Category Archives: Commentary


(Alexandra Schwartz’s article appeared in The New Yorker, 9/14.  Photograph by Cole Barash for The New Yorker.) 

Ayad Akhtar’s autofictional novel cunningly entwines outrage and ambivalence.

The playwright and novelist Ayad Akhtar has never been afraid of provoking audiences. His latest work explores the origins of Trump’s toxicity, the tensions of Muslim identity, and the splintering of a family and a country.

Ayear after Donald Trump assumed office, Ayad Akhtar was at the American Academy in Rome, contemplating populism, the degradation of democracy, and ruinous civil strife. He had been mulling over the idea of a play about the brothers Gracchus, plebeian politicians in the century before Caesar whose defiance of the senatorial élite and championship of the poor led to an unhappy end. Akhtar wasn’t alone in consulting Roman history to gain perspective on the present. From his window, he could look out at the residence of the U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, Callista Gingrich, whose husband, Newt, was studying Augustus, rumor had it, for pointers on how to counsel a President who fancied himself an emperor.

Akhtar, who is forty-nine, is an obsessive autodidact, with a mind like a grappling hook for any subject that attracts his interest. There are many. As a kid growing up in the Milwaukee suburbs, he studied the Quran with a rigor that flummoxed his secular Pakistani parents. As a theatre major at Brown, he taught himself French, attaining enough fluency in a year to direct his own translations of Genet and Bernard-Marie Koltès. When he was in his twenties, working in New York as an assistant to the director Andre Gregory, he spent his free time analyzing the prosody of Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene” and poring over Freud, which led to a years-long study of Jung, then Lacan, then Winnicott. Although he lost his faith in his teens, religion of all kinds continues to fascinate him. “He’s the only American I know who has read Meister Eckhart,” the German writer Daniel Kehlmann, a good friend of Akhtar’s, told me, referring to the medieval Christian theologian and mystic.

Success arrived late, but Akhtar has made up for lost time. His first novel, “American Dervish,” about the coming of age of an innocent Pakistani-American boy, was published in January, 2012, when he was forty-one, the same month that his first play, “Disgraced,” about the unravelling of a jaded Pakistani-American lawyer, premièred, in Chicago. After a buzzy run at Lincoln Center, where tickets were scalped for fifteen hundred dollars apiece, “Disgraced” won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, then moved to a sold-out run in London, and to the Lyceum Theatre, on Broadway.

In short order, Akhtar had three more plays première, including “The Invisible Hand,” a thriller about an American hostage in Pakistan who, to pay his ransom, teaches his fundamentalist captors how to manipulate financial markets, and “Junk,” another Broadway hit, which transformed the dry subject of high-yield bonds in the nineteen-eighties into unexpectedly riveting drama. “Ayad’s particular brilliance is that he makes systems kinetic,” Josh Stern, a producer who is working with Akhtar to develop a television show, told me. “He’s able to take this huge, complicated infrastructure and distill it down to visceral character drama in a way that is unique.” As arcane as his intellectual tastes can be, Akhtar is determined to appeal to a broad public. “Proust meets Jerry Springer” is how he described his work to me when I met him, earlier this summer.

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(Jesse Green’s, Maya Phillips’s, Laura Collins-Hughes’s, Elisabeth Vincentelli’s and Alexis Soloski’s article appeared in The New York Times, Sept. 11, 2020; Photo: The New York Times; via Pam Green.)

Six months dark. Thousands of artists out of work. Could this disaster have a surprise ending? Five critics on what must change, onstage and off.

When New York City shut down on March 12, its theaters were preparing for a busy spring season: big names on Broadway, Tony Awards mania, millions of dollars in sales and of course a smattering of thoughtful, important plays on smaller stages.

That’s all gone.

A cause for grieving, yes: especially for the thousands of artists out of work. Playwrights awaiting their breakthroughs no less than producers awaiting their windfalls instantly faced a future that had literally gone dark.

But what if the end of the business-as-usual party were actually the start of a new dream of what theater could be in New York — and by extension in the rest of the country? It’s not as if the shotgun marriage of art and industry that for decades decided what and whom we see onstage had produced an equitable, or even a sensible, result.

Just the opposite, as the Black Lives Matter movement and cultural offshoots like We See You White American Theater have pointed out. The racist assumptions, lordly practices and bad compromises that have favored some voices and squelched others at every level of production amount to what Jamil Jude, artistic director of True Colors Theater Company in Atlanta, has called “a gross case of malpractice.”

And then there is the garden-variety malpractice of an industry perpetually at odds with itself. As the increased violence against Black Americans has laid bare the inequities of creative access, the collapse of the economy has forced us to notice just how badly organized the business part of show business has been.

Things clearly had to change — and with the enforced pause of the pandemic, the opportunity has now arrived in the nick of time. If ever there was a need, and a moment, to fix the theater, this is it.

So for the six-month anniversary of the shutdown, The New York Times asked its theater critics — as well as dozens of people who make theater every day — what those fixes might look like.

Some of their ideas are pie-in-the-sky. (Profit-sharing?) Some are small-bore. (No more couches onstage!) None taken alone, or even all together, will effect an immediate, magical change to full equity, inclusion and financial stability. And even the biggest, best innovations will be difficult to sell in an environment that lacks concerted vocal leadership from those in power. It may be up to artists themselves, working from the ground up, to make change happen.

But it’s worth noting that the American theater has remade itself during disaster before. The Depression led to a flourishing of socially conscious (and often government funded) drama that produced a golden age of playwriting. In the aftermath of World War II, the regional theater movement arose to make the art form more responsive to local audiences and less fixated on profit.

Likewise, in the six months since theaters went dark, we have already seen that theater can arise from the ashes of the world’s (and its own) failures. In some ways it has even thrived. Artists in their lockdown apartments, whether next door in New York or anywhere in the world, have been creating new work online and delivering it to anyone who wants to watch it. This new ecology of all-access production has reminded many of us that the human need to make and share stories, not just to sell them, is immortal.

Even so, especially at moments of great change, it needs to be midwifed. As the actor and playwright Nikkole Salter has said of this moment, “Ask women who have given natural birth: There is a time to breathe and a time to push.”

This is a time to push. And here are some ways to start. JESSE GREEN

Class, it’s time to review the syllabus. Shakespeare, Ibsen, Williams, Miller, Pinter: If the history books have taught us anything, it is that theater loves a singular image of brilliance — and that image is often of a white man.

To build a new theater, we need to break open this canon, making room for people of color to be studied in classrooms and thus, eventually, take their place on contemporary stages.

We have, and will surely see again, the plays of August Wilson and Lorraine Hansberry. We are well-acquainted with Suzan-Lori Parks and have just met Jeremy O. Harris. But to expect them to represent the whole history of Black theater is lazy and ignorant.

Embrace Hansberry and Wilson and Parks and Harris, but consider them in a long, rich and largely unknown historical context.

Three points on the timeline: In 1821, William Alexander Brown opened the African Theater, the first Black theater in New York City, and two years later his play “The Drama of King Shotaway” was presented there. It’s considered the first work by a Black playwright produced in this country.

In 1896, George Walker and Bert Williams were the first Black performers on Broadway in “The Gold Bug.”

In 1916, “Rachel,” by Angelina Weld Grimké, became the century’s first full-length play written by a Black playwright and acted and produced by Black people.

I knew of Grimké as a noted Harlem Renaissance poet, but not as a dramatist. Is that because her work was billed as a “race play” and derided as too political?

“Rachel” — about a bright young Black woman who becomes disillusioned with the injustice African-Americans encounter and decides she’ll never bring children into this unjust world — is worth revisiting now, for its lively dialogue, advanced sexual politics and stubborn portrayal of racism.

There are countless others ready for their close-up. New York theaters have recently presented work by Adrienne Kennedy, including a brand-new play, and the Roundabout Theater Company promises to stage “Trouble in Mind” by Alice Childress on Broadway when theaters open again.

I want to hear from May Miller and Ed BullinsLouis Peterson and Lonne Elder III and Eulalie Spence — playwrights of the Harlem Renaissance and Black Arts Movement, moments in American cultural history marked by pride in self-presentation. (Several of them I learned about only through research; I, too, need to expand my education.)

The Black Arts figures were central to the tradition of activist art from the 1960s and ’70s. Agitprop gets a bad rap, but it was a powerful tool of protest against the Vietnam War. So if radical times demand radical means of expression, why not revive the incendiary dramas of Amiri Baraka? Or look further back, to the political plays of the Harlem Renaissance poet Georgia Douglas Johnson, who wrote fiercely about lynching?

We need to look forward, too. Contemporary playwrights of color are plentiful in the pipeline, and they are getting commissions. But they need more than residencies and promises of consideration; they need productions.

Once Covid has left us, let’s see theaters deliver full seasons of work by people of color, and not just fill a slot. Let’s keep track of the commendable promise just made by Lincoln Center Theater — commissioning writers of color for shows aimed at its big, potentially lucrative Broadway house, not one of the smaller spaces.

“The Negro is already in the theater and has been there for a long time; but his presence there is not yet thoroughly normal,” W.E.B. DuBois wrote. “His audience is mainly a white audience and the Negro actor has, for a long time, been asked to entertain this more or less alien group.”

That was 1926. Things haven’t much changed for Black artists, nor for Latinx and Asian and Native American ones, and every other nonwhite group.

In this time of turbulence, we must rally for a theater that rises to the full force of the moment.

While we’re at it: Schedule more “Black out” nights — discounted performances exclusively for people of color, as Harris arranged for “Slave Play.” This will help make theater welcome, and accessible, to audiences that rarely get to see people like themselves onstage.

Theater Must Embrace Streaming to Grow Audiences

Experiments in lockdown have made live performance far more accessible, reaching new fans all over the world. There’s no going back. By Jesse Green

Streamed theater was supposed to be a tourniquet: an emergency measure to stop the industry from bleeding out while the pandemic made in-person performance impossible.

But something totally unexpected happened. Zoom playsInstagram monologuesYouTube shorts and other hybrids started blossoming on their own terms — and with a few huge advantages.

Those advantages are so important that they need to be part of the new normal. When live theater finally returns, the streamed kind, far from disappearing, must continue in parallel.

Fairness alone demands it. The low-cost, high-impact, huge-reach format allows artists who could barely get past the gatekeepers before to establish themselves on a nearly equal footing with long-ensconced figures.

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Adam Sullivan writes to say that last Saturday the 2021 International World Men’s Handball Championship Draw took place at the Giza Pyramids plateau, with Egyptian actor Khaled El Nabawy, famed Egyptian TV presenter Jasmin Taha Zaki, musician Omar Khairat, and the presence of a wide range of International Handball Federation officials, as well as representatives of teams participating in the championship.

The Minister of Youth and Sports, Ashraf Sobhi, praised Egypt’s organizational, technical and management capabilities, as well as its sports facilities, hotels, and international airports. He thanked President Abdel Fattah El Sisi for his directives to organize the prestigious championship.

The 2021 World Men’s Handball Championship will be held in Egypt from January 13 to 31, 2021.


(Nobuko Tanaka’s article appeared in The Japan Times, 9/11; photo of actor Shinichi Tsutsumi.)

Back in January, when English director Lindsay Posner visited Tokyo for preparatory meetings to stage the iconic courtroom drama “Twelve Angry Men” at Bunkamura Theatre Cocoon in Shibuya Ward, he was expecting to return in a few months to a city abuzz with excitement over the Summer Olympics.

Instead, the pandemic has put both the Games and international travel on hold — resulting in Posner having to log into Zoom in the early hours of his day to conduct rehearsals from his home in London with an all-Japanese cast eight hours ahead and more than 9,500 kilometers away.

Running Sept. 11 to Oct. 4, this production also marks the reopening of Theatre Cocoon following its closure on Feb. 28 due to the government’s state of emergency in response to COVID-19.

Posner, 61, has only worked through an interpreter once before, when he staged a musical version of “Cinderella” with a Russian cast in Moscow in 2016. Now add to that the challenge of working long-distance and you’d think the director might be at his wit’s end, but Posner says he welcomes the experience to work with a cast who don’t speak English.

In fact, he cheerfully notes during our video chat, “it’s interesting how you get used to things very quickly.” His enthusiasm also stems from a long-standing desire to stage this work by the socially incisive U.S. writer Reginald Rose.

First broadcast as a 60-minute television drama in 1954, Rose rewrote “Twelve Angry Men” for the stage the following year. However, it was 1957’s Hollywood adaptation, titled “12 Angry Men” — which Rose wrote and co-produced with the film’s star, Henry Fonda — that propelled this tale told almost entirely from within a murder trial’s jury room to wide acclaim. It was nominated for three Academy Awards and, in 2008, the American Film Institute selected the film for its second-place spot on a list of the Top 10 greatest U.S. courtroom dramas (behind 1962’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” starring Gregory Peck and Mary Badham).

The story revolves around 12 male jurors from a wide range of backgrounds who are to deliberate the case of a poverty-stricken 16-year-old boy accused of stabbing his abusive father to death. The judge has instructed the jurors that they must arrive at a unanimous verdict, and if they find him guilty then the teen will receive the death penalty.

At first it seems the boy’s fate will be sealed quickly as a majority of the jurors — known only by their numbers, one through 12 — agree that he is guilty — all except Juror No. 8 (played in the Tokyo production by Shinichi Tsutsumi), who casts doubt on the prosecutor’s case so effectively that the others start reversing their verdicts one by one.

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(Anita Gates’s article appeared in The New York Times, 9/10; Photo: Terry Disney, Fulton Archive; via Pam Green.)

Ms. Rigg also played many classic roles onstage in both New York and London and, late in her career, found new fans on “Game of Thrones.”

Diana Rigg, the British actress who enthralled London and New York theater audiences with her performances in classic roles for more than a half-century but remained best known as the quintessential new woman of the 1960s — sexy, confident, witty and karate-adept — on the television series “The Avengers,” died on Thursday at her home in London. She was 82.

Her daughter, Rachael Stirling, said in a statement that the cause was cancer.

Ms. Rigg had late-career success in a recurring role, from 2013 to 2016, as the outspoken and demanding Lady Olenna Tyrell on HBO’s acclaimed series “Game of Thrones.” “I wonder if you’re the worst person I ever met,” Lady Olenna once said to her nemesis Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey). “At a certain age, it’s hard to recall.”

But Ms. Rigg’s first and biggest taste of stardom came in 1965, when, as a 26-year-old veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company, she was cast on the fourth season of ITV’s “The Avengers.” As Emma Peel, she was the stylish new crime-fighting partner of the dapper intelligence agent John Steed (Patrick Macnee), replacing Honor Blackman, who had left to star in the James Bond film “Goldfinger.” (Ms. Blackman died in April.)

Although Mrs. Peel, as Steed frequently addressed her, remained on the show relatively briefly, she quickly became the star attraction, especially when “The Avengers” was broadcast in the United States, beginning in 1966. Reviewing the 1969 movie “The Assassination Bureau,” in which she starred, Vincent Canby of The New York Times described Ms. Rigg in her Emma Peel persona as a “tall, lithe Modigliani of a girl with the sweet sophistication of Nora Charles and the biceps of Barbarella.”

She had left the show by then for a luminous career in feature films. Her other roles included Helena in Peter Hall’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (1968), Portia in an all-star version of “Julius Caesar” (1970), a free spirit who tempted George C. Scott in Arthur Hiller and Paddy Chayefsky’s satire “The Hospital” (1971), and the cheated-on wife in Harold Prince’s interpretation of the Stephen Sondheim musical “A Little Night Music” (1978).

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(via Michelle Tabnick Public Relations; Photo of Bob Ost by Walter McBride.)

Theater Resources Unlimited (TRU) hosts weekly Community Gatherings every Friday at 4:30pm via Zoom, to explore the creation of art and theater in the time of COVID-19. Ask questions, bring answers, be part of a community – it’s an opportunity to network with theater professionals and talk about keeping theater alive during these challenging times. To reserve a spot and receive the Zoom invitation, email with “Zoom Me” in the subject line.

A message from Bob Ost, executive director of TRU: “Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all TRU live events are being reformatted for virtual participation. We created the weekly Community Gatherings to both minimize isolation and share information within the community. Stay positive, test negative, be safe!” 

TRU continues their weekly series of TRU Community Gatherings this Friday and next, with others to be announced. Or check the upcoming schedule at

The gathering on Friday, September 11, 2020 will discuss “The Impact of the Pandemic on Writers,” and will include the following speakers: Cheryl Davis, general counsel of Authors Guild; and Emmanuel Wilson, managing director of

 Dramatists GuildThe conversation will explore the organizational pivots writers’ guilds have made during the pandemic, what initiatives they are taking to help members get through all this and how their members are surviving this challenging time.

Friday, September 18, 2020, offers a conversation entitled “When Sitting All Alone in Your Room IS a Cabaret,” and will include the following speakers: Natalie Douglas, actor, cabaret performer, educator, music historian; Alexis Fishman, actor, cabaret performer/coach; Bernie Furshpan, booking director at The Triad in NYC, former managing partner of Metropolitan Room and founder of MetropolitanZoom virtual cabaret; and Mardie Millit, cabaret performer. Speakers will address some of the game-changing initiatives that cabaret is taking to generate intimate performances on isolated platforms, and how performance material needs to meet the current cultural moment.

Videos of past Community Gatherings can also be viewed at 

TRU’s YouTube channel:

About the Panelists

Cheryl Davis received the Kleban Award as a librettist for her musical 

Barnstormer, (written with Douglas J. Cohen) about Bessie Coleman, the first Black woman flyer. The show received a Jonathan Larson Award through the Lark Play Development Center. Her play Maids Door received great reviews, won seven Audelco Awards, and was a finalist for the Francesca Primus Prize. Her play 

The Color of Justice (commissioned by Theatreworks/USA), received excellent reviews in the New York Times and Daily News, and tours regularly. Her musical 

Bridges, which was commissioned by the Berkeley Playhouse, received its world premiere in February 2016 to great reviews and three award nominations from the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. She received a Writers’ Guild Award for her work on “As the World Turns”, and was also nominated for a Daytime Emmy Award. Her work has been read and performed internationally, including at the Cleveland Play House, the Actors Theatre of Louisville, and the Kennedy Center.  She is the General Counsel of the Authors Guild.

Natalie Douglas is a twelve-time Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs Winner. She has been called “a true force of nature,” by Clive Davis of The Times (UK). She has performed at Carnegie Hall, Cafe Carlyle, The Town Hall, Rose Hall at Jazz at Lincoln Center, The Pheasantry in London, and at her NYC home club, Birdland Jazz Club where her award-winning TRIBUTES monthly residency (Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Elvis, Dolly Parton, Nat “King” Cole, Dame Shirley Bassey, Ella Fitzgerald, Roberta Flack, Joni Mitchell, Sammy Davis, Jr., Lena Horne, Barbra Streisand and more) is now in its fourth year and her portrait hangs on the Wall of Fame. She is also the recipient of two Backstage Bistro Awards, a Nightlife Award and two awards presented by the Mabel Mercer Foundation, The Donald F. Smith & Margaret Whiting Awards. Natalie has released three albums, including the MAC Award Winning Human Heart. Natalie has also made her mark as a much sought after educator and actor-she is a Master Teacher for the Mabel Mercer Foundation, the St. Louis Cabaret Conference, and the Eugene O’Neill Cabaret & Performance Conference. Natalie holds a bachelor’s degree from USC in Psychology, Theatre and Women’s Studies and a master’s degree from UCLA in Psychology and Theatre. For more info, visit

Alexis Fishman, born and bred in Sydney, Australia, is a graduate of the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA). She was nominated for a Helpmann Award for her performance as ‘Young Dusty’ in Dusty, her first show after graduating. Alexis then went on to star in some of Australia’s biggest musicals Including Shout! and the award winning Sydney premiere of Kiss of the Spiderwoman. Other Australian credits include Urinetown, Closer, Troupers for the Sydney Theatre Company as well as plays at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, Darlinghurst Theatre Company and Monkey Baa Theatre Company. Alexis is the creator of six solo cabaret shows including the award winning Club Gelbe Stern which made it’s US debut at the NYMF where Alexis was awarded ‘Outstanding Individual Performance’. Other shows have been performed across Australia at the Adelaide and Melbourne Cabaret Festivals, Shir Madness Jewish Music Festival, The Reginald Theatre, Chapel Off Chapel, Ginger’s at the Oxford Hotel and Claire’s Kitchen. In New York, Alexis’ shows have been seen at 54 Below, Pangea, JCC Manhattan and Laurie Beechman Theatre as well as various venues in New Jersey, Ohio and Florida. Recent highlights include performing one of her newer shows, Amy Winehouse: Resurrected alongside Amy’s father, Mitch Winehouse at City Winery, NYC in May 2019. Alexis is a producer with Moira Blumental Productions and a cabaret coach, helping clients realize their dreams of creating engaging, intriguing and sparkling cabaret shows.

Bernie Furshpan manages professional singers and songwriters and is the Booking Director at The Triad Theater in NYC, and the former owner of The Metropolitan Club (2011-2017).  The Long Island resident was born in Israel and came to this country in 1963 to be raised in Brooklyn, where he graduated with honors from James Madison High School. Later, when a pre-med student at Stony Brook University, he found time to be a drummer in the rock band, J&B, and was a cartoonist for the Fortnight and Statesman publications. Dr. Furshpan went from graduating New York Chiropractic College to owning one of the largest practices in New York State for 27 years. While practicing, he invented the Furshpan Maneuver to correct disc bulges and herniations. Never forgetting his love of sports, he produced one of the biggest sponsorship pitches on behalf of NASCAR to Nextel for the Cup Series. Finally, before taking ownership of The Metropolitan Room (named NYC’s # 1 jazz/cabaret venue by New York Magazine), he summited Mount Kilimanjaro on his 50th birthday and delved into a successful comedy career. Once COVID hit, he created MetropolitanZoom, an innovative simulated reality of a live nightclub show with a live audience utilizing the platform.

Mardie Millit, “evoking both Bette Midler and a young Carol Burnett” (Stephen Holden, New York Times), vocalist and comedienne Mardie Millit is “high-level finesse and charm” (Larry Myers, Ptown Nitelife). At Elaine’s, the legendary show business and literary nightspot, where she appeared for its final three years, Mardie became known for her late-night duets with TV and movie heartthrobs and even a former head of the CIA. She has also made regular appearances at the Monkey Bar, the Rainbow Room, Birdland, Iridium, 54 Below, and Joe’s Pub, both as a solo performer and with on- and offstage partner Michael Garin. Mardie has appeared regionally in a slew of classic musical theatre roles and in New York premieres of original shows by the likes of William Peter Blatty, Billy Stritch and Mark Waldrop. Her most recent theatrical endeavors have been with Dream Productions at the Laurie Beechman Theatre, where she has played Joanne in Company, the Baker’s Wife in Into the Woods, and Berthe in Pippin, and (deities willing) will be playing Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd in 2021. She has been performing her music/comedy show, Live from Lockdown! regularly on Facebook Live from her Harlem living room since April with nothing but a piano playing husband, a smartphone, and a dream.

Emmanuel Wilson is the former director of membership at the Dramatists Guild and the current managing director for the guild. He comes to the position after growing the guild’s membership to more than 8,500 from 6,500 in his three years with the organization. At the Dramatists Guild, Wilson developed new partnerships with Blackboard Plays, the Educational Theatre Association and the Theatre Communications Group. He serves on the Guild’s New Media, Membership, Political Engagement and DEI committees. He is also the founder of Blue Rose Stage Company and formerly the artistic associate and literary manager at TADA! Youth Theater.

Theater Resources Unlimited

(TRU) is the leading network for developing theater professionals, a twenty-seven-year-old 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization created to help producers produce, emerging theater companies to emerge healthily and all theater professionals to understand and navigate the business of the arts. Membership includes self-producing artists as well as career producers and theater companies.

TRU publishes an email community newsletter of services, goods and productions; offers a Producer Development & Mentorship Program taught by prominent producers and general managers in New York theater, and also presents Producer Boot Camp workshops to help aspirants develop business skills. TRU serves writers through the TRU Voices Play Reading Series, Writer-Producer Speed Date, a Practical Playwriting Workshop, How to Write a Musical That Works and a Director-Writer Communications Lab; programs for actors include the Annual Combined Audition.

Programs of Theater Resources Unlimited are supported in part by the Montage Foundation and the Leibowitz Greenway Foundation.

For more information about TRU membership and programs, visit


(from the AP, 9/8; via the Drudge Report.)

LONDON (AP) — “The Phantom of the Opera” composer Andrew Lloyd Webber has told British lawmakers that the arts are “at the point of no return,” and urged the government to set a date for theaters to be allowed to reopen.

Lloyd Webber spoke about the struggles of staging socially distanced shows and making them profitable, noting that very few shows “hit the jackpot” like “Hamilton,” “Lion King” or “Phantom.”

“We simply have to get our arts sector back open and running … We are at the point of no return, really,” he told Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee by video. “There comes a point when we really can’t go on anymore. Theatre is an incredibly labour-intensive business. In many ways, putting on a show now is almost a labor of love.”

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(Michael Paulson’s article originally appeared in The New York Times, 9/6; Photo: The New York Times; via and  Pam Green.)

Actor Jessika Williams in Staunton, Va., Sept. 3, 2020. Williams, who said she not only wanted the title role in Shakespeare’s “Othello,” but needed the work, made a decision no actor wants to make: She resigned from the Actors’ Equity union, potentially giving up a variety of benefits and protections, to take the part. Melanie Metz/The New York Times.

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Jessika D. Williams has wanted to play the title role in “Othello” since she was a teenager.

Now she’s 35, with quotes from Shakespeare tattooed down both arms, and after years studying in Scotland, working in Britain and traveling the United States by van to perform in regional theaters, she finally got the part this summer, at the American Shakespeare Center, a destination theater in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

There was only one hitch, but it was a big one: the coronavirus pandemic.

Actors’ Equity, the labor union representing performers and stage managers, barred its members from in-person performances around the country, citing safety concerns. The union then made a handful of exceptions, mostly in New England, where infection rates are low; the Virginia theater was among scores denied a waiver.

The American Shakespeare Center, located in a rural community with few cases and with a company of actors who signed an “isolation covenant” and live together, decided to proceed anyway, using nonunion actors and elaborate safety protocols.

Williams, who said she not only wanted the role but needed the work, made a decision no actor wants to make: She resigned from the union, potentially giving up a variety of benefits and protections, to take the part.

Now she is part of a troupe performing “Othello” and “Twelfth Night” in repertory, with each production being staged indoors, outdoors and online, so patrons can choose however they are most comfortable seeing the show. (The indoor stage, called the Blackfriars Playhouse, is described by the company as “the world’s only re-creation of Shakespeare’s indoor theater.”)

Actors’ Equity has been critical. The union accused the nonprofit theater of abandoning its commitment to safety and listed it as among a handful that are “no longer Equity producers.”

But the American Shakespeare Center sees the situation differently, noting that in normal years, it employs not only Equity and non-Equity actors at its home in Staunton, Virginia, but also a non-Equity touring ensemble that performs in Staunton as well as on the road. When the pandemic prompted the theater to cancel its main season, it decided to come up with a safety plan and stage the two plays now running with the nonunion company.

In a phone interview from Virginia, Williams talked calmly and confidently about her decision, the “Othello” production and the pandemic. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

You’ve been thinking about playing Othello since you were a kid. Why?

I was like, “Oh, there’s a Black character in Shakespeare? I’ve got to play it!”

What do you think the significance is of playing the role as a Black woman?

I was doing a lot of research into the men who have played this before me, and something that came up a lot was, how do you play this beautiful person and not fall into the trap of perpetuating the idea that Black people are overemotional, monstrous, barbarous creatures? As a woman, I feel like I was able to get around the fear of that, because it didn’t have to do with being a man, it just had to do with being a human being. Also, it’s just really great to hand a female a role of this size — we’ve seen female Hamlets, female Richard IIs, we just recently saw a female Lear — and I think that’s important that women can tackle these epic roles.

You opted to resign as a member of your union to take the role. Can you explain what happened?

It was really sad, actually. To me it felt like Equity was assuming that I was being thrust into an unsafe situation, and that’s not how I felt at all.

But at the end of the day, I wasn’t receiving any unemployment, and I needed a paycheck. I live in a van and travel from job to job, and that had just broken down. And I have a lot of love for this place and a lot of love for the people in the community. It’s a small town, and the theater drives the restaurants and the small businesses. And I chose to stay.

It was a really, really tough decision for me. I really hoped that Equity would understand, and I hope that they will understand in the future. But ultimately I needed a job, and there weren’t a lot of other opportunities, and I felt a lot safer at the ASC than if I had to pick up a job at a grocery store or go work a service industry job and find my all the way across the country during the pandemic and move in with my mother, who is elderly and at risk.

It felt like the right thing to do, and I don’t regret it.

Do you feel safe?

I do, actually. I really do. Staunton has been pretty low as far as COVID cases are concerned. We all live in one building. The theater is a two-minute walk from where we all stay. No one is traveling. No one is taking public transportation. It’s scary at times, but that’s the nature of the world we’re living in.

What would you want the union to hear from you?

I wish that they had considered it more thoroughly. I completely understand from their standpoint — from a very New York-centric and Broadway-centric perspective — that it just doesn’t seem doable. They couldn’t come down here because of the travel restrictions, but they don’t really know what our theater is like or what this community is like. I wish they had considered our SafeStart protocols a little more thoroughly. I just hope that Equity understands my position in choosing to jump into survival mode and take care of myself, my immediate community, and the theater.

In this production, Othello is not the only character played by an actor of color. How do you think having a diverse cast affects the way we see the play?

I feel like it eliminates a lot of preconceived notions of exactly what the play is about. It’s not that the play isn’t racist, but the play isn’t actually about racism — it’s about a lot. And I think that having other members of the cast of color helps to pull out and highlight other aspects of the human condition that Shakespeare is touching on in this play.

Why are you so drawn to Shakespeare’s work?

The words to me have always felt really visceral. Speaking the text does things to my body. I’m not a scholar, but the more plays I dig into, I really think that Shakespeare had a good grip on humanity, and even though it’s stuck and confined in gender roles and history and tropes and stock characters, he really does get to the essence of the human condition.

You and the other actors live together in a pandemic bubble. What has that been like?

I feel like I’m married to every single individual in this company right now. It is tough. It can be isolating. But we do our best. We bake for each other. We cook for each other. And we really rally together when someone is having a hard time.

Your audience is masked. How does that affect your ability to relate to them?

We don’t get that collective reaction. It makes you have to work harder. If I’m going to take something to the audience, or ask them a question, I really have to look into their eyes, and I might not know what I’m getting back. But if someone is leaning forward, or leaning back, we can still gather information.

What are your expectations for next summer?

I do hope that the American theater gets up and running. I do hope that Equity continues to work with these smaller regional theaters, because I don’t think that there is a “one size fits all” here. I hope that we can get people to gather again. We’ve got to find a way to continue to educate and enlighten and entertain.

© 2020 The New York Times Company