Thoughts On A Blacked-Out National Theatre Day
On this day – National Theatre Day – I’m taking it back to September 11, 2001.
I know, I know… but stay with me.
I was involved with Tom and Shelley Walljasper’s studio and we were set to preview a new musical version of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow on that fateful day and open the next day. I thought for sure we were going to close the show, or at the very least postpone the preview, but Tom made it very clear that what we are doing is an escape from what is happening outside. It was our job to do the show as planned, and let the 30, 40 people that were there get away from all of it. That was one of the ‘wow’ moments, you know?
So, here we are now.
In the midst of another historic moment and though performers (like me) are not on stage within the hollowed halls of theaters across the country, audiences are turning the arts for comfort, entertainment and for an escape. They are watching Broadway performances on various platforms, watching the National Theatre’s archives, binging Netflix and Disney Plus, watching short films or sketches their friends are positing, enjoying live feeds of musicians and poets performing from the comfort of their homes. People are turning to artists more than ever. And those artists are getting more exposure than ever before.
There is hope.
And there is reason for joy.
But there is reason for dread.
We are in a historical moment.
Yes, our industry in trouble.
Theaters are shut down and facing financial destruction. Actors, musicians, directors, designers, crew members and other gig workers are out of work for the foreseeable future. It’s not good and it’s not looking any better.
For me personally, I was in the midst of rehearsals for a rock star production of Saturday Night Fever at Circa ‘21 Dinner Playhouse. It was really shaping up to be something special. We had reached the tech and dress rehearsal stage in the theatre when we were given the notice that we would have to suspend operations. We all knew it was coming, of course, but we all maintained the “show must go on” attitude in the days leading up to the governor’s order.
It was the first time that I’ve ever experienced a complete stop in production that close to opening week. Obviously, this matter IS serious and the best decision for the health of the business and it’s employees but still shook us all. To sit idle when you know you should be doing you job to entertain during this time of crisis makes you feel like you’re failing, like you’re not doing your part. It’s a feeling of grief. And it’s uncomfortable and come with a heavy dose of anxiety and fear. Will we ever get back to work? Will this industry survive the fall out? How far out with gigs get cancelled? It’s a flurry of worry and dread.
But I think we will be ok.
This is just another bump in the road for us.
This business? It is a crazy ride… ups, downs, sideways, backwards… and there is no map, no masterful engineering. This pandemic is just another example of the absurdity of the profession. It’s a brutal yet euphoric career path and one that will always surprise you and always keep you guessing. It’s unpredictable. It’s unreliable. It’s ever changing. All this training you’re getting is one of the many KEYS to success, absolutely… and treasure that. Harness it. But the rest of those keys? They are scattered on a crowded street. A very crowded street. You will spend years finding them. Be prepared for that. But also be prepared to fall so madly in love with what you do that you will go through all of this over and over and over and over again to get the opportunity to play pretend. You won’t ever want to do anything else. You will want to quit all the time – especially in time like this- and sometimes you will but you will always find your way back. You will always want to hang the fuck on.
And the audiences will too and probably even tighter. I do believe when we come out of this people will remember that they did turn to artists and feel an overwhelming need to support them. It might take a while but people will full concert venues, theatres, comedy clubs and movie theatres. They will want and need that escape from the outside world. And they will want to experience it live and off a screen. My hope is that our industry will experience a boom like we’ve never seen.
On that fateful evening in September, Tom Walljasper said, “This is what we do, man. We go out there and make sure they know everything is ok for a few hours. That’s our job. Make them laugh, make them cry… make them feel something in this room and forget what is happening outside. This is how we help.” And I believe producers and managers will give a similar speech to the opening night audiences in entertainment cathedrals across the world later this spring and it will unforgettable.
So. Happy National Theatre Day.
Or better yet… Happy National Entertainment Day.
Onward and upward, friends…