(Pictured L to R: Colin Douglas, Regina Victor, Kerry Reid)
(Editor’s Note: These interviews were conducted in May 2020, prior to the murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed, so it is not included in the discussion of current events.)
Since the closing of theaters due to COVID-19, it’s become more evident that it takes a whole community to bring theater to life—from the artists, actors, and designers, to the administrators, to the stagehands, to the audience, and even the press. We asked some Chicago critics for their thoughts on the current state of theater, theater criticism, and where they think the artform is headed from here. This is part two of a two-part series. Read part 1 here.
How do you feel about the rise of virtual theater? Is this something that will continue into the future for theater companies?
Kerry Reid, Chicago Reader: I think particularly in the realm of teaching, it will be more common for companies that offer classes, such as Annoyance, to continue offering classes in some kind of online format. That is a silver lining, as I think it makes work more accessible for those who live someplace where, under normal times, theater and theater classes just aren’t readily available. I suspect that every company will rethink how they create archival videos so that they have material on the shelf that is technically more solid than the “camera with mike at the back of the house” set-up that mostly seems to exist to capture a show for in-house use, grant applications, etc.
The big question will be how Actors Equity, the Dramatists Guild, etc. approach virtual theater in terms of protecting the rights and royalties of artists. I think this is something they are wrestling with right now.
Regina Victor, Rescripted: I think it will have to, we don’t know what will be coming in the days ahead and I think finding a way to connect digitally is necessary. However I hope we don’t think of this as a way to replace theater, but rather as an accessible part of our work we can maintain after we are back in our buildings.
Colin Douglas, Chicago Theatre and Concert Reviews: I think it’s going to have to for a while. Until everyone (artists and audience, alike) can be tested and be assured that they’re virus free, and vaccinated for the disease, I don’t see theater returning to what we used to think of as normal.
Have you been reading any plays or taking in the local streaming opportunities?
Kerry Reid: I did see the last live performance of Teenage Dick at Theater Wit and then the streaming recorded version. I also saw Otherworld Theatre‘s archived online version of Super Richard World III and TimeLine Theatre’s To Master the Art, from their remount at the Broadway Playhouse. And several others, including a Houston production of Chicago playwright and Theater Oobleck founder Mickle Maher’s There Is a Happiness That Morning Is, which is one of my favorite plays from the last decade or so in Chicago.
Regina Victor: Yes! Kill Move Paradise by James Ijames at TimeLine Theatre directed by Wardell Julius Clark was excellent. I think because of the way it was filmed. The intimacy of their space came through on camera which is difficult to do with archival footage.
Colin Douglas: I’m not very tech savvy so I don’t understand how to “stream” anything. I’ve read on Playbill.com about musicals and plays being available somewhere, somehow, but it’s all Greek to me.
How do you see theater criticism evolving in the wake of virtual theater or theater in a post-COVID world?
KR: I honestly have no idea. It was on life support as a viable career before this. There will always be people who want to write about and discuss theater and I don’t see that changing. I think, pandemic or not, we need to be more aware than we have been of inequities in artistic representation and opportunities and not be afraid of addressing that as part of the context in which we all create theater, see it, and evaluate it.
The disproportionate death tolls that we’re seeing in communities of color didn’t arise in a vacuum. Those numbers are directly linked to our history of segregation and discrimination along race and class lines in this city and country.
What we value in life and what we value in art speak about our communal values, or lack thereof. And critics should be bolder about speaking to that.
Will we see a funding environment that prizes supporting working artists over supporting brick-and-mortar real estate and naming opportunities? Will we see critics who can speak to the lack of support for arts in underserved and marginalized communities? I cannot possibly say at this point.”
RV: I hope that we can recognize the urgency of underrepresented voices. Theater criticism is a record. If we were to make no more theater today, would you feel that all of Chicago theater has been properly represented by critics that reflect the people making it? I don’t, and that bothers me.
CD: If productions are going to just be virtual, I’d better figure out how to stream them. Then it’ll be just like reviewing film or TV, I imagine.
Has this pause provoked you to contemplate the relevance of theater and live performance to a society? To Chicago? Or to yourself personally?
KR: Of course. I have no doubt it will return someday. Whether I will be there to cover it in the same way is a big question for me personally, but hardly important in the bigger picture. But ultimately, theater will continue to exist in some form.
RV: It definitely has, it’s been alarming to realize we are not considered essential. The theater I make as an artist I hope is all essential to the civic conversation and I think we should all ask ourselves about that. If I had to guess I would say that we will be more relevant the more we open ourselves to reflecting our city’s experiences as a whole, rather than a privileged few.
CD: It’s simply reinforced the time honored idea that man needs stories and storytelling. That is what theater is all about. We’re entertained, lifted out of our daily problems, sometimes offered a moral to take home but, in the end, we are treated to a good story well-acted and produced.
When we finally open the houses again, what are you most looking forward to?
KR: Just chatting with seatmates and patrons at intermission about what else they’ve seen.
RV: Seeing all my friends at an opening night! I miss that feeling of celebration and community so much and that will be the most fulfilling moment.
CD: Simply being back in excitement that is Chicago. Also, I had to cancel my Spring trip to NYC, so I’m dreaming of rescheduling a trip to the Big Apple.
Final thoughts from Kerry Reid: Maybe we should start adding healthcare workers to the category of people who get reduced-rate tickets, as we do veterans and educators. And maybe we should think about what accessibility really means in a post-COVID world. There are always people with immune disorders or other disabilities, visible or otherwise, who have a tough time attending shows. As Brian Balcom, director of Teenage Dick pointed out in the talkback the first night the show streamed, for people with disabilities, virtual theater may be their only option.
And the safety of artists ALSO needs to be paramount, so while it’s fine to talk about what would make PATRONS feel safe in returning to the theater, I care far less about that than I do whether or not the actors and crew are able to protect themselves in the close quarters most theaters have backstage.
If you’re like these critics and also missing theater, check out the streaming options happening now in the BTD!
Friend Colin Douglas on Facebook.
Special thanks to James Juliano and SHOUT Marketing & Media Relations for their contribution to this post.