so many ways, are eager to see what they've been hearing about for months. Some are here because they know this production of Long Day's Journey Into Night is different, that we cast actors of color as the Tyrone family and infused the production with African-American music and movement. Others have no expectations, but are here to be part of the opening night experience. The overture -- smooth, melancholy music, tinged with the roll of the ocean and composed specifically for this production -- plays in the background, as wine glasses tinkle and the hushed anticipation of the revelers elevates.
In the Green Room an actor is vocalizing, another is on their phone, someone else is quietly running lines in nervous anticipation, another stretching, but all are keeping one ear open for the stage manager's call. At 5 minutes, the five actors gather in a circle to hold hands and send blessings and thanks to the theatre gods and the ancestors. "Let's do this," someone whispers, as "Places!" is called.
The curtains part to reveal a small niche carved out of the darkness, a box of light containing four chairs and a dining table. A piano stands silently in the shadows, a musician softly playing a standup bass beside it. The light grows brighter; it is a summer morning in New London, Connecticut; a happy family is finishing breakfast. The music drifts away like a wave on the sand as the woman takes her husband's arm and together they enter into the wider space of the living room, bathed in the sunlight of a new day. They glide together, so in love even after 35 years of marriage. She places her head on his shoulder and says, "Thank Heavens the fog is gone..."
We hope to be back with a full production in the near future. Read more about Fort Point Theatre Channel here.