Why Covid-19 won’t destroy theater in the long run, but will in fact help people realize how much, despite what technology has lulled us into thinking, the need to be in groups is an absolute necessity to feel fully human.
Optimism comes about as naturally to me as, say, an appreciation of Post-Structuralist criticism comes to the average pod of orcas. Nonetheless, I’m an ardent aspirant to a positive worldview. Science seems to have proven it generally has a positive effect on the optimist and those around them alike, and I do believe that can build a kind of momentum.
There’s a lot of fear in the theater community about when/if theater can survive this pandemic. The gist of the argument is this: why would people be willing to congregate in large numbers again, given the fear of of Coronavirus? The answer is: I have no idea.
I also have no idea why scores of people congregated tightly in city parks this weekend, sans masks, in direct violation of the quarantine protocol. Which, by the way, I think is a terrible idea, as is the evidence that crackdowns on such gatherings seemed to happen only to communities of color. None of this is good, just, or wise.
Such behavior suggest to me Mother Nature has driven home the message rather forcefully to most of us: we need each other. We need to see each other in the same spaces and to feel each other’s presence.
Surely, this is the whole point of theater. Sure, movies are better at car chases, but for the sheer experience of sharing an emotionally gripping experience communally, nothing touches the theater. I’d urge playmakers to create plays that emphasize that need now more than ever, in whatever way we can. The emergence of Zoom Theater speaks forcefully to how deep that basic human itch is, while at the same time proving that the itch can’t be fully scratched through a computer screen.
My Theory: Past A Certain Point, Things Designed To Free Up Our Lives Make Us Lonelier.
Most of us have seen or heard of those shows where a group of people have to live life like they did in the 1850’s or 1910’s, and the take inevitably is how incredibly laborious and grinding daily existence was compared to now. I do believe technology has improved our lives, but only the way that money does. If you live in poverty, improving your income will tangibly improve your happiness. But only to a point. Most studies suggest that in, America, the difference in happiness between earning $50 K and $100 K is tangible. But between $100 K and $200K? Not so much. It pretty much levels off. And that’s where I think we’re at with technology.
For a few decades now, we’ve embraced technology that more and more, requires less and less human contact. And I’m not even talking about the empty and sometimes toxic calories of “social contact” on social media. “Alexa” caters to most of our whims without the messy inconvenience of human contact. When I was a teenager and wanted to buy music for my Victrola, I had to go to a record store, interact with at least one clerk (who usually made it clear I didn’t really “get” music like they did), wait on line with other customers, etc. Now, Alexa will give me literally any music I can think of just by asking.
For some people, that may sound like paradise, and the old fashioned way seem like a chore, but study after study confirms that we need regular social interaction, even with – sometimes especially with – strangers, to have improved mental health and stave off loneliness and depression. Twice as many people today self-report as “lonely” as they did in the 1980’s. That’s staggeringly sad.
Seriously, I Think This Is Where We Come In
Theater, I believe needs to actively embrace our communal aspects in the in the months ahead. We must make a conscious choice to forge ahead with work that demands collective experience. Because, when we emerge from this ungodly massive psychology experiment we’re all now living in, we’ll be hungrier for it than ever. It will be, in its way, a massive opportunity to assert Theater’s necessity. Let’s go do it.