Devoid of expression: COVID-19’s impact on theatre

Michael Rivera

Picture this: a grand auditorium filled with row after row of empty seats. Its balcony empty, with no patrons there to fill the room with laughter and excitement before watching the night’s show. There is no set on stage, no actors, no costumes-nothing. The only thing there is a dark, empty stage, devoid of any artistic expression. All because of a pandemic that is afflicting the nation.

As confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of April 29, there were 1,005,147 cases of COVID-19 in the United States. Despite the CDC’s recommendations of social distancing, isolating travelers for 14 days in self-quarantine, and other preventative measures, coronavirus is sweeping the nation, forcing individuals to stay at home. It has impacted businesses, markets, and many other functions, including the art of theatre.

COVID-19 has impacted the theatre in many ways ranging from postponements of shows to cancellations of conferences and festivals. Americans for the Arts has had numerous events canceled and has moved to online interaction. The organization is also assessing the economic impact of COVID-19, as the virus also causes loss of income for artists due to the cancellation of events, lost wages, and additional expenses.

These shutdowns are due to the fact that theatre is a face-to-face interaction, and because the CDC has recommended keeping 6 feet in distance, the theatre does not have much alternative but to close. From Broadway to local community theatre here in Joplin, the effects of uncertainty, anxiety and disappointment are felt.

Cancellation and Postponement of Local Productions

At the campus level, Missouri Southern’s theatre department had to cancel both the children’s show and the one act festival that was planned. Alexandria Gibson, sophomore and theatre major, was cast in one of the one act’s that was canceled due to COVID-19.

“Well, I cried and got very frustrated because I have had not many opportunities to act and I was very excited to explore this role and when it got canceled, I felt I was loosing a massive opportunity,” said Gibson.

At Joplin High School, Ashley Trotnic, teacher and head of the theatre department there, said that their spring musical of Beauty and the Beast had been postponed until further notice in order to avoid canceling the show entirely.

“We don’t want to cancel it,” said Trotnic. “We are trying everything we can not to cancel it because of all the hard work the student’s have put into it.”

This effect is even seen at the community theatre level as current seasons have been moved around due to COVD-19. Ric Stiegman, board member of Stained Glass Theatre, said that this been done to plan for the future of shows.

“Knowing that a lot of our patrons are senior citizens and the other half are young people, it was probably in our best interest to go ahead and postpone for now to a reasonable amount of time,” said Stiegman.

Inability to Plan for the Future

However, these hardships do not stop here. With COVID-19, there came new challenges in committing to the art of theatre. COVID-19 clouds the vision of most artists as they try to plan the future of their careers.

“In order for me to graduate on time, I need to perform in at least four plays, like one per semester,” said Gibson, “And if we don’t reopen next semester, I won’t be able to meet that and I will have to stay an extra semester just to get that in.”

This has also been proven difficult for directors and teachers since there is no specific time when the pandemic can be over. For Trotnic, planning for the high school’s musical is extremely challenging due to these circumstances.

“The main difficulty is that I can’t do any planning of any sort,” said Trotnic. “I mean, I can’t come up with a schedule or anything.”

Because of COVID-19, artists are unable to plan for their careers since everything is shut down. Promises of rescheduling are made, but exact dates are unknown since it is unclear how long the pandemic could last.

Financial Anxieties for Local Theatres

Along with these troubles come with financial uncertainty. Many theatres have had to rely on donations in order to make up for the lack of revenue from shows, including local theatres. Stiegman said that Stained Glass Theatre is an all volunteer based organization in which no one gets paid.

“We are all volunteer and we are all whatever people donate to us for the ticket sales, so we don’t have any extra money,” said Stiegman.

Stiegman also described, however, that there are still people who would be willing to contribute whenever this pandemic is over. He also gave an example of how Stained Glass Theatre recently received a donation on behalf of the passing of Tammy Aggus, a fellow board member.

This trend is common as venues like Broadway Live and National Theatre Live request donations for their theatres and other theatres alike since this is the only source of income at this time. The trend is compounded by the fear of lost revenue and like the virus, it is spreading throughout the theatre world.

Unable to Socially and Emotionally Connect

Yet, this effect is one of many that came with the spread of COVID-19. Financial worries, anxiety for the future and disappointment fills the chasm in which is left in the current empty world of theatre. Sadness and woe bottles up in this chasm as well, as all artists are left feeling empty with the fact they are unable to express their artform, especially with others.

“Right now, I cannot be social at all and it just makes me feel very cut off from the world,” said Gibson. “I don’t know how to keep giving all of my heart and soul in the theatre when I don’t have other people’s energy to feed on.”

Not only does COVID-19’s impact have on the amount of work done for shows, it also closes off a way for people to experience live entertainment. It is robbing individuals of a unique experience at this time and it is uncertain when audiences can return.

“People have already been working on shows and those shows got cancelled,” said Trotnic, “and theatre is an escape for a lot of people and so it’s sad that they’re not getting to have that experience right now”.

Reluctance of Audience Return

The biggest fear, however, that comes along with COVID-19 is what will happen with theatre once the pandemic has been contained. American Theatre, a news outlet for the arts, speculates that theatre goers will be reluctant to return to the theatre for some time. In a study conducted by Shugoll Research, out of 2,762 people surveyed, 49% said they will likely wait a few months before returning.

However, artists do not see this as the case. Despite the dark void the current state of theatre is in, a beacon of hope still shines as some believe that people will immediately come back to the theatre once the pandemic subsides.

“I’d say there’s a very small percentage, five percent or less that would be concerned of getting back together,” said Stiegman. “I think overall, as in all the plays, when people are in it, their friends come, their families come, their church comes, their neighbors come, and I think that it will be exactly the same way.”

Gibson also has the same feeling the people will want to return to the theatre as soon as the pandemic subsides. However, she also gives encouragement to those who might still seem reluctant in returning.

“I definitely don’t think that people are going to stay away from the theatre because everybody is going to want to get out so badly, that they’re going to do everything they have the opportunity to do,” said Gibson. “But to the people who are hesitant to come back to the theatre, I’d say that there have been so many opportunities missed because we have been so scared of this pandemic, why waste your life being scared of things? Go out and do something, it’s worth the risk.”

Respecting Theatre as an Artform

There is also another hope that these artists carry during these struggling times of COVID-19. As people are at home, they are coping by utilizing platforms like Netflix, YouTube, and television. For theatre, Broadway Online and National Theatre Live has numerous routes to watch recorded performances of major productions. Because of this, artists have the hope that people will appreciate theatre as an artform more.

Stiegman commented on the fact that the best part of theatre is the live aspect of it. He felt that there is something unique and special about seeing productions live in comparison to watching it at home.

“I think for those who can watch it online, I think it’s a good thing,” said Stiegman. “But, it’s kind of like watching a movie on TV is great, but going to a movie theater is exceptional and then you go to live theatre is the greatest. I mean, you see everybody, action, live, all the mistakes, everything, you see it 3D. It’s awesome and there’s just to me the pinnacle of an experience of entertainment is the theatre.”

Trotnic wants people to realize that the way they are getting through this pandemic is from the ability of watching shows online. She also wants people to see that artists are also the ones being majorly affected as well while providing entertainment.

“I would hope that anyone who is staying at home right now would all think that artists are what is getting you through this quarantine right now,” said Trotnic. “They’re staying at home on Netflix or watching TV, you’re listening to podcasts, you’re listening to albums, you’re watching a Broadway show, I mean, it’s artists who are giving you that experience and it’s artists who are being majorly affected right now as well.”

Gibson feels that by having the ability to watch it online, audiences will be encouraged to come watch productions live and appreciate the theatre. She also feels that by having a taste at home, people will want to come see things in person.

“I think part of the reason people haven’t appreciated it so much is because they haven’t really taken the time or use the money to experience it,” said Gibson. “Well now that they have seen it for free and have had all this free time to watch it, I think because they’ve seen it and because it has impacted their life so much now, that they’re going to want to come out to the theatre and watch things in person because it’s so much better in person.”

The time of COVID-19 has plagued the world of theatre with uncertainty, financial worry, and caused a creation of an empty void. The threats given off by coronavirus are substantial, but there is still a beacon of hope that pierces through the darkness. Artists hope that someday, when this is all over, that empty, dark theatre will once again be filled with patrons, excitedly waiting for the night’s show. Actors will once again perform on a stage in full costume with a set that was built over the course of rehearsals and people will have that chance to socially connect once more.