Has COVID-19 Killed Live Theatre?

The coronavirus has severely impacted many industries. Virtually, every non-essential business has been closed weeks. The airlines and big enterprises will likely be bailed out, and people much to their discomfort will again take trains, subways, buses, and taxis to move about when we begin to go back to work, albeit donned with gloves, masks, maybe even gowns. Hand sanitizers will be attached to everyone’s backpack or key chain as the workers return, and the economy fights back to health. Sadly, many small businesses, especially the ones that were struggling before the virus, may never reopen. Even a low or no-interest loan from the federal government won’t help them. It will take many months for those forced into unemployment to find work. 

As an entertainer, who works in front of live audiences, I wonder if live theatre will ever bounce back. Will anyone ever pay to see a revival of their favorite musical, the newest avant-garde play, a concert, or a magic show until everyone feels safe sitting in a crowded theatre fighting for the armrest with the person squashed into the seat next to them?  Or instead, will they continue to shelter in place at home on Friday and Saturday nights resolved to watch another old sitcom or made for TV movie? Except for pop concerts, it’s the older crowd, those most susceptible to the worst complications of the virus, that attend live theatre. Will anyone enjoy Hamlet, Hamilton, or a modern-day Houdini if the person in the row behind them coughs, sneezes, or even clears his throat until they are 100% sure that herd immunity or vaccination is protecting them from COVID-19?

Charlotte M. Canning writes in American Theatre, that in 1918 during the Spanish flu pandemic, “Theatres were so important that people did not lightly forgo attendance. Their closure remained a great public frustration, even as people were dying.” She writes that “The Seattle Daily Times observed on Oct. 6 that ‘Theatre Patrons Find Doors Shut, City’s Influenza Prevention Edict Results in Thousands of Disappointments.’ Even when people knew in advance, the closures were imminent, and that deaths were surging, they didn’t relinquish theatergoing easily.

According to Canning, “And then it all seemed to end as quickly as it had begun. And as life resumed, people seemed to forget just how horrific it had been.” Theatre attendance rebounded.

But in 1918, there was no TV, no HBO, Netflix, Hulu, Prime, YouTube, Facebook. Heck radio didn’t become a popular form of entertainment until the 1920s. Back then, if you wanted any form of entertainment other than a good book, it was in a theatre with a bunch of other people watching a silent movie or some form of live entertainment. But that is no more. Times have changed, and shows are streamed right into the living room. There is no need to travel on a crowded train to the city center, sit in a cramped seat next to a large gentleman manspreading. That leads me to believe that live theatre will not climb out of the hole for at least a year, maybe much longer. 

Performers like me who entertain at private parties may get back to work sooner because the groups are smaller, and the affairs we perform at are often family gatherings. More than likely, relatives will be getting together as soon as the number of infections and deaths reported in the news subsides. Corporate parties however, will likely be on hold much longer. Instead of a holiday party or loyalty event, companies will find other ways to thank customers and employees and new ways to get new clients in an effort to avoid the potential of lawsuits that could result if a guest gets infected. So, recovery won’t be like a light switch was turned on.

We magicians will likely face added challenges that will require significant adjustments. Much of the magic we perform is interactive and involves contact with a stranger. Whether it is close-up where spectators are often asked to pick a card or on stage where spectators are invited to the stage to assist, it will be harder to find volunteers from the audience who are not concerned contact will present some level of danger. At one of his Monday night virtual gatherings, Jeff McBride said, “For a while, magic will be no-touch. Then it will be low-touch before it’s back to normal.” That is back to the way it was before the pandemic. He didn’t offer a timeline.

Pick a card. Any card. Hand reaching for a playing card. Horizontal.

What do you think? When will you return to the theatre? When will you be ready to sit elbow to elbow with some stranger from the suburbs in the concert hall? When will you feel comfortable picking a card? 

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