Why Theater Makers Should Keep Making

Photo by Tyler Callahan, Graphic by Anna Caldwell.

A careful reimagining of The Forgotten Art of Assembly, or, Why Theater Makers Should Stop Making with a response from within the Chicago Theater Community.

It’s 11 p.m. in Chicago. The city is gently humming with the sound of passing cars while the street lights seep through my broken blinds. Inside, a feeling of exhaustion passes through me like a leaden wave. I’ve finally gotten a response from someone at IDES, the Illinois unemployment website, and the first benefit payment has cleared in my bank account. After weeks of waiting, and appealing, and waiting some more, the triumph feels so sizable that I no longer feel the need to do anything but scroll through my phone to see what my friends are up to on Facebook. That’s enough stimulus to feel productive without the burden of something to show for it.

Like most of my friends, a vast network of performing artists from all walks of life, I have lost not only my day job, but also the patchwork of gigs that I cobble together to help pay my rent and other debts. All of my artistic endeavors have been put on hold and the future is, for now, a blank page. I’ve been shuffling around my two-room apartment for more than three weeks, and aside from the occasional socially distanced walk and once weekly trip for groceries, the only constant seems to be the vibrant activities that are happening daily on my social channels.

As I scroll through my feed, I am greeted by content of all types. Who needs Netflix when your friends deliver a daily supply of consumable content? There are the self-celebrating posts sharing new workout routines that can be done from home, chubby dogs, cats who have suddenly become the constant companions of their WFH humans, memes, home cooked meals, and slice of life snapshots that make me smile knowing at least some of my cohort are finding happy moments throughout these long and disorienting days of isolation.

People are finally making those recipes that food bloggers have worked so hard to share! With varying degrees of success, my friends are finding comfort in roughly kneaded country loaves and hand-made english muffins. However, these aren’t the posts that stop my scroll. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been a fan of food bloggers like @QKatie for years (seriously, she has taught me more about yeasted doughs than I thought possible), but what I yearn for is something else.

It is the virtual choirs, zoom play readings, 1-minute quarantine play scripts, archival production footage, musical theater songs of hope accompanied on ukulele, dusted-off college audition arias and art songs, and many “quarantunes” and “social distan-sings” that remind that my community has not lost (and will not lose) its hope. The spirit of collaboration is still very much alive. These posts make it possible to endure the never-ending news reports about mounting death tolls, PPE shortages, inadequate access to life-saving medical equipment, and loved ones dying alone in the ICU.

Theaters the world over have closed their doors indefinitely. COVID-19 has forced us to accept a new reality without live theater and without the creative fellowships that we have come to rely on. The sudden loss has swept through our theater community and remarkably, instead of a dark period of mourning, something else — something much brighter has happened. Our involuntary isolation and unemployment has inspired artists at every level to keep creating. Amateurs, students, professionals and masters are cultivating their skills and sharing with their online communities. For those with the time on their hands, the drive to create seems to have welled up as a collective coping strategy. The trend is not unique to those who consider themselves professional artists. Amateurs and celebrities alike have found the courage to share imperfectly perfect “isolation creations.”

Now, more than ever, it seems vitally important to continue creating and sharing in the hope that someone’s day will be made better for it, even if it’s only the creator themselves.

Imagine the joy of diving through your data archives and unearthing footage from shows you haven’t seen in 15 years. Imagine the fits of giggles it brings to message a friend and say “look what I found.” Does it matter that the footage is pixelated because it was shot on a digital camera in 2005? Does it matter if the best accompaniment you can find is a YouTube karaoke track? Does it matter if your virtual choir is almost, but not perfectly, in sync? Does it matter that the 1 minute monologue you wrote today is not quite as good as the one you wrote yesterday? Will tomorrow’s creation be better? Will it be good enough?

These are questions that will have to be answered by each individual. As will this one: “Would you prefer the alternative of an artistically dark feed that only features news stories about bodies stacked like cereal boxes in refrigerator trucks?” Would you?

I don’t know about you, but this is my first global pandemic. Much like our government, I’m making this up as I go. Unlike our government, I didn’t have a pandemic playbook that I ignored. There is no dog-eared copy of “What To Do During A Global Pandemic: A Guide for Theater Artists’’ hiding in my bookcase next to my least favorite opera scores.

Graphic by Anna Caldwell

Without time-tested advice to govern our behavior, theater artists are improvising and operating on instinct. That instinct seems to say find your people where they are and keep doing the things that make you feel like you.

Who are we creating for?

After a few weeks of watching your social media feed fill up with hastily made creations from restless artists, it is not a leap to ask ourselves if we are creating simply to prove that we still can. There is a somber truth to the question. Even before a global pandemic shuttered storefront opera and theater companies in Chicago, we have been asking ourselves if the art that we make really reaches an audience beyond our own community and, if it didn’t or doesn’t, is it still worth making? For now, it seems that we have determined that, yes, it is. There is no expression of love through art too small to be worthy of sharing.

Our need for togetherness is fundamental. Theater folk, perhaps even more so than the general population, are possessed of a need to comfort and be comforted through collaborative art forms. After all, theater was created because of a basic human instinct to assemble and tell stories.

“The profound value of storytelling in and of itself and makes a case for theater as the most glorious and durable storyteller of all.” (Anne Washburn)

In the midst of a pandemic, we have not forgotten these words. We have not forgotten the magic of live theater or the unique energy and infectious joy that comes with performing for an audience. We cannot forget the unforgettable art of assembly. COVID-19 may have taken away our ability to assemble, but it cannot take away our drive to come together. Theater makers are accustomed to finding ways to make the impossible possible. Using tools like Zoom as a stopgap to lessen our isolation is merely a sign of our enduring ingenuity and indomitable spirit.

OK, I think it’s time to address the fact that this article is a response to “The Forgotten Art of Assembly Or, Why Theater Makers Should Stop Making.” In that article, Nicholas Berger expresses frustration that his social feed is inundated with imperfect isolation creations that he finds gratuitous and self-indulgent. He then makes a meandering argument for the cessation of digital performances because they cannot capture or recreate what makes theater so magical and ephemeral: the art of assembly.

Mr. Berger expresses a relatable concern that the migration of theater to a digital stage robs it of its power.

“There’s a reason theatre makers weren’t staging readings of plays over Zoom two-months ago, it’s the same reason we continue to turn to theatre, even when Hulu programs a bigger season than any off-Broadway theater possibly could. The singular transcendence of human congregation is irreplaceable. So why are we trying so hard to make theatre without it?” (Nicholas Berger)

To this I say, “what else should artists do in a time of crisis?”

Silence certainly isn’t the answer. I mean, have you met us? Silence isn’t even an option! We’re not quiet people, and while we should certainly dedicate some of our free time to contemplating the future of our art form, we’re capable of doing that while also participating in the latest Broadway challenge or experimenting with our friends.

No one, and I mean absolutely no one, is advocating for digital theater as a viable replacement for the unforgettable art of live performance. We are merely using it as a way to weather a pandemic with our sanity and creative impulses intact. A year from now, when we have the gift of perspective, I think we will look back in wonder on the many splendid ways we found to cope with our extraordinary circumstances.

Our ability to find ways to connect, create and perform during this period of isolation is a testament to our resiliency. Mr. Berger chooses to focus not on our resiliency, but on our fear and isolation. And, in doing so, suggests that fear, uncertainty and loneliness are illegitimate or inappropriate places from which to create.

Our fear of the future may motivate us to seek comfort in creating, but hasn’t this always been the case? We have different fears now, but we have always had fears, and we have always used art as a way to find meaning and understanding of those emotions.

Conflating the Individual with Arts Organizations

“Simply relocating existing structures of theatrical art production online doesn’t solve the problems that existed in those structures IRL. Instead of rushing at cleverness and temporary solutions, contorting theatre inside out, maybe we ought to examine the capitalist establishment we live under that demands artists, natural-born hustlers, empaths, and problem solvers keep hustling to make a buck online, a field already overpopulated with free content, during an unprecedented global pandemic. Never mind the fact that, in doing so, we’re ignoring the one defining quality of our field, its liveness.” (Nicholas Berger)

Mr. Berger’s article begins by expressing boredom and frustration that his news feed has been inundated by theater artists sharing monologue videos and slice of life posts, and migrates to a commentary on the future of theater and theater organizations. He asserts that we should stop creating and use this time to interrogate the capitalist systems that cause artists to hustle. In my opinion, his article doesn’t do a good enough job of separating the responsibility of the individual theater maker from organizations that produce theater. He criticizes both, and ultimately suggests that ‘theater makers should stop making.’ This is a rigid and unsympathetic approach. If that is not the point he hoped to make, perhaps he should have chosen a different title for his article.

I worry about any and all messaging that discourages makers from making. Creating, for many, is a trauma response, and telling a community of people that their coping mechanism is bad for the future of their industry puts an undue burden on the individual. Further, whether or not the individual artist decides to create for free or to ask for donations to help support their creations is a decision that should be respected.

Theater organizations should also be given the benefit of experimenting with new digital mediums and creating opportunities for artists during this provisional time. To suggest that they are engaging in these activities without giving due thought to the impact it will have on the future of theater underestimates those at the helm of those organizations.

Our leaders are burdened with the knowledge that the artists they employ are suffering financially and emotionally. They are working hard to address all of those needs and keep their organizations from folding, so perhaps we can ease up on asking them to interrogate the capitalist system.

Until the world recovers from the pandemic, we should all feel empowered not only to help others, but also to focus on our individual needs. “Put your own mask on before assisting someone with theirs.” There should be no pressure to create that does not come from within. Many will choose to continue making, others will not.

We will, as always, continue to be both audience and artist. We will watch Netflix and do a Zoom call reading of Richard III on a Saturday afternoon. We will watch the Met live broadcast and sing a favorite art song on a particularly gloomy Monday. We will attend an online improv seminar and create an online class to help out high school teachers who need online lesson content to keep their students engaged. We don’t have to choose between not making at all and making relentlessly. We don’t have to choose between always consuming and not consuming at all. We don’t have to choose between constantly watching the news and not watching at all. We are allowed to find our own balance.

Right now, our social media feeds may seem like a crowded hallway at a non-equity general audition. You keep bumping into people you know and they won’t stop singing. Like, you do realize that this hallway isn’t a practice room right? Unlike that hallway, the people who show up on our social media feeds were invited to be there by our status as “friends” and by the peculiar magic of the facebook algorithm.

If you are feeling overwhelmed by your social media feed, it’s OK to take a break or to unfollow people whose posts you do not want to see right now. You don’t have to love, like, support or consume everyone’s art, but you should always respect their right to make it. Consider it your responsibility to curate what you see rather than asking other people to change their behaviors to accommodate you.

The coronavirus death toll in the United States has now surpassed the reporting of all other nations. More Americans have died from COVID-19 than any country in the world. Healthcare workers are overwhelmed, under-protected and scared about the failure of the healthcare system.

None of these statistics should make you feel bad about doing what you need to do in order to weather the emotional ups and downs of a global pandemic. You don’t have to prove anything to anyone, and you don’t need to apologize for creating art, especially if doing so is one of your coping strategies.

“This is a humanitarian crisis, not an artistic one” (Nicholas Berger)

This is a statement that gaslights artists into feeling guilty for doing what they feel called to do. That’s not normal, and you shouldn’t be shamed by someone who would question your intentions for creating, or project onto you their own insecurities about not having chosen a different, more useful career.

“I can’t shake my own feeling of inadequacy. Surely, we should all become doctors, nurses, scientists, journalists, politicians, some career that would help us feel like we are making a tangible difference. People are dying and we’re just sitting around! But as I take a breath and turn the television off, what I realize I am really reckoning with is my own non-essentialism.” (Nicholas Berger)

Time spent in isolation often leads to an intense level of self examination. I do not blame Mr. Berger for asking these tough questions, but I would ask him not to project them onto his community. At some point during this pandemic, he looked at his phone and his news feed and saw what others were doing and felt a stirring inside of himself. That rumination, no doubt, led him to write his article. He felt the impulse to create something that expressed his truth. Following his impulse while asking others not to follow theirs is a hypocrisy that inspired me to write this response.

Processing anxiety and worries about COVID-19 can be overwhelming. It has temporarily changed the way we live our lives and individual reactions to the crisis will vary based on geography, proximity to the frontlines of the virus, media exposure, economic hardship, mental health, support systems and a wide variety of other vectors. It is OK to recognize the privileges you may have and still feel helpless and unsafe in the face of an enemy we cannot see. Your feelings are valid.

According to the CDC stress during an infectious disease outbreak can include:

  • Fear and worry about your own health and the health of your loved ones
  • Changes in sleep or eating patterns
  • Difficulty sleeping or concentrating
  • Worsening of chronic health problems
  • Worsening of mental health conditions
  • Increased use of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs

What can we do?

Moderate Exposure to the Media

Chronic exposure to a 24 hour news cycle can trigger “fight or flight responses.” While it’s important for you to stay up to date on current events and changes in policy, constant exposure can be damaging to your mental health. Researchers have studied collective trauma experiences, such as mass violence events or natural disasters and found, for example, that prolonged exposure to television coverage of 9/11 was associated with increased post-traumatic stress and new-onset physical health symptoms up to 3 years after the event.

What Should We Do Instead?

You should feel free to do whatever you want, but there is plenty of data available from psychologists, music and art therapists to show that engaging in creative activities that you enjoy can have a positive impact on your mental health.

Jessica Pouranfar, a music therapist at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital and Northwestern Delnor Hospital encourages performers and artists to continue practicing their instruments and sharing their creations online. She adds:

“You do not have to be musically inclined to reap the benefits of music! Aside from playing a musical instrument, music listening in itself releases endorphins in your system. When listening to music that you enjoy, dopamine, the “feel-good” chemical and serotonin, the “happy” chemical is released in your brain giving you a sense of pleasure and boosting your mood.” (Jessica Pouranfar)

You can read her full interview here.

Schools of Music across the country are sharing daily videos of past performances and current ones by students and faculty who are in quarantine at home. DePaul University School of Music created the hashtag #depaulmusicathome to foster a sense of community and to encourage its students and faculty to share and engage with each other now that all learning has gone online and school performances and productions have been cancelled.

While most of the posts that cross my feed are from individuals and not organizations, Chicago’s Theater Wit has paved the way for an innovative digital theater viewing experience with their production of “Teenage Dick” — an adaptation of Richard III. Just before mandates forced the theater to close its doors, the company recorded a run-through of the show that they are now offering to online audiences.

Director Brian Balcom giving notes to the cast of Theater Wit’s “Teenage Dick.” Photo by Charles Osgood via Theater Wit.

“The difference between the way we’re doing it and most of the other companies is we’re really trying to replicate that experience, because that’s the thing I think that’s important. The theater, no matter what play we’re doing, is always selling community and a chance for the culture to look at itself together. It’s the togetherness that we have to focus on, not just the play.” (Artistic Director, Jeremy Wechsler)

Weschler acknowledges the ways in which their digital production will inevitably fall short of a live theater experience but seems pleased that he has found a way to keep his artists employed.

You can read more about Teenage Dick, which has been extended, on InsideHook.

Whether you are an individual or an organization, if you have a story to tell you should tell it. If you see someone creating you should give them the space to do so. Perhaps it was meant for you perhaps it was not. Also, we can’t assume that everything we see posted online is done to create brand value or be monetized, but if it happens to be, we should be happy for that artist or organization.

Live Theater will survive this pandemic, and though we are likely to suffer great losses I cannot picture a future in which theater makers won’t leap at the chance to come back to the stage. Sharing digital creations to soothe ourselves and others while we isolate at home won’t diminish our appetite to be with one another. It will only increase our desire for “the real deal” and help us feel connected through digital assembly while we endure the long wait.

The first shows that emerge after the pandemic has subsided are sure to be very special and transcendent moments for all of us. In the meantime, let’s give each other room to create, process, heal, and share.

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Anna is a multidisciplinary artist, performer, writer, and digital marketer.

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Anna Caldwell

Anna Caldwell

Anna is a multidisciplinary artist, performer, writer, and digital marketer.

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