For a solid year, the ghost light on the stage of the Goodman Theatre has shone in lonely silence on a classroom at the Aburi Girls’ Secondary School, the set for Jocelyn Bioh’s “School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play,” nipped in the bud last spring.
“Just a wonderful play,” said Robert Falls, the artistic director of the Goodman. “We were in previews, and the audience was loving it. We were three days from opening.”
I called Falls because I was wondering, with vaccine being pumped into arms and hope of a returned world flickering, how the Chicago theater community might incorporate the past year. He’s the guy who put on Henrik Ibsen’s “Enemy of the People” right after Donald Trump’s election, so if anyone would be folding the COVID nightmare into his theatrical batter, it would be Bob Falls. But how?
“A lot of theaters our size, they’re in a complete tizzy about how to open their seasons from scratch, having to choose a play,” he said. At the Goodman, they’ll dust off the set, get the actors back and pick up where they left off ... We can have this production up by summer.”
That’s one approach.
“You’ve got theaters across the country in mid-production, theaters that literally have a ghost light sitting on the stage,” said Michael Weber, at Porchlight Music Theatre. “They’re going to start up right where they were. Others, like us, have decided to shelve the season that we planned, and we’re rethinking an entirely new season, assuming we can get back. We’re hoping for the fall.”
A “ghost light,” by the way, is the single bulb kept burning on a stage in a darkened theater, to keep people from blundering into the orchestra pit. In plague-darkened 2020, it’s become somewhat symbolic, the spark of life in the heart of a comatose patient.
That said, the theater is always a mix of the artistic and the practical.
“For us, we do music theater. Musicals tend to be large in scale, large in expense,” Weber said. “We’ll probably think of smaller projects a little more economically feasible with such a big unknown: where the audience will be, how ready will people be to come back into a room with strangers and spend two hours sitting next to them.”
So you’d rather fail with “The Fantasticks” (tiny cast, no set to speak of) I said, than with “The Music Man”?
“Yes, there’s a bit of that,” Weber admitted. But something else is going on.
“We are having a moment of great reckoning,” he said. COVID was only one jolt theater companies felt in 2020.
“I’m looking at the future in two ways: some narratives to process what we’ve been through without hitting it on the nose,” said Michael Halberstam, artistic director at the Writers Theatre in Glencoe. “And every institution worth anything is also looking through a lens of social justice.”
In theater, like everywhere else, the racial disparities exacerbated by COVID have loomed large. They’re struggling to react to the George Floyd killing in May, followed by the BIPOC — for “Black, Indigenous and People of Color” — statement of June, demanding a sea change in American theater from hiring practices to what plays get produced.
“The most influential BIPOC artists are asking for a reckoning,” Halberstam said. “There’s a chasm between the composition of the country and the kind of tokenizing that many of us were doing prior to really waking up and recognizing much of the work that needs to be accomplished ... a more equitable distribution of narratives.”
Doesn’t that put him in a bind, trying to appeal to largely white audiences in Glencoe?
“What I have found at Writers Theatre is, our audiences are very excited to experience narratives outside of their own demographic,” Halberstam said. “One of the reasons we go to the theater, experience empathic connections, to stories we might not necessarily come in contact with on a regular basis. I cannot think of a more important narrative when we are bifurcated by systemic racism, for art to be creating vehicles to bridge that gap.”
Aeschylus, the great Greek playwright, said: “We suffer into knowledge,” and looking ahead in Chicago theater, that is the hope.
“We’re not out of the woods yet,” Falls said. “There’s still a great deal to mourn, deep tragedy and loss. I think that’s a process. That takes healing, What I’ve always felt is, the theater is a place for healing, a place for reflection, a place to come together for community. The Greeks knew that. Shakespeare knew that. There’s going to be room for joy, laughter, tears, pain, examination, anger.”
It might take a while.
“During the Vietnam War, there was not a great number of plays addressing Vietnam,” he said. “Those great plays came afterward. During the AIDS crisis, it took a while for great plays, plays of anger, plays of despair.”
So the plays we need to see now haven’t been written yet?
“I can tell you there are going to be a lot of lousy COVID plays: my boyfriend and I stuck in isolation in the Hamptons for a year,” Falls said. “Also plays have the depth of Camus looking at the plague, plays have the depth trying to analyze what happened. I have this great optimism of art emerging out of this.
“The cliche is that Shakespeare wrote ‘King Lear’ during one of the plague shutdowns of the theater in London,” he said. “I’m sure he didn’t know ‘King Lear’ was ‘King Lear.’ He had to write a play and had to get it up and get money coming into the theater and get employment for actors.
“We don’t know what kind of ‘King Lear’ comes out of this time. The social justice movement is transformative and certainly has shaken the theater to its core. That is part of the possibility of a golden age of playwriting — new voices, voices that haven’t been heard. We are going to see that. That’s what’s literally happening right now.”