Theater Commentary: Notes Toward a Definition of Theater, Part One — “Be Bold and Wild”

By Bill Marx

As we grapple with building the brave new world of live theater in a Covid and post-Covid world, a few stray thoughts.

A glimpse of 6 Feet Apart, All Together. Photo: Bill Marx

Three weeks ago I experienced an afternoon of live theater. It was a heartening spectacle, an act of gratitude for community support as well as a moving, at times beautiful, gesture of artistic resilience. Double Edge Theatre’s 6 Feet Apart, All Together was staged in various picturesque spots throughout the company’s expansive farm acreage in Ashfield, MA. (The run ended on August 9.)

It was on a hot Saturday afternoon (hats and umbrellas were a must); spectators were broken up into three groups of 10 whose members were required to be masked and maintain social distance from each other throughout the show. Each squad was guided by company members to different scenes, an eclectic (to say the least) lineup selected from past Double Edge Theatre productions, including snippets from Homer’s Odyssey, Cervantes’s Don Quixote, and Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet, among others. (Overall direction, Scenario, and Overall Farm Design by Stacy Klein. Music Direction and Adaptation by John Peitso. Original Writing & Text adaptation by Matthew Glassman. Additional Adaptation by Jennifer Johnson.)

The production was a sort of “greatest hits” compendium, though, understandably, nothing was staged in the complex’s indoor barn. Interestingly, the dramatic material chosen did not focus on surviving catastrophe (though the excerpt from the Odyssey fit that bill). The show’s vision celebrated the power of transformation and the salve of the imagination. There was plenty of live music, puppets large and small, live animals, and lots thespian hither-ing and yon-ing across hill and dale, scampering across the tops of roofs, and sailing across a pond. Double Edge’s aesthetic mix was its usual amalgamation of the magical and the manic, the sublime and the silly. At one point, Jennifer Johnson was upstaged by a relaxed goat — ostensibly on his way to be sacrificed — who decided to take a dump.

Frankly, just escaping the claustrophobic perimeters of Zoom for the world of flesh and blood in a splendid natural setting was exhilarating. The most affecting scene, for me, was a fascinating preview glimpse of a new production of Euripides’s Bacchae, to mark Double Edge’s 40th anniversary. The company’s first production, staged in Boston, was a contemporary adaptation of the Greek tragedy, which I reviewed for WBUR. I wasn’t happy with that staging; this one, with its cadre of women wailing in Bulgarian, looked enormously promising. I look forward to reviewing it — as a live production. Perhaps other companies in the area might take a cue from Double Edge’s success  here– at least until the cold weather comes in. Head out to a local park or field, follow CDC rules, and let actors do their thing without microphones and elaborate sets. Perhaps it is time to go back to the elemental, to leave the machinations of show-biz behind. The Greeks beckon — and remember, actors performed in those shows in masks.

“I’ll start thinking outside of the box when the box is empty.”

Lots of talk about change in Boston theater, but will it be more than window dressing? I am not sure. In the past I have argued that when the going gets tough, the tough get marketing. I see signs that local arts organizations think that spiffing up their brand will be enough to weather this storm.

On the one hand, there are signs that some sort of transformation may be on its way. A recent partnership between The Front Porch Arts Collective (a Black theater company committed to advancing racial equity in Boston through theater) and the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company (CSC) resulted in “the piloting of Co-Lab, an online training program focused on and taught by artists of color, linking the heightened language of William Shakespeare, August Wilson, and other contemporary writers of color.” The third edition of SpeakEasy Stage Company’s virtual free Play Discussion Group series “Celebrating the Black Narrative” just ended.

But are those well-meaning efforts, and others, going to lead to genuine change? That means more than ditching the Broadway-friendly shows our theater companies have been programing with Pavlovian regularity. I have already argued that our stage companies — if they wanted to prove their sincerity about claims they will be taking on diverse/edgy work — should junk their announced seasons. But that is only the beginning: the makeup of those who run our stage companies, the big shots who call the shots, should be shaken up, with particular attention to finding people who are concerned with how theaters interact with Boston’s diverse communities and its schools. (If theater is going to thrive in the years to come, it must find leaders who will fight not only for funding for their organizations, but for arts education in the schools). As Michael Paulson notes in a recent New York Times piece, genuine change calls for removing complacent white power brokers: “The key to antiracism is sharing power,” William Carden of NYC’s Ensemble Studio Theatre is quoted as saying. “It takes a lot of work and a lot of humility, and it requires that white people step aside.” Are any high profile white people in theater stepping aside in Boston or elsewhere in New England? I haven’t heard of any — and I don’t expect it. That doesn’t mean housecleaning won’t come about — if those who care about the future of theater, particularly the young, demand it. Don’t expect our spineless stage critics, who should be calling for wholesale metamorphosis, to let out a peep.

Recently, Douglas McLennan wrote an interesting column in ArtsJournal about the existential danger to the arts. He was not concerned about the ravages of the virus or loud calls for diversity; it is the threat represented by many in the arts who are clinging to the past, somehow hoping that the return of normalcy will bring us back the good old days. “Many in the arts continue to be Restorationists,” he writes, “hoping to ride out the crisis until ‘things get back to normal.’ Even the Opportunists who recognize the need to reinvent or who sense the possibilities of new opportunity seem to be stuck for specifics or plans for achieving them.” He argues that a fatal lack of imagination is crippling the arts when it comes to five categories: Business Models, Technology, Equity, Institutions, and Leadership. Survival will mean envisioning — and then completing — radical changes that will be healthy in the long run.

Virtual Reality — Art’s Friend or foe?

There is a point McLennan made that I found particularly telling:

If you think of yourself as a product, a venue, a transaction, and everything shuts down, then you do too. If you’re an idea, you understand that now is an even more important time to find ways to lead. There’s nothing wrong with being a product, a venue, a transaction, but the arts have tried to make the case that they are more than that, that artists build community and are deserving of public investment. Now is the time to prove it.

Arthur Miller believed that tragedy “is when the chickens come home to roost.” For far too many years, Boston’s large theater companies have sought to garner corporate grants and government funding by characterizing themselves as generators of economic wealth, reducing themselves into “a product, a venue, a transaction.” With restaurants closing, food banks overwhelmed, and unemployment at record highs, arts organizations are no longer going to get away with defining themselves (via market forces) as capitalist engines of growth. There is going to be too much need and not enough resources to go around. Theaters will have to prove they are necessary. And that is not only because, as McLennan would have it, they are there to build community (which our privileged stages have obviously failed at) or nurture material for Broadway or give tourists a comfortable night out. They should be producing provocative dramas that speak to society about issues of collective concern; they should agitate for social, racial, and economic justice. (The puerility of Boston theater programming is no doubt linked with the need to curry favor from big banks, grant organizations, and the state.) Our productions must supply the kind of spiritual nourishment that only truth and beauty — not Broadway boffo — can provide.

But the Restorationists are hanging onto the delusion that nothing need be done. Just wait until people feel it is safe to come back and spend their entertainment dollars.  The mainstream figures all it really has to do is hunker down and wait; the customers are flush with cash and enthusiasm. I was afraid this nostalgia, wary of stage work that seriously reflected on class and race issues, would take center stage. Now the establishment has found blessed reassurance via the Audience Outlook Monitor, which surveyed more than 3,000 Boston-area arts goers from 16 Boston cultural organizations in June 2020. The poll was conducted by the international arts consulting firm WolfBrown and was sponsored locally by the nonprofit arts marketing and advocacy group Arts Boston and the City of Boston Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture. You can find out more about the AOM results here.

The bottom line is that “overall, 91% of respondents said they were ‘very’ or ‘somewhat eager’ to return to local performances and events. Despite that enthusiasm though, 89% indicated they would pursue cultural events again only when epidemiological conditions improved, including availability of vaccinations, broad testing and treatments, and a reduction to near zero in new infection rates.” There is even more positive news, claims ArtsBoston, “because eighty-nine percent (89%) of respondents indicated they planned to spend as much money or more on subscriptions, tickets, memberships, and admissions, with the average respondent saying their spending would remain at 99% of previous levels. Similarly, future philanthropic giving appears bright: 96% of patrons indicated they will maintain similar or larger donations to organizations they previously supported.”

“We have a long way to go before Boston arts enthusiasts are ready to return to theaters and indoor performances,” says ArtsBoston Executive Director Catherine Peterson. “But as this survey tells us, when they are ready, they’ll come back with gusto, enthusiasm, and at levels of engagement and support at least as good — or better — than before the pandemic.” What planet is Peterson on? Who are these people with cash at the ready? Are they members of our dominant stock-owning class? No one can say with confidence what the state of the economy will be in the coming months: the country could be headed for a major recession, even a depression. The economic plight of many of our fellow citizens is already dire — won’t it make a difference to philanthropic giving if the situation becomes even worse? Are those who love the arts comfortable with a rising tide of homelessness and hunger? And do the AOM respondents believe that they will be paying for the same product when they return to the theaters: the same shows? The same homogenized crowds? How do they know what will be on view post-pandemic? There may be surprises…

We should be deeply skeptical of Trumpian fantasies of business-as-usual on the horizon. There is evidence that the pandemic, when it comes to attending live entertainment events, is changing consumer habits. The lockdown is strengthening two old choke holds on live theater’s existence — convenience and price point. There are a number of articles (with polling data) arguing that arts consumers, particularly among the debt-ridden younger generation, are increasingly comfortable with staying at home and watching music, theater, dance, and the like on screens large and small. And they can see what they want when they want, at a fraction of the price it would take to pay for dinner, a sitter, parking, etc. Is everybody going to be rushing back? Dream on. Beware the delusions of the Restorationists.

Theater is tourism; theater is consumerism; theater is capitalism. Theater is non-essential, because theater stopped being a public forum long ago. It is neither public nor a forum. Yet the online world is public and a forum …

Online theater is no death knell for theater, but a prelude to our future.

— Wang Chong, Online Theater Manifesto

“Opportunists” is McLennan’s unfortunate name for those trying but failing to chart a future course for the arts. Frankly, we have had more than enough of those, operating the American Repertory Theater, the Huntington Theatre Company, and other arts institutions. That business-savvy sensibility is part of the problem — it reduces theater to “a product, a venue, a transaction.” As Wang Chong, artistic director of Théâtre du Rêve Expérimental, argues in his cheeky manifesto — from which I quote above —  theater has become a product. Reading Chong’s iconclastic words, and then listening to him and Arlekin Players artistic director Igor Golyak talk about creating high grade virtual theater — via a recent HowlRound TV conversation, which is posted below —  was enormously refreshing.

The pair see artistic possibility in our predicament, and their determination to move forward, rather than cling to the past, generates an excitement that’s been missing so far in discussions of where we go from here, certainly in Boston’s tepid arts media. For arts lovers searching for inspiration  — for something other than their bank accounts — the exchange is well worth listening to. And not only because it makes a case for virtual theater as a format uniquely capable of illuminating our current plight — Chong mounted a Zoom production of Waiting for Godot … in Wuhan! — but because it reflects the determination of young theater artists to speak to the here and now. And to have the stage stop patronizing audiences, but to make them an active part of an experience that is designed to challenge rather than placate. I laughed when I heard Golyak say his theater’s next project would be Heiner Müller‘s Hamlet-machine, which I saw produced at NYU in a 1986 production directed by Robert Wilson. Tourists and consumers beware!  The show will require a trigger warning for ArtsBoston patrons!

There is life aplenty to come for theater — online and off — but only if stage practitioners, in the words of Chong, dare to “be bold and wild.” If not, we may well be stuck in the 21st-century version of the Restoration.

Bill Marx is the Editor-in-chief of the Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and the Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created the Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.


  1. […] We should be deeply skeptical of Trumpian fantasies of business-as-usual on the horizon. There is evidence that the pandemic, when it comes to attending live entertainment events, is changing consumer habits. The lockdown is strengthening two old choke holds on live theater’s existence — convenience and price point. – ArtsFuse […]

  2. Bill Marx on August 28, 2020 at 10:23 am

    A quick coda on the delusions of neoliberal theaters inspired by an email from Diane Paulus, artistic director of the American Repertory Theater, which receives funding from one of the richest universities in the world.

    A recent message from the A.R.T. told us about the company’s update of its “Healthy Buildings Program.” All very admirable and necessary, but there is a catch …

    The A.R.T. joined with the Healthy Buildings Program at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health to create this roadmap, which first launched on May 27. The “Second Edition” features extensive updates and additions to our Facilities and Administration sections, as well as a new section on five key Developments to Watch as scientists continue to learn more about the virus. More updates will be added in the coming months as we develop and test protocols for in-person work, rehearsals and performance.
    As we look to the future of the A.R.T., we see an opportunity to make an ongoing commitment to public health in our practice and our programming. We view this as a process that will guide our work for years to come. This journey will eventually include the creation of our new home in Allston — a breathable and healthy building that will provide a space for vital civic dialogue about the world we want to be. We know theaters around the world are working on the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic and are eager to discuss strategies and insights as our industry plots a path forward.

    How about a commitment to the existence of other theater companies? Or is it every stage for itself? That is not a fair fight: the A.R.T. received tons of money (a $100 million gift from Harvard University alumnus and hedge fund manager David E. Goel and his wife Stacey) for its upcoming new “breathable and healthy” building in Allston, which will no doubt be the future birthplace of profitable (for Paulus and backers) Broadway musicals, once the Great White Way has become “breathable and healthy.” Who will provide the considerable resources that will enable other, less fortunate (well-heeled) theater companies to work in healthy buildings? Nothing in the “roadmap” about that. As for government funding, the A.R.T. won’t miss out, don’t you worry: check out the “New Federal Tax Incentives for Your Support of the A.R.T.” page on the theater’s site.

    Buildings we can fix up to be “breathable and healthy.” The system — which rewards the rich and punishes the poor — doesn’t look so healthy to me.

  3. Thomas Garvey on September 14, 2020 at 10:18 am

    I think the technical issues are the biggest hurdle to online theatre – which of course can’t match live theatre in many ways, but does have its own surprising opportunities and dividends. Right now I’m involved in two online groups doing regular readings – only of course Zoom is a real roadblock. Its audio and video capabilities are just too crummy for the creation of any kind of sophisticated experience – and forget about the virtual backgrounds and backdrops. If some software whiz worked up an augmented “Theatre Zoom” product that could be made widely available, it could transform everything. (Of course that also means that politically correct gatekeepers might become irrelevant, but I consider that a plus.) The best thing a foundation could do for the theatre right now is commission a high-quality, flexible, low-cost online software platform.

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