There'll be a theater season. But how and where and when?

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There'll be a theater season. But how and where and when?
Adam Greenfield, now in his first season as artistic director for Playwrights Horizons, on the set of “Heroes of the Fourth Turning” in Manhattan, Oct. 11, 2019. As pandemic social challenges continue into the theater season, announcing stage productions, and timing, has become a matter of wishful thinking, guesswork and experimentation. Ricky Rhodes/The New York Times.

by Alexis Soloski

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- In April and May, as reliably as cherry blossoms flower and songbirds lay over in Central Park, the season announcements appear. To announce a theatrical season, which runs from September through May, give or take, is to broadcast values, bolster a brand, woo a subscription base. Each poised message operates as an advertisement, a promise, a reiteration of artistic and commercial creeds.

But this spring, pretty much no one hit send. Because how can you build a season when you don’t know when your theater can reopen, or how many employees you can afford to pay, or why anyone would want to see Beckett when you have existential anguish happening everywhere for free?

And then, just a few months later, with lockdowns still unlifted and unions leery of in-person performances, theaters, with buoyancy and anxiety, fear and ingenuity, revealed their upcoming projects for 2020-21.

The gloomiest announcement? Probably Hartford Stage’s, which announced no new shows through June 2021 and directed patrons to its Raise the Curtain fundraising campaign in an effort to save next year’s programming. A close second, Center Theater Group in Los Angeles, which pushed its season off to April 2021 and then announced a raft of cancellations and shortened runs.

The most optimistic? Let’s go with Providence’s Trinity Rep, which sounded a concise note of caution, solicited donations, then listed nine in-person shows, beginning as soon as November. The most varied? Atlanta’s Alliance Theater, which proposed a mix of drive-in, indoor and streaming shows.

Though public health conditions remain in flux, and city, state and union mandates change as often as light cues, all but the most conservative announcements assume that union actors and union crew members will be allowed to work, and that audiences will want to buy tickets — let alone subscriptions — to these seasons.

Those are big assumptions.

“There’s so much I don’t know,” Adam Greenfield, the incoming artistic director of Playwrights Horizons, said recently. “Whenever I try to chart a course for the future, it feels like it’s a game of Sudoku and the starting clues keep changing squares on me.” In July, Playwrights Horizons announced a shortened season of four plays, two of them rescheduled from the spring, plus several initiatives that don’t depend on in-person performance.

Some announcements describe typical seasons, merely pushed back to January or March or June. Others offer truncated ones. San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater extended its 2020-21 season into spring 2022. Several detail a shift to live remote performance. Still others emphasize hybridity, pledging a mix of online and in-person shows, with reconfigured subscription packages to match.

A few theaters have rethought their approaches entirely, like the Playwrights Realm, which will spend the coming season as a service organization for artists. New York Theater Workshop decided to disperse this season’s budget among two dozen or so “artistic instigators,” inviting them to dream about what theater can be.

The Workshop’s release promises “a front-row seat to the unfolding of this experiment,” acknowledging that no one really knows what front-row means right now. “Half the time I’m in terror, and half the time I’m excited,” said Jim Nicola, the Workshop’s artistic director.

Many of New York’s major nonprofits, including the Public Theater, have yet to announce any season at all. The Public’s artistic director, Oskar Eustis, hospitalized in the spring for complications likely related to COVID-19, explained the delay this way: “I have had to break more commitments than I ever have in my life because of COVID,” he said. “When we announce stuff, it’s going to be stuff we’re going to do.” He plans to lay out a season later this month.

That announcement, when it comes and whatever it describes, will be a commitment to a future at a moment when the future of live performance remains opaque. But remaining silent leaves artists, audiences and potential donors in the dark. So do theaters wait until they can announce with more assurance, or do they go forward, fingers crossed?

“I don’t have a crystal ball,” said Maria Manuela Goyanes, artistic director of the Woolly Mammoth Theater Company in Washington, D.C. But the Woolly news release announced, “with deep humility and cautious optimism,” several commissions for remote work and a robust slate of seven shows, from small-footprint solo productions to genre-bending musicals like Michael R. Jackson’s “A Strange Loop” and Toshi Reagon’s adaptation of the Afro-futurist classic “Parable of the Sower.”

Whether those shows will be presented online or in person is left necessarily ambiguous. “The ground is continually shifting and changing underneath us,” Goyanes said.

Like Goyanes, Stephanie Ybarra, artistic director of Baltimore Center Stage, has tried to fashion a season both ambitious and pragmatic. “It’s not like we took a leap without a net,” she said. “Our contingency plans have contingency plans.” In late June, the theater announced four main stage shows. Ybarra said that she trusts the associated artists to meet the moment, even if they have to meet it online.

To absorb a few dozen of these announcements — hopeful ones, panicked ones — is also to wonder why we need seasons at all. After all, theater isn’t as star-driven as opera, say, where sought-after performers must be booked years in advance. And programming only a few shows at a time would leave theaters more nimble and better able to respond, in real time, to the world beyond the lobby.

But theaters define themselves not by any individual show, but by ampler bodies of work. And that is how they sell subscriptions, an essential funding component of many nonprofits. A considered season can showcase an institution’s diversity and abundance, encouraging conversation among included works.

Then again, many seasons feel less like a conversation and more like a list of ticked boxes — the musical, the holiday show, the celebrity-led revival. And for too many years, too many theaters have relegated playwrights of color and female playwrights to only a slot or two, biases that appear more stark when seen in the context of other programming.

When live performance returns, theaters will have work to do in thinking through what a season is and can be and how best to deliver its shows to a varied and hopefully vaccinated audience. That might mean several mini seasons or more formal hybridity or moving toward practices that make theaters more just, accessible and equitable.

“There’s no way forward that doesn’t include every assumption and every tradition and every status-quo practice being on the table,” Ybarra said. “The constraints of calendar years, fiscal years, traditional seasons, that does feel like it’s up for grabs, too.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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