My calendar for Friday, March 13, 2020, had me seeing Redwood at the Jungle Theater at 7:30 p.m. That morning, the Jungle's publicist wrote to inform press that the play would run for only two performances: "The director, actors, designers and crew have invested untold hours of skill, talent and heart to make this play, and to honor that work, we want to share it with the public." Six hours later, she wrote again: the production was off.
All of us are here on the other side of the pandemic — not over yet, but is finally ebbing — will never again take for granted the ability to occupy the same physical space as other human beings. In all the thousands of performances, exhibits, and screenings I attended in my pre-pandemic life, I never fully appreciated just how intimate those experiences were; every time I sat down to watch a play, I was entering a bubble of breath with a bunch of strangers as we committed to sharing the experience the artists had prepared for us.
What now? Well, the performing arts will come back. They never really went away, as artists and institutions adapted — sometimes ingeniously, sometimes awkwardly — to the constrained circumstances of social distancing. Over the past year I've waited in a parking lot for ghouls to deliver a mysterious package I'd open later while watching Haunted Basement footage on YouTube; I've seen gifted actors giving it their all against virtual backdrops; I've seen artists fall back on their improv skills when technology failed. There was a concert that my partner and I were planning to watch in a backyard setting where each household would have had its own patch of lawn larger than the entire Bryant-Lake Bowl stage; that show was canceled because it just got too damn cold.
One of my quarantine projects was to write a second edition of Sociology for Dummies, a book originally published in 2010. It became apparent as I wrote the new edition in 2020 that I'd need to address the systemic inequalities within the discipline of sociology itself — a field of study devoted precisely to studying systemic inequalities in larger society. Doctors (of philosophy), heal thyselves.
Similarly, the performing arts have long been at the forefront of conversations about racism and sexism...and yet, the arts have often struggled to address their own institutional failings. Back in 2017, as theaters lit ghostlights to symbolize solidarity in the face of the country’s new leadership, the Minnesota theater community was working its way through a generational leadership change that, it was hoped, would finally gain some traction in the ongoing challenge to represent diverse stories on the state’s biggest stages.
In the years leading up to the pandemic, I was theater critic for City Pages. When COVID hit I was able to write a couple of posts in which shocked artists reacted to the shutdown; then that publication’s freelance budget dried up, and I went on hiatus along with the shows. Ultimately, City Pages was shut down permanently; years of online coverage evaporated overnight. While the content was saved and there are various efforts to keep it available, the end of one of America’s last alt-weeklys demonstrated the continuing fragility of media dedicated to substantive arts coverage.
While I’ve only occasionally (ahem) trod the boards myself, I’ve always been proud to play a role in the creative process. As a writer I’ve been a voice amplifying artists’ work and, yes, commenting on it — constructively, I hope, though some have begged to differ. While legacy media coverage of the performing arts has been perennially problematic, with representation of diverse voices on the page being even scarcer than representation on the stage, at its best that coverage helps to draw attention to important work and to stimulate conversation about it.
In recent years, artists themselves have been asked to pick up more and more slack as media coverage has withered; the pandemic was yet another shock in an ongoing seismic shift. Facebook invites, Instagram takeovers, live-streamed talkbacks, TikTok promos: it’s all part of the daily grind now for artists in every discipline.
In some respects, this has been a change for the better; consider the musicians blowing up on SoundCloud without having to kiss the rings of record label executives and talent scouts. Not every artist’s work is susceptible to going viral, though, and the self-promotional sphere has its own gatekeepers: investors, influencers, algorithms. The rise of social media self-promotion is also harder on artists whose work by its very nature thrives on having no screens and no filters.
As build-back bucks have rolled out, artists have been trying desperately to show policymakers (and the voters who elect them) just how vital the arts have been to our socially distanced well-being, such as it is. Even as venues shuttered and stages went dark, we were sustained by narrative, by performance, by the music of the voice: whether singing or speaking, whether live on Zoom or recorded on a podcast.
In a best-case-under-the-circumstances scenario, we’ll emerge from this lockdown with a renewed sense of the value of the arts — and specifically the performing arts, and more specifically the live performing arts. We’ll support companies that represent our values and that appreciate the urgent need for structural change in this broken nation. We’ll support the voices that need to be heard, whether those of veteran artists or those of newcomers. Media subscription dollars will go to platforms that authentically represent the breadth of our communities.
Wherever this all goes next, I’ll be here listening to artists, who have always pointed the way to a better future even as they’ve cast their eyes on aspects of the present (and the past) that many would prefer to sweep under the rug. Whatever the future holds for performing arts and Minnesota media, I’m committed to continuing my work of amplifying artists’ stories.
Though we couldn’t have guessed, when we lit those symbolic ghostlights in 2017, just how long literal ghostlights would be left bearing lonely witness to deserted stages around the world, the symbolism has proved apt. Even when the lights went out on Broadway, the ghostlights remained: beacons of hope for a coming time that we must demand will be better, safer, and more just. A promise, to ourselves and to our communities, that we’ll be back.
As we emerge from this long term lockdown, I’m excited to renew our community and once again (deep breath) share air. A motto from a vintage Minnesota Playlist fundraising t-shirt now seems more fitting than ever: “Don’t spend the night alone.”