The ghost light onstage at the Auditorium Theatre Credit: Matthew Gilson for the <i>Chicago Reader</i>

On Monday, March 16, I walked into a theater for the last time in 2020. It was at Theater Wit for their production of Mike Lew‘s Teenage Dick, a Richard III-meets-high-school-angst dark comedy-drama. The show was supposed to have a regular run but then . . . well, you know.

Theater Wit taped that one live performance and then made it available for purchase as a streaming show—the first of many that rolled out in the aftermath of the COVID-19 shutdown. I saw the streaming premiere a few days after the live performance. At the Zoom talkback (there’s a phrase I wouldn’t have known a year ago!), director Brian Balcom, who uses a wheelchair, pointed out that making a show about a teen with a disability (Richard was played by MacGregor Arney, who has cerebral palsy) available online meant that people with disabilities who can’t always easily attend theater could actually see it.

That silver-lining message was one that I’ve carried in the back of my mind throughout this godawful year, even as the new vaccines make it more likely that some semblance of live performance will return in 2021. It’s not enough to get back to “normal” (whatever that means). Because for too many theatermakers, “normal” was never good enough. In fact, “normal” just plain sucked. “Normal” reflected too many of the worst aspects of the American narrative, onstage and off: greed, racism, classism, and ineffective and/or hostile reactions to complaints about working conditions. Just for starters.

The biggest reminder of that came with the release of the BIPOC Demands for White American Theatre from We See You W.A.T. Page after page of this document, developed collaboratively by artists across the country and throughout every discipline in the industry, laid out in both large scope and granular detail what needs to happen for American theaters to actually embody the pious messages of diversity and community puffing up their mission statements. It’s both a blueprint and a battle cry, and one that should reshape the way a lot of institutions think about “business as usual” going forward. 

Locally and nationally, many theaters changed the names at the top of the organizational chart. Throughout the summer, Chicago theaters rolled out press releases announcing new Black leadership. But Donterrio Johnson, named as artistic director at PrideArts (formerly Pride Films and Plays) in the aftermath of social media allegations against founder David Zak, left after only a few months, asserting that Zak was still very involved behind the scenes. We still don’t know who will end up in charge at Victory Gardens, which faced backlash from theater artists over the selection of Erica Daniels to replace Chay Yew.  

And while several of the artists named to leadership roles have long roots with the companies they’re now running, Johnson’s experience suggests that it’s not enough to change the names. Boards have to make the commitment to supporting new leaders as they reimagine the mission and the work from the ground up. And as UrbanTheater’s Miranda Gonzalez reminded us, it’s also important to support the theaters that have been making work by and for marginalized communities for years.

It’s not lost on me that these changes at the top around the country are happening just as the theatrical environment is entering the choppiest waters it’s faced in decades. (I’m reminded of the Onion headline right after the election of Barack Obama in 2008: “Black Man Given Nation’s Worst Job.”) Second City’s longtime owner, CEO, and executive producer Andrew Alexander stepped down as long-repeated stories about institutional racism at the comedy factory gained fresh attention during the protests over police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and too many others. Anthony LeBlanc stepped in as interim executive producer, and this month Jon Carr, a veteran of Atlanta’s improv scene, takes over permanently. But the company is also on the market, and as the permanent closing of iO illustrates, commercial theatrical enterprises (even those with wealthy and famous alums galore) are facing tough times. 

Some wounds are self-inflicted. (I’ve been trying to catch up with the fuckery going on at New York’s Flea Theater and . . . whew. How do you spend $25 million on a new building and expect artists to work for free? AMERICA!) In other cases, theaters are taking advantage of the downtime to rethink their need for having a permanent space, as with Prop Thtr’s decision to give up their Avondale venue. If it’s a choice between investing in buildings or investing in the work, then putting the work (more accurately, the people who create the work) first makes the most sense.

I can’t pretend to know what kind of shows we’ll see onstage in the year ahead. It seems unlikely that theaters will give up their digital components—and as Balcom’s comment reminds us, there are good reasons to further develop those programming elements in order to expand accessibility.

Theaters can’t ignore budget restrictions. Yet if they think too small and safe, they won’t necessarily win back the live audiences they need who have become more comfortable seeing shows online. There is a difference between screen and stage, and leaning into what makes theater thrilling and immediate and intimate is the best argument theaters can offer for supporting live performance. 

The most stirring and haunting show I saw this past year before COVID killed in-person theater was TimeLine’s Kill Move Paradise by James Ijames, directed by Wardell Julius Clark, which set victims of police killings in a kind of limbo where they confronted each other and the audience. One of the characters asks his comrade what these people who “like to watch” are called. “America,” comes the response. 

We need to stop being passive observers when it comes to politics and art. Whether we’re able to go to physical venues or are watching new plays online, we need to stop thinking of artists as plucky little hobbyists doing what they love for our enjoyment and distraction. They are central to the economic fabric of our communities. There will be a lot of demands on the new Congress and administration to provide relief for a lot of industries battered by the COVID shutdowns. We should all be pushing to make sure that artists, who have given us succor in this Worst of All Possible Years, are treated with respect, dignity, and economic justice.  v