2021 IN LIVE THEATRE: A LOOK INTO THE CRYSTAL BALL
Leslie O'Carroll in the Arvada Center's 'The Family Tree.'
Leslie O'Carroll in the Arvada Center's 'The Family Tree.'
By John Moore, Senior Arts Journalist
If we have learned anything from 2020, it’s that trying to predict what might happen in 2021 is a fool’s errand. But perhaps it’s not too terribly bold to suggest that 2021 will be the year of the HDMI cable. After a year when “Zoom” became part of our daily routines and “Zoom Fatigue” became part of our daily exhaustion, more and more homebound consumers are looking for ways to be freed from their tiny phones and laptop screens – even if only in favor of a larger screen. Many don’t know yet just how easy it is to use their big-screen TV as a monitor that mirrors what’s playing on a computer through a simple HDMI cable.
If we are all going to spend another six months (at least) conducting our everyday business, from email to family chats to obsessing over Facebook to absorbing every manner of entertainment through streaming devices, how much better would it be to back away from the desk and plop down on your sofa and do all of that on a 60-inch screen instead?
That one, simple consumer suggestion might become an important sales tool for performing-arts groups that are facing a long, hard winter with no choice but to either go dormant or keep cranking out concerts, play readings and full productons onto people’s computer screens. Here’s how to do it.
As for the upcoming year in theatre, it’s becoming increasingly clear that a return to normal, fully attended live performances is at best nine months away. That makes 2021 both a challenge and an opportunity for our local creative shakers to imagine new and more enjoyable ways of bringing storytelling to audiences than by forcing them to stay glued to the same small screen they’re already glued to all day.
What other theatre trends might emerge in 2021?
Theatres as film companies: For those that focus on streaming, 2021 will be the year when theatre companies morph into film-production companies. For example, the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company will release “CO 2020” early next year. It’s a completely original piece of documentary theatre that looks back on all the complexities of 2020 through the eyes of Colorado community, political and religious leaders, as well as health-care workers, activists, students and other everyday people. But it’s not a play. It’s a film, using local actors, and it has been conceived with that in mind from the start to best suit the medium. In this brave new world, the video editor (Ray Bailey) necessarily becomes as essential to the creative process as the director (Stephen Weitz). Bottom line: For companies creating stories for online, the pandemic has forced a new way of creative thinking – and created an entirely new career in the field of theatremaking.
Companies will disappear: Most ominously, 2021 will be when we learn COVID’s true death toll on local theatre companies. Colorado had about 90 active theatre companies at the time of the shutdown. Of those, about 50 are established groups that perform seasons of at least three shows. It has been suggested by the Community First Foundation that coming out of the shutdown, up to half of Colorado’s non-profits (of all kinds) will never be heard from again. Some will publicly announce their endings while others will just … fade away. Some might merge. So far, the Betsy Stage is the only Colorado theatre company to publicly announce its permanent ending. But it stands to reason that many more are coming.
Who’s most at risk? Those companies with land or a building that comes with a monthly mortgage. Non-profits are generally advised to keep at least three months of an emergency fund in reserve, and we are nine months into a shutdown that – vaccine or not – isn’t going to end restrictions on indoor performances anytime soon. Our smallest non-profit companies –those that raise money from show to show and don’t carry salaries or significant monthly expenses – are most likely to survive after a period of dormancy. But the companies that are in real danger of losing everything represent some of the best and most enduring companies in Colorado.
Just about any outdoor space might be a place for live theatre in 2021.
Let the sun shine in (please!): One thing that’s as certain as the Broncos not making the playoffs is this: Most every theatre company will be moving to the great outdoors, and as soon as the weather will allow it. As in: March. Just as the Colorado Shakespeare Festival has announced that all of its reduced 2021 summer season will take place entirely outdoors, the Arvada Center is contemplating presenting its next musical in its expansive amphitheatre, before the outdoor summer concert season begins. Local theatre companies are planning right now for live performances that will take place in parks and park-n-rides, in back alleys and backyards – pretty much anywhere people can be spread out. So if you love live theatre, pack your lawn chairs and umbrellas into your car trunks and keep them there – at least until fall.
So what will become of indoor theatre? Seriously, who knows? Planning during the pandemic has been an exercise in imagination. The Arvada Center has now given up on its planned return to indoor theatre with a four-show mini-season beginning in February. And so has pretty much everyone else. One exception will surely be the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse in Johnstown, which was the first to return to indoor theatre in June and will be first back just as soon as the state allows. By performing in a 450-seat theatre, Candlelight is one of the only Colorado companies with enough space to make significantly reduced capacities work financially.
And how long will that last? Even with the rollout of a vaccine now underway, indoor theatre performances will be the last to re-open, likely late fall or even early winter 2022, according to some experts. Arvada Center CEO Philip Sneed is more optimistic. “It appears that the vaccine is going to be widely rolled out sooner than first thought, and we believe that when everyone who wants to be vaccinated is vaccinated, we should be back to in-person performances, with some reasonable capacity restrictions, by mid to late spring,” Sneed said. “Of course anything could change.”
Is it live or is it Memorex? One big unknown right now is, when performances begin again, how important is the live component, after all? Some companies, like Miners Alley Playhouse in Golden, hope to present their upcoming plays live, from their own stages, with a very small in-person audience, with a professional, three-camera broadcast going out to viewers also watching at home. Many of us might presume that “live” is the most essential ingredient in “live theatre.” But in a recent survey of Arvada Center patrons, Sneed was surprised to discover that audiences are actually becoming more and more in favor of the flexibility that on-demand viewing offers. (Thank you, Netflix.) “Our survey suggests most people want to buy a ticket and watch whenever they want to, and a much smaller percentage wants it live and in real time,” he said. That revelation could lead to a hybrid of sorts, Sneed added. “I can see the possibility where we only livestream the opening-night performance. Make that a special event for people who want to see it as audiences in a theatre might – but everyone else who doesn’t care about that one way or the other can watch at any time they want.”
Whose voices carry (on)? You will see some theatres scrambling to respond to the racial reckoning of 2020 by more intentionally offering stories told and performed by people of color. Then again, in a predominantly white state like Colorado, where companies that do survive the pandemic will emerge from the shutdown historically cash poor, you may more likely see companies desperate for revenue offering, safe, traditional (translated: white) stories, but with a conscious effort to include more BIPOC artists in the creation and casting of those productions.
What about new leadership?: “I think we'll see some new leadership emerge,” said The Catamounts founder Amanda Berg Wilson. “Folks who've taken this moment to think long and hard about how pre-COVID times left whole swaths of audience and artists behind, and why. And they'll be ready to get those left behind into this art form that is so dependent on the act of gathering, and for which we're all going to be hungry as (bleep).”
Will performers and staff be required to be vaccinated? If you are wondering whether an employer legally can make a vaccination a requirement of its employees, the short answer is yes – although there are significant exceptions for people with disabilities or who hold certain religious beliefs. Experts say employers are more likely to simply encourage their workers to get immunized rather than issue company-wide mandates. “We have heard that some of our employees will resign rather than take a vaccination, and that is something we have to take into serious consideration,” Sneed said. “Are we willing to lose people over that issue?”
What about audiences? Flatly, no. Patrons will not have to produce proof of vaccination in order to attend live events. However, presuming that all audiences who want to be vaccinated will have been before the resumption of live events, non-vaccinated patrons would only be at risk from other non-vaccinated patrons, and that is a choice. But expect mandatory facial coverings for everyone to last much longer. “Eighty percent of our audiences have asked that facial coverings be mandatory for all audience members,” Sneed said.
Audio drama is back. One of the few bright spots in 2020 was the resurgence of the radio play (minus the radio.) The old-fashioned storytelling tool never really went away – in fact, it pretty much reinvented itself as the podcast.) The Arvada Center presented a series of three audio plays with an emphasis on imagination and sound effects, and all three offerings – "Trifles," "Dracula" and "A Child’s Christmas in Wales" – exceeded sales expetations. “This is really the highest quality of storytelling we can offer right now, and for relatively low cost,” Sneed said. “Maybe we can create an entire catalog of audio dramas that audiences can subscribe to and listen on demand, like the Netflix model.”
Bring back my Broadway! The bulk of any metro area’s live theatre audience is the masses who flock to see visiting Broadway musicals, and not much else. In many ways, the Colorado theatre landscape does not return to normal until Broadway reopens and starts sending its touring productions back on the road. While most Broadway productions are not expected to return until next fall, there have been rumors that "Hamilton" will launch Broadway’s epic reopening on July 4, 2021. What’s hopeful for Denver Center fans to consider is that not all touring shows are tied to Broadway productions, so conceivably the DCPA could come back with some available shows earlier than the fall.
And what will that look like? Speaking to Variety, “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda predicted that theatre as we know it will never be the same. "I think when theater comes back, it’s going to be in conversation with technology in an entirely different way,” he said. “I don’t think we go back to a world where a show premieres on Broadway, and then no one can see it unless they have $200. I think producers are going to have to start thinking about how they’re going to capture their work, because in capturing it they can actually capture a much larger audience for their live show.”
So ... could watching a live performance of "Hamilton," along with a capacity Broadway audience, on your 60-inch TV, while sitting on your basement sofa in your sweatpants, be in your future? (Count me in.)
John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S. by American Theatre Magazine during his time at The Denver Post. He also is the founder of The Denver Actors Fund, and is now contributing reports for the local theatre community for ArvadaCenter.Org. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.