Monday, February 14, 2022

Why I Haven’t Been Writing Theater Reviews


As I finally start to dip my toe back in the waters of reviewing theater again, I feel like I have to make some apologies.

Of course, when everything was shut down and there wasn’t live theater at all because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was pretty obvious why there weren’t reviews.  There wasn’t theater.

Some theater offerings moved online.  But a lot of it was archival replays or one-shot events - not exactly reviewing material either.

There was a fully online Minnesota Fringe Festival in 2020, and a largely online one in 2021.  I did a lot of reviews for the former, less for the latter (explanation below)

However, more recently there’s been some runs of both online and offline live, in-person theater; and now live theater seems determined to come back, pandemic be damned.

When the pandemic started I was laid off and later fired from my part-time, second job at the Guthrie Theater box office because, well, the Guthrie Theater was in mothballs for a year so… ninety percent of the staff got let go in all departments while a skeleton crew to maintain the building and the overall structure of the organization remained in place, mostly working remotely.  So I lost about a third of my income for over a year.

My full-time job, thankfully, remained active and was done remotely from my living for the last two years.  A much delayed return to office plan - pushed from August 2021 to October to January to March 2022 - seems to finally be on the verge of being executed, but it will still be a hybrid model, with everyone in the office on the same day of the week once a week, and then the individual departments deciding on another one to two days a week to be in as well. The rest of the time can be work from home.  (We have people with pre-existing conditions that make them vulnerable, and families with small children who as yet cannot be vaccinated, so we’re trying to take all that into account).

In the middle of July 2021, the Guthrie box office called to see if I’d be willing to come in and do some temp work for them processing season ticket subscription orders because - pandemic be damned - they had planned a season and subscribers were also determined to attend some live theater after being cooped up for two years.  Now, the Guthrie has a lot of board members from major businesses and they all have access to handy prognosticating models weighing benefits vs. risks so the Guthrie wasn’t just blindly jumping in.  They were feeling pretty confident that things (pre-Delta, pre-Omicron) were slowly coming around.  A fall return with special events followed by a shortened season of five shows starting January 2022 seemed like as good a guess as anyone could make.  Someone had to process all the ticket orders, hence the call for temp workers from the previous workforce.  This was going to be a week of work, then stretched over two weeks, and finally it ended up morphing into a full month of work, overlapping with the Minnesota Fringe Festival - at the same time that my one steady job was executing and/or canceling large events and I couldn’t really take full days of work off there either.  So my capacity for Fringe Festival review coverage got hacked down to little more than running Twitter commentary during the few hours I was able to squeeze in some shows around work.

The Guthrie then decided to staff up for real, so I interviewed for my old job and got it back.  We have, however, been shorthanded for the entirety of the fall and winter.  Hiring almost from scratch and training takes time.  One consequence of that is, rather than being able to schedule us a full month in advance like they used to so we have a chance to plan our lives, they’ve only been able to manage to schedule what staff we have week to week.  Which doesn’t allow for a lot of flexibility.  And given that my finances are still recovering from the pandemic, I’ve made myself a lot more available for hours in the box office (and thus away from other theater) than I have in the past.

(So I’ve managed to miss a lot of the online theater because, two jobs again, less time…)

Also, I think live, in-person theater right now is a really bad idea.

So, why are you at the Guthrie?  I need the paycheck.

Also, the Guthrie has the resources to have an in-house medical person on staff to advise them and do testing on the rest of the staff as needed.  All employees have to be fully vaxxed, and they encourage booster shots as well.  Everyone’s been siloed to their departments, there’s very little social crossover.  We wear masks for our entire shift.  Visitors to the building wear masks, including when they’re in the theater watching shows.  No one gets into plays anymore without providing proof of vaccination.  The restaurants and bars in the building didn’t survive the pandemic, it’ll be a while until there’s a new partner, so no food and drink service tempting people to remove masks.  Everyone in rehearsal is tested daily and everyone in the cast and production staff of each play gets a more thorough test once a week, just for extra safety.

And the audiences for the first two offerings - What The Constitution Means To Me, and A Christmas Carol - were SO HAPPY to be back in a theater again, out with family and friends, that they didn’t care about the masks and the ID and the vaccine cards.  Whatever they had to do, they were willing to do it.  (Were there exceptions, were their a**holes?  Sure.  But they were the teeny tiny minority.)

So I went from my pandemic bubble being me working from home and occasionally going out for groceries to me, everyone who comes to the Guthrie, and everyone they know.

This can make me feel like I’m more of a potential risk to others than they might be to me, after leaving my very populated work at the Guthrie for the day.

I spent my second Christmas without seeing my brother back east.  I haven’t visited my goddaughter and her family in a few years now.  I still haven’t been able to visit my mother’s grave since her headstone went in, January 2020.  My brother and his dog have seen it and sent pictures.

When I would review shows in the past, or work shows at the Guthrie, I would often get an extra comp ticket and invite a friend to come along with me, to see the show and talk about it after.

Now it feels like I’m asking, “Hey, you wanna risk your life and come see some theater with me?”

So reviewing shows feels like telling other people, “Everything’s fine!  Go see a show.  Sure, you’re kinda risking your life and the safety of others to do it but YOLO!”

I’m still really not sure live, in-person theater is a good idea.

I understand the instinct, both to create theater and to attend theater performances, believe me.

I’m a playwright.  I miss rehearsal rooms.  My writing group has been relegated to Jitsi for two years now.  Some people don’t come right now because they just can’t stand one more Zoom meeting outside of work hours, and I get that.

I’m trying to help launch a new queer theater company devoted to new plays (Threshold Theater, check ‘em out).  We’ve been doing an online series of play readings on our YouTube channel but are shifting in March to try having our first one live and in-person.  (The venue, of course, requires proof of vaccination and masks, so… that’s something.)

And yes, between the work for Guthrie and Threshold, the cognitive dissonance in my head is deafening.

When the pandemic started, a medical professional offered a useful benchmark for me to evaluate risk.  Back when we still didn’t have vaccines yet, and leaving the house was always a risk, this person said, “I’ve taped a picture of a nurse to my front door.  So every time I’m considering leaving the house, I look at the picture and ask myself, ‘is what I want to leave the house and do worth risking this other person’s life?’  If the answer’s no, I sit back down.”

Because it’s not just me, it’s not just the people I come into contact with, it’s the doctors and nurses and other hospital staff that have to deal, and have been dealing for over two years now, with being completely overwhelmed in terms of the capacity of their hospitals.  They’re exhausted, they’re burnt out, some of them quit, some of them died, some of them killed themselves because they couldn’t take the parade of horrors anymore.

And people who need regular hospital care can’t get it because the hospitals are full of COVID-19 patients instead.

The rolling seven day average of daily deaths right now is over 2,300.  That’s the average.  Sometimes it’s less but sometimes it’s a lot more (February 8th, over 3,4000 reported dead that day).

My mom died quite unexpectedly of a brain tumor in July 2019.  My dad died peacefully, of old age, in October 2019.  Thankfully pre-COVID, so we got to regularly visit each of them in the nursing home before they died, and we got to have a funeral for each of them after they died.  They were not isolated and alone, we were not isolated and alone.

So I don’t feel lucky.  I don’t feel like death can’t touch me and the people I care about.

My brother and I, the last remaining members of our immediate nuclear family, text one another every day and end each text with a smiley face emoji wearing a face mask and the words “Stay safe and be well, brother.” Because neither one of us can take the thought of the other one getting sick and dying right now.  We’re still recovering from the last two family deaths (and there have been more losses in the extended family since then).

American society’s blithe acceptance of the deaths of over 2,000 people every single day baffles me.  Other people knew and/or cared for every one of those 2,000-plus people.  The sheer volume of grief should have stopped this country in its tracks.  But nope, we just keep plugging away.  Collateral damage.

(Don’t get me started on the people that don’t believe it’s happening or don’t believe in vaccines or think a mask is a horrifying infringement on their freedoms.  I don’t have mental or emotional reserves for those morons anymore - which, as you might imagine, makes dealing with the general public in my customer service role a real acting challenge sometimes.)

And this is where I’m coming from with two years of grief therapy under my belt.  Imagine how much fun I’d be at parties and theater openings without therapy.

I can remember a time not long ago in discussions about theater, I would say “I’m really looking forward to the deaths getting down below a thousand a day.  Then maybe I can consider theater a worthwhile risk.”  And now instead it’s more than twice that number.  Honestly, I want it below a hundred a day.  I’d love it less than a dozen a day.  There were times at the beginning of the pandemic when those were the numbers.  Ancient history.  The deaths are coming down, week over week, a few hundred at a time.

But it’s still over 2,000 dead people a day, just in this country, forget the wider world where they don’t have ready access to vaccines yet.

There’s a voice regularly screaming in my head that theater right now is reckless and selfish and stupid, like a luxury we can ill afford.

And again, I get it.  Believe me.  What’s quality of life without art?

I love creating theater.  I love seeing theater.  I love talking and writing about theater.  I say all of the above and below with no joy in my heart.

Gathering groups of people indoors right now is a bad idea.

Encouraging people to gather indoors is a bad idea.

So yeah, I’ve had a hard time justifying seeing theater.  And I’ve had a hard time justifying reviewing theater and thus encouraging others to go gather indoors with friends and strangers.

That said, I did see a show on Friday.

And I’m gonna write about it.

And I didn’t want their review to get crushed under the weight of all this.  So I put it in a separate blog post instead.

Why this show and not any one of a dozen other shows I’ve been invited to in recent months?

Part of it is timing - I just happened to get the ask in a time frame where I could manage to carve out an evening off to do it from the schedule of the second job.  (The omicron variant breaking out among cast and crew caused the Guthrie to postpone the run of A Raisin In The Sun until later this spring, so we’ve had an unexpectedly long dark period since they had to also cancel the last three performances of A Christmas Carol back at the end of December, also due to the omicron variant breaking out among cast and crew.  They’re still doing trainings on weeknights and there’s also weekend hours in the box office, so my schedule hasn’t been totally free, for which my bank account balance is thankful.)

Part of it is the people involved.  Friends whose work I admire (though I feel that way about countless theater companies and artists in this town).

Part of it is that it’s a new play showcase put on by a small theater company.

Proof of vaccination and mask required.

Large venue, with smaller, easily socially distanced audience size.  (This may be the one period of live theater history in which we’re not upset to see fewer people in the audience, rather than preferring to pack them in shoulder to shoulder.)

So that’s my explanation and apology about the silence of this theater reviewing blog over the past two years.

Others have been more active - doing theater, seeing theater, and reviewing theater - and God bless them.  

These are the reasons I was not.

Not all of them rational.

Not all of them I’m happy about.

But it’s where I am right now as we start to try peeking out on the other side of all this.

Stay safe and be well, folks.



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