Theater has a history of adapting to major crises. It has outlasted empires, weathered wars, and survived plagues. The same way that theater has its way of reinventing itself when it first began competing with television and film, during recessions and economic depressions. But what we’re all facing now is a completely different intangible enemy.
As a live art form, the theater is particularly affected by the coronavirus, along with concerts and stand-up comedy performances. When will anyone want to be in a dark room full of strangers again? No one really knows.
Truth is, even when theaters reopen, social-distancing rules could hamper rehearsals, and force venues to sell fewer tickets, which means theater experience will be more expensive than usual. In an industry full of optimists, most believe theater will eventually bounce back, but there is talk about a generation of artists and audiences being lost.
“From Broadway to LA, theaters are dark and we don’t know when or if the lights are ever gonna come on again”, writer and director Cara Greene Epstein said in her TEDTalk episode. “That means that tens of thousands of theater artists are out of work. But while theaters may be dark, theater as an art form has the potential to shine a light at how we can process and use this time apart to build a brighter, more equitable, healthier future together.”
The entertainment industry keeps pace with technology yet the oldest art form humans have still exists. And even if there are many other art forms that can connect us to our emotions, what makes theater unique is how it reveals real stories on stage, like our own life unfolding right in front of us.
Arguably, this is the most unforeseeable time the theater community has ever seen. But it has to move forward, and for that to happen, a lot of things must change. Luckily, all great theater provides the opportunity for transformation. One possible thing to do is use this intermission to stop, breathe, observe, and use our imaginations to create a more beautiful world, one that is more just and reflective, both onstage and off.
The show must go on
Shrugging of COVID-19, Vietnam’s theaters and cinemas saw a good start to 2021. But it didn’t last long, as new cases of the virus, both local and imported, were reported in Ho Chi Minh City and other cities in the North.
The new wave of the pandemic made Ngoc Hung, the director of Gioi Tre theater, worried about the safety of his teammates and of course, its impact on the ticket sales.
The Gioi Tre theater, which has a capacity of 350 seats and stages two plays a day, sold out tickets several days before the premieres of new productions this year during the long New Year holiday, according to a report by VN Express. "It was not until the Tet holiday that I believed that theater was not forgotten by audiences,” Ngoc Hung said.
Idecaf, one of the top theaters in HCMC, also sold out tickets many days before the Tet holiday started. However, some other theater houses reported that they had to reduce the number of shows and needed to look for open spaces limiting the number of audiences to continue operating.
Ha Hoang Son, a member of Dragonfly Theater Vietnam, a professional English language theater in HCMC, said he owes the government big time. “Broadway and the West End have been closed down for over a year now. But here in Vietnam, the government has done a fantastic job at keeping the impact of the pandemic bearable and we were still able to operate fairly normal.”
Despite having to postpone some of their shows and rehearsals, Son and his cast members remain understanding and still grateful that they have been able to put on shows. In fact, Son is currently directing Saigon Player’s, a non-profit community theater, upcoming musical “Walking on Sunshine”. They had to take a momentary break when new cases emerged, but the cast returned with high spirits immediately after the lockdowns were lifted. They danced and sang their hearts out, belting notes and moving their hips to the rhythm of “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” inside their studio. The feel-good jukebox musical is coming this May.
When asked what the theater is going to look like when the pandemic is over, he said, “Stronger than ever. It has been an intense year, the pandemic being a rollercoaster of emotions. Live theatre is a wonderful opportunity for us to come together and work through our experiences in a safe environment. That’s what makes theater so powerful, its ability to heal us as well as entertain us.”
It’s true, the theater industry has overcome all adversities imaginable. And even when nobody knows when or how, it will survive this pandemic, too.