What happened when the lights stayed out?

One year later: What Philly theater artists dreamed up when stages shut down

7 minute read
Getting existential before the ultimate existential crisis: IRC artistic director Tina Brock appears with Carlos Forbes in a January 2020 production of ‘The Bald Soprano.’ (Photo by Johanna Austin.)
Getting existential before the ultimate existential crisis: IRC artistic director Tina Brock appears with Carlos Forbes in a January 2020 production of ‘The Bald Soprano.’ (Photo by Johanna Austin.)

Theater is a communal experience at its core. Actors and audiences occupy the same space, breathe the same air, and participate in a moment that is unique and ephemeral. Artists who work together for weeks, months, or even years form relationships that can feel like a de facto family. Sharing stories and feeling seen in the work of others offers connection and the potential for healing.

A sad irony of the coronavirus pandemic is that just as the positive powers of theater are most needed, they are the least available. In the early days, when it remained unclear how long theaters would be shut down, the messaging from medical experts painted a grim picture for the immediate future. Capacity limits meant that little room would be left for audience members once performers, backstage personnel, and front-of-house employees were accounted for. The physical layout of most auditoriums is anathema to social distancing, and financial constraints dictate that as many seats as possible be filled.

“Figure it out”

The uncertainty within the industry reflected the personal experiences of the artists who make it. “I was already in a very emotional, tender place, not really understanding what I wanted to do with my life, if theater was the route I wanted to go,” said Ang Bey, who was in rehearsals for The Niceties at InterAct Theatre when the shutdown occurred. “Then the universe sort of said well, you can’t do theater anymore, so figure it out.”

Figuring it out became the industry’s modus operandi. Some companies put themselves on ice until in-person performances could resume. Others looked for ways to translate already-planned productions to new mediums. As evidence suggested that Covid-19 transmission was less likely in open air, outdoor entertainment became an attractive prospect for the warm summer months.

Into the Absurd

The pandemic also forced individual theater-makers to grapple with issues of identity. Who are we without our art? Are streaming productions a proper substitute for the real thing? Does theater ask its artists to give more of themselves than the business is willing to give back?

Tina Brock, artistic director of the Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium, a company specializing in absurdist theater, lost her longtime day job with the National Board of Medical Examiners several months into the shutdown. “When the hits kept on coming, I really felt like it put me in this place of total existential crisis,” she said. “My whole life is, and has been for 16 years, my company and my job. I think the crisis was proportionate to how out-of-balance my life was.”

With extra time on her hands, Brock thought about how she wanted to channel creative energy and refocus the goals of her company. In June 2020, she began hosting Into the Absurd, a weekly “existential dinner conversation” on Facebook. Streaming Saturdays at 5pm, the program brings together local and national figures for unscripted discussions of their work. (Full disclosure: I appeared as a guest on an episode in September 2020.)

Brock said she always envisioned a salon-like forum that could bring together people from different corners of the industry for frank, fulfilling conversations, but the hectic pace of the traditional season made the prospect difficult. The pandemic created unprecedented schedule openings, and remote production allowed Brock to invite artists residing across the country, in addition to Philadelphia.

“Early on, I thought about the best use of the skills we have at our disposal, the experience that we have at our disposal, the curiosity we have at our disposal,” Brock said. “And what can we contribute that is likely to be different but in keeping with our mission, which is existentialism. Well, here we are in the largest existential crisis of our lifetime.”

Having been able to realize her goal, Brock hopes to continue even after in-person performances resume. “It’s been almost a year, and I feel like I’m still scratching the surface,” she said.

Nurturing and supporting Black artists

In summer 2020, the pandemic shutdown dovetailed with racial justice protests following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Black theater artists began demanding the industry reckon with its complicity in upholding racist and inequitable systems.

Locally, a group of artists formed the Black Theatre Alliance of Philadelphia (BTAP). Bey was involved with the group’s creation, as was LaNeshe Miller-White, who became the executive director of Theatre Philadelphia in August 2020.

Ang Bey and LaNeshe Miller-White are among the founders of the Black Theatre Alliance of Philadelphia, which emerged in 2020. (Image via the Black Theatre Alliance of Philadelphia on Instagram.)
Ang Bey and LaNeshe Miller-White are among the founders of the Black Theatre Alliance of Philadelphia, which emerged in 2020. (Image via the Black Theatre Alliance of Philadelphia on Instagram.)

The collective grew out of social media, according to Miller-White, with a private Facebook group and Instagram direct messages giving way to informal Zoom chats.

“We knew there was a need for nurturing and supporting the Black artists in Philadelphia,” Miller-White said. “We ended up, just through osmosis, deciding that we were going to make that thing. It was a very natural progression that just came out of our frustrations with how Black artists and artists of color were being treated in this city, the lack of opportunity, the lack of support.”

Miller-White suspects that the unique social moment contributed to the group’s creation. The uncertainty of a prolonged shutdown, coupled with the sense that institutions were not stepping up to support artists as best they could, may have caused people to be more candid and forward than during a period of business as usual.

“These people have had a fear of speaking about things that have happened, speaking about the way they feel about certain things, because they still want to work,” she said. “I think [the pandemic] allowed people to be more vocal about their feelings than they had before, and that forced the industry to do some work around it.”

BTAP has hit the ground running with direct action in the community. As chronicled in a recent WHYY article, the collective launched a mentorship program that pairs emerging Black theater artists with experienced advisers, and has raised money to provide microgrants that assuage the ongoing economic uncertainty connected to the pandemic shutdown.

“A lot of work to do”

The work of creating a more equitable industry should not fall exclusively to artists of color, though, and some leaders of predominantly white institutions are taking steps to improve the culture within their own organizations.

“I would guess that I am spending about 40 to 45 percent of my time right now on HR and equity issues,” said Paige Price, producing artistic director of Philadelphia Theatre Company (PTC). “The work that’s going on in the industry is real right now, and we have a lot of work to do.”

Price told BSR that PTC has hired new staff members of color since the start of the pandemic—including resident artist Jeffrey Page, who is Black—and the company’s board of directors has formed a standing committee on equity, diversity, inclusion, and accountability. Both Price and Emily Zeck, PTC’s managing director, also participate in an ongoing nationwide convening of industry leaders focused on recognizing and reforming systemic racism in theater.

“Things are shut down, but the folks who are working are working at an even higher capacity,” Miller-White said. “I cannot imagine being in high in leadership at a predominantly white institution, having laid off most of my staff, and now having to move forward these diversity and inclusion efforts. But it’s necessary, and it needs to happen. And what better time for it to happen than right now?”

Part 3 of the One Year Later series will focus on the questions surrounding a return to in-person theater in 2021, and what the industry has learned from the pandemic year. Here’s part 1 of the series, “The nights the lights went out.”

Image description: A photo from a performance of The Bald Soprano. Actor Tina Brock, a woman wearing a blond beehive wig and a colorful blue outfit with purple shoes, sits on a small couch beside actor Carlos Forbes, who’s wearing tall rubber boots, red suspenders, and a red firefighter’s hat.

Image description: The logo of the Black Theatre Alliance of Philadelphia. On a black background, there is the outline of red stage curtains, and a black fist outlined in white is at the center, with white lines radiating from it as if it’s shining. “Black Theatre Alliance of Philadelphia” is written in green across the bottom.

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