Theater Commentary: Peering into the Post-Covid Future for the New Play Sector

By Patrick Gabridge

I’m curious to see what happens next. I’ll keep writing plays, but I might need to hone my skills as a handyman just in case this whole theater thing doesn’t pan out.

Dramatist Patrick Gabridge —  What happens to theater when all this ends? And, what happens to playwrights? Photo: Courtesy of the artist.

(I’m usually a very positive person, but I’ll warn you that what follows is not my usual glass-half-full view of the world. But there still might be a little water left in the glass when this is all over.)

It’s human nature to try to predict the future, and for playwrights the desire to understand the narrative structure of time is a key to our work. As a playwright, I spend a LOT of effort trying to understand how conversations and stories unfold, and as a producer/playwright I study how audiences react to every twist and turn in a play, every quip and sigh by an actor, even how long it takes until the seats at a venue start to feel uncomfortable.

So it’s no surprise that as a numbers geek and playwright, I obsess about stats associated with the COVID-19 pandemic and how this whole story is likely to play out. To make the whole prediction game more complicated, the pandemic is also likely to be accompanied by a deep economic recession, after the economy has ground to a halt due to necessary social distancing.

The state of semi-quarantine isn’t such a huge shift in daily routine for a writer already used to working from my home office, having phone meetings, and coping with extreme uncertainty about whether the work I write will ever be produced. However, thanks to starting my company, Plays in Place, I’ve been able to reduce some of that uncertainty, as I land contracts and commissions for new scripts and productions in partnership with museums and historic sites. (My non–Plays in Place work remains as uncertain as ever.)

Like everyone else, however, I’ve had cancellations and postponements of productions of my work, and I’m scrambling to adjust the four very different Plays in Place projects scheduled for 2020–some are happening, just with different timing. Others remain up in the air. It’s hard for a museum to commit tens of thousands of dollars to a production, when we don’t know if people will be allowed or willing to assemble, shoulder to shoulder, in confined quarters.

Sooner or later, this pandemic will come to an end. Either we’ll find a vaccine, or else most people will become infected and either survive and gain immunity, or else die. Without a smart response by the leaders in government, we can expect to endure significant suffering. I’m not convinced that the people in charge are as smart as we need them to be, but we’ll see. They haven’t exactly showered themselves in glory so far.

What happens to theater when all this ends?  And, what happens to playwrights?

I don’t have a crystal ball, and I can’t speak for all sectors of the art form. I don’t know much about Broadway, but this article from Mark Harris offers some smart thoughts about it. Broadway and Off Broadway have an oversized impact on the rest of the theatrical ecosystem, with their shows filtering down into regional theaters. The Dramatists Guild is a nationwide organization that supports thousands of playwrights across the country, but a significant portion of their budget comes from percentages off of commercially successful shows in New York. Shortfalls in New York will indirectly impact playwrights everywhere.

Don Aucoin of the Boston Globe wrote an insightful piece about the Boston Theater scene and possible pandemic fallout just a few days ago, and it’s worth a read.

There are a multitude of factors that will impact the new play sector, in New England and beyond, but the biggest is how long the shutdown will last. I pore over the stats every day, trying to ascertain the likely timeline. At the moment, we’re starting to see leveling off of new cases in NYC, and a shift of the curve in Massachusetts. Nationwide, that’s making it seem like we’ve flattened the curve somewhat successfully, but I suspect that the states that were slow to put social distancing and quarantines into place will see a delayed upsurge in cases, and we’ll see a bloom of infections in the South and Midwest, within the next two weeks. (Alabama will lag New York, just as New York lagged Italy.) If that happens, it will slow the relaxation of social distancing elsewhere, because authorities will get nervous.

For safe relaxation of the shutdown, we need three things: availability of widespread and fast testing (and accurate, centralized reporting), active and strong quarantine of new cases, and fast and accurate contact tracing. Without those three things, relaxing social distancing rules will likely lead to a resurgence of the virus in a second wave. Some people will have gained immunity already, but a large portion of the community will still be susceptible, and this time the virus will literally be everywhere (as opposed to when this started, and it was only in a few hot spots).

Once the shutdown is eventually lifted, we’ll have to revive the economy. We’re in an unusual situation, because this shuttering of the economy was an intentional action, so in theory, we can restart it again (if it doesn’t take too long for that to happen), fairly quickly. No one really knows if that’s true, but we’ll find out.

In the theater sector, however, we have a couple of additional challenges. The economic damage to individuals already living on the edge financially is likely to be severe. At the small-theater level, where much of my work reaches the stage, many of the performers and other collaborators barely survive via a combination of gig economy jobs. Those jobs have all dried up. Many have student loans and pay high rents. To recover financially, they might now need to ramp up their focus on making money and have less time for acting/designing/directing. Will we see a significant loss of our talent pool to other professions?

At the mid-size-theater level, I expect we’ll see some companies fold entirely. Especially companies who held any debt–the loss of revenue for three to nine months will be too much to bear. Companies at this level who do survive are likely to see pressure to shift their programming to material they feel is more financially reliable–so well-established titles or else newer work by well-known writers. I’d expect to see lots of Lauren Gunderson plays on stage (and other similarly high-profile writers), because her work has such a strong track record. I fear that much of the racial and gender diversity that we’ve seen growing on stage (maybe not as fast as we would have liked) will now slow significantly, as seasons become more conservative.

Large theaters will face the same challenges. I’d expect to see layoffs at the large theaters, the impact of which will ripple downward, because often the people working admin and staff jobs at LORT (League of Regional Theaters) companies are the same people who run smaller fringe companies. I expect to see programming of new work also tighten up a lot at big companies over the next few years. Smaller shows, more well-known titles. The seasons right after the restart are likely to look about the same, as many shows were merely postponed, and it’s easier to stick with the artistic decisions that were already made. But watch to see what’s programmed in 2021-2022 and beyond.

All of which is bad news for playwrights (like me) who don’t already have a strong national presence. Paid gigs will be a lot harder to come by. Theaters are an oddly conservative bunch, when it comes to programming. If the stock market cratering continues, they’re going to have a much harder time with fundraising because philanthropy will dry up, or else it might shift to poverty relief programs if the recession drifts into a depression.

For playwrights looking for paid, professional productions of their new work, opportunities are going to become far fewer, and the competition stiffer, as playwrights continue to write new work (and MFA playwrights keep graduating), and writers who were semi-famous are now forced to compete for crumbs with those of us who aren’t even close. Theater productions are going to return — and every show needs actors, directors, designers, ushers — but a resurgence can easily leave out emerging playwrights.

I expect to see a steady amount of new play development–places like the O’Neill, Seven Devils, Great Plains, New Harmony, Play Penn, have a good shot at continuing their work, if they can weather the financial storm. Larger companies will still have a desire to have their hand in the new plays world, so might shift that energy to continuing or expanding play reading and development programs.

Sign on a closed theater in Chicago. Photo: Tim Mossholder/Unsplash

Where we might see a boost is at the small theater/fringe level. We’ll lose some small companies, because the skeleton crew that staffs them will need to get other jobs or relocate to cheaper locations, but the urge to create is strong. Once we become comfortable gathering in public groups again, people will have a strong urge for the connective power of theater. And there will be a LOT to say. In many expensive cities, we’ll see many small storefront businesses driven out of business. Theater folks are an opportunistic bunch, and if we see a sudden opening up of space and lowering of rent in nontraditional spaces, we could see a resurgence of small, innovative, new-work-focused companies. That’s perhaps the most optimistic/hopeful part of this whole situation.

I think we’ll also see a steady presence of short play festivals at small companies, and perhaps at larger venues, too. Barrington Stage, Phoenix Theatre in Indianapolis, and City Theatre in Miami have seen strong audiences over the years for their festivals. Cast size can be flexible, design costs are often low, and it’s the chance to work with a bunch of playwrights at a lower risk. At the fringe/community theater level, short play festivals are often their best moneymakers of the season.

My own work is highly linked with the fortunes of the museum world, but they’re facing the same problems as everyone in the “gathering economy” (museums, concerts, dance, theater, sporting events) of no revenue for months and challenges in fundraising. My niche is small but might be deemed as extraneous by some of the clients I’d hope to bring in as partners. We’ll see. I’m fighting to keep it going. So many people are working to help struggling artists in our community. The best way I can help is to try to make sure our projects get committed funding, so I can pay artists to make their art.

For Equity actors, this all becomes a very challenging situation–smaller casts and fewer shows means fewer jobs and recent changes to Equity eligibility enables people to join with fewer points. Competition for union acting jobs will grow fiercer. One big question is whether this might push Equity actors in cities outside of NYC to demand the creation of Showcase contracts that would allow smaller companies in Boston, Minneapolis, Seattle, Atlanta, to hire Equity actors at reduced rates, for limited runs, at small venues. It would allow actors to keep their skills sharp, while waiting for larger venues to return to normal casting levels.

I so appreciate the creative, powerful, supportive energy of our theater community over the past weeks of this crisis. I’m confident we’ll see more of it, and theater folks are great at finding ways to create and express themselves. But it’s also important to go into the coming years with eyes wide open to the challenges likely to face people writing new plays. Maybe we’ll find some solutions that will fund and encourage more professional production of new plays. (One can hope.)

On the flipside, my glass-three-quarters-full thought is this — it is possible for this catastrophe to lead to a serious political change, one that will bring about universal health care, student debt relief, and a lessening of income and wealth inequality. Any of those changes would be very much to the benefit of the theater business (especially universal health care). If those changes occur over the next five years, I think you’d see a thriving artistic scene that would surprise everyone.

I’m curious to see what happens next. I’ll keep writing plays, but I might need to hone my skills as a handyman just in case this whole theater thing doesn’t pan out.

Patrick Gabridge’s plays include Mox Nox, Lab Rats, The Mount Auburn Plays, and Blood on the Snow. He was the artist-in-residence at Mt. Auburn Cemetery in 2018-2019 and runs Plays in Place, a company specializing in site-specific plays in partnership with museums and historic sites. He started The Playwright Submission Binge and the New England New Play Alliance and is the Dramatists Guild Regional Rep for Eastern New England. He is a past board member of StageSource and the Theater Community Benevolent Fund. and


  1. Bill Marx on April 12, 2020 at 12:57 pm

    Many wise observations here. I would add that I am optimistic that, in terms of programming, the post-COVID period offers exciting opportunities for more new plays, stimulating an appetite for scripts that will be less conservative and more “radical.”

    There will no doubt be an enormous attempt, via marketing and reassurances from the powerful (the big theaters, mainstream critics, universities, corporations, political parties, Right and Left), that the COVID period was just an intermission — let’s return, with relief and joy, to business as usual. There will be an attempt to hitch a ride on the Trump time machine, a way-back to February, the good old days when nothing was all that (supposedly) amiss.

    But that is not possible. Not everyone will accept that nothing happened, that no political or artistic change is demanded after the economic, moral, and racial revelations of COVID. That the Recession/Depression should be ignored. That dissatisfaction might well mean that audiences will grow for edgy fringe and small companies who mount plays that resist (perhaps even attack) the urge go back to the old normal. Staid escapism — the worship of the domestic and the conventionally musical — will no longer satisfy, or at least the alternatives will appeal to those who don’t accept the official propaganda, especially young and vital audiences. That gives me hope — I would love to review those plays rather than a revival of 1776.

    Also, New York theaters (particularly Broadway) are in confusion, which means Boston theater companies will no longer have those crutches (or yardsticks) when it comes to programing their seasons. They will have to think on their own … something good and new might come out of that …

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