Written by Linda Yan | April 3rd, 2021
On March 11th, 2020, our beloved theatres closed their doors in light of the new coronavirus restrictions issued by Governor Jay Inslee. Many people, myself included, had only expected these restrictions to be in place for a couple of months at most. Now, over a year later, these theaters still remain shuttered to the general public. Although many arts organizations, including Penguin Productions, have been able to transition to live streaming their programs and shows, there are some things that just don’t make it through our screens; and we miss them.
We miss the thrill that comes with walking into those spaces we had worked so hard to be able to stand in. We miss marveling at the orchestra pit practicing prior to their grand performances. We miss being mashed up with our fellow actors and actresses in those tiny dressing rooms and those dark, dusty, backstage spaces. We miss welcoming the audience into the theater with handshakes and hugs. We miss all the hugs.
And for many theater workers, the loss of theater meant the loss of a community. “Theater gave me something to put my energy toward,” says Damon Reaney, a theater technician, in an interview with the Seattle Times.” “I don’t know where I would be without the people who helped me.”
But one thing the theater community will never lack is creativity and resilience.
Like many other theater organizations, Penguin Productions was forced to pivot to meeting, practicing, and performing over online conferencing platforms. Instead of stages, our young actors and actresses now had their bedrooms. Instead of elaborate backdrops, they had Zoom backgrounds. And instead of delivering their lines to a live audience, they had the cameras on their laptops.
Many performers initially felt disoriented when they first started rehearsing in these digital spaces but Cora Pearlstein, who recently appeared in Penguin’s renditions of King Lear as well as She Kills Monsters, still cherishes this opportunity, noting in an interview with KUOW that “it’s the only normal thing in my life right now…It’s really nice to sit down for two hours, and maybe I’m stressed because I didn’t memorize my lines, but at least I’m not stressed about a literal pandemic that we’re in.”
With the acceleration of COVID-19 vaccinations, a return to our previous lives seems near. But while live theatre will no doubt return to Seattle someday in the future, like ourselves, it will never be the same. Similar to just about every facet of arts and culture, the COVID-19 pandemic will have long-term impacts on the Seattle theater scene. In October, Seattle’s Cornish College of Arts declared a financial emergency due to a drastic drop in enrollment, forcing them to temporarily halt applications for their BFA degrees in their performance production program.
But the impacts of the pandemic on the theater industry may not be completely negative. The lowered cost and virtual location of online theater have made watching performances far more accessible for many, both financially and geographically. This has caused many, including former The New York Times theater critic Ben Brantly, to imagine a “bold new hybrid form [of theater that] will coexist with “traditional” live, in-the-moment theater, and each discipline will have its own ardent acolytes”.
If you are walking past any Seattle theater space today, chances are it’s still pretty quiet. But it hasn’t been completely silent this past year either. Inside those spaces where hundreds once gathered, local artists have been using them to hold virtual classes and medical organizations have hosted blood drives within these spaces.
Theater has weathered and adapted throughout the many crises it’s faced, and this moment is no different. Like many other aspects of our lives, it is also being re-imagined and re-invented. As we emerge and leave behind the sweatpants and sourdough starters of our pandemic lives, only time will tell what the future of theater, and of us, will look like. A spring for all of our lives is coming and I have full faith that we, as cities, organizations, and individuals, will bounce back from this past year.