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The National Theatre in London, Sept. 21, 2020. Governments around the world have tried to support the arts during the pandemic, some more generously than others. Lauren Fleishman/The New York Times.

by Alex Marshall, © 2021 The New York Times Company; via Pam Green 

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- In December, owners and operators of theaters and music halls across the United States breathed a sigh of relief when Congress passed the latest coronavirus aid package, which finally set aside $15 billion to help desperate cultural venues. But that came more than six months after a host of other countries had taken steps to buffer the strain of the pandemic on the arts and artists.

Here are the highlights, and missteps, from eight countries’ efforts.


President Emmanuel Macron of France was one of the first world leaders to act to help freelance workers in the arts. The country has long had a special unemployment system for performing artists that recognizes the seasonality of such work and helps even out freelancers’ pay during fallow stretches. In May, Macron removed a minimum requirement of hours worked for those who had previously qualified for the aid. He also set up government insurance for TV and film shoots to deal with the threat of closure caused by the pandemic. Other countries, including Britain, quickly copied the move.


Germany’s cultural life has always been heavily subsidized, something that insulated many arts institutions from the pandemic’s effect. But in June, the government announced a $1.2 billion fund to get cultural life restarted, including money directed to such projects as helping venues upgrade their ventilation systems. And more assistance is on the way. Germany’s Finance Ministry intends to launch two new funds: one to pay a bonus to organizers of smaller cultural events (those intended for up to a few hundred people), so they can be profitable even with social distancing; and another to provide insurance for larger events (for several thousand attendees) to mitigate the risk of cancellation. Germany is not the first to implement such measures; Austria introduced event insurance in January.


In July, the British government announced a cultural bailout package worth about $2.1 billion — money that saved thousands of theaters, comedy clubs and music venues from closure. In December, several major institutions, including the National Theater and the Royal Shakespeare Company, were also given long-term loans under the package. Even with the help, there have already been about 4,000 layoffs at British museums alone, and more in other sectors.


European cultural aid hasn’t been enacted without controversy. In November, Poland announced recipients of a $100 million fund meant to compensate dance, music and theater companies for earnings lost because of restrictions during the pandemic. But the plan was immediately attacked by some news outlets for giving money to “the famous and rich,” including pop stars and their management. The complaints prompted the culture minister to announce an urgent review of all payments, but the government ultimately defended them, and made only minor changes.

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(Chris McCormack’s article appeared in The Irish Times, 1/13; Photo: When the curtain came down on Our New Girl, did it come down on innovative programming along with it? Credit: Ros Kavanagh.) 

One billion years ago, before the advent of TikTok musicals and streamed monologues on YouTube, plays were staged in buildings called theatres. It’s difficult to imagine now but viewers sat side by side, with little space between them, in the presence of actors giving live performances. Like other odd rituals of yesteryear, such as fertility dances and human sacrifices, live plays no longer exist in this moment in time.

As we hang tight in another lockdown, who remembers what was happening before all this? Was live theatre getting interesting before the pandemic? Oh, yes.

If you were in Dublin last March, perhaps you were one of the last people to see Our New Girl at the Gate Theatre, a riveting play set in a strange London house and following a self-doubting mother battling through the gaslighting tactics of her scheming husband and nanny. Never mind its sophistication as a psychological thriller meets sexism satire, Our New Goirl was a play that a short time ago you wouldn’t expect to get produced.

Not a lot has been said about the game-changing season of 2019, when the two full-time production houses, the Gate and the Abbey, made a rare commitment to putting several new plays on their big stages. Deduct the number of co-productions with independent companies and the figures were still impressive.

The Gate mounted three new shows: Lucy Kirkwood’s intimate disaster play The Children, one of the most acclaimed offerings that year; David Eldridge’s subversive romantic drama Beginning; and Pale Sister, Colm Tóibín’s play that a secondary character from Greek tragedy centre stage.

The Abbey Theatre did the same maths. Instead of reserving new plays for the smaller Peacock stage as usual, the main auditorium was home to three new plays: Dylan Coburn Gray’s spoken-word family saga Citysong; the suburban middle-class satire This Beautiful Village by Lisa Tierney-Keogh; and Dermot Bolger’s stevedore drama Last Orders at the Dockside.


“So what?” I hear you ask. If you’re someone who prefers to wait for the next revival of a Martin McDonagh or Shakespeare play, or to see an adaptation of a book such as The Great Gatsby or Asking for It, that’s perfectly fine. Those projects don’t carry the same risk. It’s an old rule of thumb that putting on a classic play breaks even and taking a chance on a new play costs an arm and a leg. Yet if relying on old plays becomes the norm, it risks making writing for big amplifying stages a closed shop. Worse for you and me, we lose out on seeing what new talents can do with the resources of large theatres at their disposal.

To figure out the last time there was such a cornucopia is to go back some years. One could say 2009, the last time the Abbey Theatre put as many new plays on its big stage. If looking for a period when the Gate Theatre also played ball, you’re talking about 2002. That was the chock-full year of political dramas Hinterland and Ariel; the Neil LaBute romance-thriller The Shape of Things; the drawing room drama  That Was Then; Frank McGuinness’s Gates of Gold; Brian Friel’s Afterplay; and comedies Lovers at Versailles and See You Next Tuesday.

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(Photos: Mabou Mines)

By Bob Shuman

Some of us had never seen Lee Breuer, who died January 3, working without a stocking cap—but what is probably most surprising is that we saw a playwright, this hands-on, at all.  In 2010, upon early audience entry, at New York Theatre Workshop, he clarified tech, behind a huge plywood board, for his double-bill of monologues Pataphysics Penyeach (Summa DramaticaandPorco Morto”).  In 2013, with La Divina Caricatura, Part 1: The Shaggy Dog, at La MaMa, there was a question as to whether he might even be seen, as press performances were canceled due to his illness.  He appeared, hustling through the impersonal subway tracks of the set, though, where a dog had been abandoned.  That animal, Rose, a puppet, also the star of the show, caused a visceral reaction, when she began eating “poop,” a polite way of naming the grotesque situation—one this reviewer categorized as an aberrant absurdist element, while still shuddering.  Much later, now the owner of two Jack Russell terriers, one who had been deserted on a highway in South Carolina, the truth of the writing emerged.  Although our dogs are now ensconced in Massachusetts during the pandemic, for several years, Breuer remained on my mind often, his visual observation about pets acute, disgusting, and pervasive.

He was part of the East Village zeitgeist—I should say he was our Peter Brook. Mabou Mines offered performance based on hard theatrical theory and experience, not simple propaganda, although clearly leftist. Breuer volunteered at the Berliner Ensemble, under Communism, worked with Grotowski, adapted Beckett, and more, to give his work an international edge. It’s impossible to think of the American avant-garde, without him.  Tracking our way back from the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, along Seventh Avenue to Forty-Second Street, in 1988, someone, talking about the chorus, was saying how you weren’t “going to ask those big, mature Black women to do a lot of choreography,” as we understood musicals then, when someone noted the stately stage progressions, in The Gospel at Colonus.  The voices moved the audience, and caused them to dance, instead.  Lee Breuer was, almost inarguably, America’s finest theatre practitioner at the end of the twentieth century and early twenty-first, mainstream or otherwise. His aesthetic was so fully formed, centered, and grounded, in fact, that it seems an injustice to say that he was an experimental director. It’s better to describe him as a seminal one.

In a July 2020 Zoom interview from Segal Talks, hosted by Frank Hentschker, with Maude Mitchell, Breuer macrocosmically talked about playwriting, music: 

“I wanted to get this feeling of everyone contributing their melody to a larger whole, and that there would be a form that would arise from it.  I think music is the key to it.  I think if we can feel that all the currents–political, aesthetic—are joining together to make a statement–and if you can discern what that statement is–that you will have achieved a tremendous revelation about what our times and what our lives now are all about.”

Breuer’s statements could expose internal horror about the American and human condition, combining humor with the monstrous, as he did with Pataphysics Penyeach, which used children’s storybook  and cartoon characters facing contemporary political and sociological existence.  Back in 2010, he seemed to pinpoint how we had been overwhelmed by the technological: “Reality is not real,” a distinguished professor, a cow, tells us “—it’s virtual.”  The play demonstrated a “spin” on French symbolist writer Alfred Jarry’s pataphysics (a “send up of metaphysics”). 

According to Breuer, in a 2007 video conversation at Towson University,  theatre only exists half the time on the stage; the other half takes place in the head.  The viewer is choosing the play’s message after “balancing the work’s thesis and antithesis.”  The synthesizing process is apparent in a work like Pataphysics Penyeach because, through the ridiculous and cerebral, one attempts to decipher the meaning, to make sense of the divergent inputs, holding on in the hope of unmasking the secret of the piece.  Steadily looking for metaphor, in “Porco Morto,” the second one act in the evening, Breuer turned the concept of “capitalist pigs” into a playlet about a piglet, who talks like Porky Pig.

For those drawn to the stage of Lee Breuer, part of its appeal must be his interest in the viewer as thinker, not simply as blank page—he was an intellectual theorist himself, not only a defender of theory, whether Marxist, Feminist, Market, or other.  Breuer’s is a formidable intelligence to be openly missed; irreplaceable, still to be reckoned with, and learned from. 

Don’t cover it up.

© 2021 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

Visit Mabou Mines.


Two Breuer Reviews from Stage Voices:

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(Arifa Akbar’s article appeared in the Guardian, 12/23; Photo: Clockwise from top left: Death of England, The Outside Dog, Pass Over, Oleanna and Crave. Composite: Nobby Clark, Marc Brenner, Alastair Muir, Manuel Harlan.)


As the industry faced turmoil, there were triumphant stagings of classics by Sarah Kane, David Mamet and Alan Bennett – and bold new experiments



Death of England

National Theatre, London

Rafe Spall gave one of the most virtuosic performances of the year in Clint Dyer and Roy Williams’ one-man show about class, race, identity and inheritance. He played Michael, a tormented working-class man grappling with the legacy of a racist father. Stalking the length and breadth of the stage, which was designed in the shape of a St George’s Cross, Spall performed with the punkish energy of a man possessed. His drunken eulogy at his father’s funeral was an exemplar of a dramatic meltdown. Read the full review.



Chichester Festival theatre and online

Sarah Kane’s one-act play is as opaque as it is intense, but under Tinuke Craig’s direction it was transformed into a clean, contemporary, thrillerish drama. Its four unnamed characters appeared on treadmills on a revolving stage, with magnified images on a back-screen. The set’s lurching movement reflected the play’s unstable emotional states and Erin Doherty gave an especially scintillating performance. Read the full review.

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(Lee Brown’s article appeared in the New York Post, 12/9; via the Drudge Report.)

It’s one for the books.

The first man to get the new coronavirus vaccine in the UK is named William Shakespeare — inspiring a veritable flurry of Bard-worthy puns.

The 81-year-old gained fame when he got his historic shot early Tuesday just after the first one went to a woman, Margaret Keenan, who turns 91 next week, on what the Brits have dubbed “V-Day.”

The modern-day Shakespeare got his injection at University Hospital Coventry — just 20 miles from his famous namesake’s birthplace of Stratford-Upon-Avon.

Shakespeare’s instantly recognizable name quickly sparked a rush of puns on the Bard’s best-known works — including the suggestion that the vaccine marked “The Taming of the Flu.

Some were just grateful that the modern-day Shakespeare’s vaccine moment was not a comedy of errors — and suggested that his calm expression proved that vaccine fears are much ado about nothing.

Others, meanwhile, hoped it was a sign that we are finally coming to the end of our winter of discontent.illiam Shakespeare

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(Mathew Lyons’s article appeared in the Spectator,  11/24; Photo:

Guys and Dolls, the musical loosely based on the Broadway stories of Damon Runyon, premiered on Broadway seventy years ago on November 24th 1950. It ran for 1,200 performances and has been frequently revived ever since. The film version, starring Frank Sinatra as Nathan Detroit and Marlon Brando as Sky Masterson, appeared in 1955. Last year, entertainment-industry bible Variety reported that a remake is in the works from TriStar. Runyon’s world, and his characters, live on.

Even on the page, never mind in 1950s Technicolor, Runyon’s characters can sometimes seem larger than life. But many of them are, in fact, based on real people that Runyon knew on the Broadway of the 1920s and 1930s. His first biographer, writing in 1948, two years after Runyon’s death, said that any competent New York detective would have recognised most of the gamblers and gunmen. But if they have mostly faded from both memory and myth these days, it’s still possible to connect some of them to their reputed real-life counterparts.

Nathan Detroit/The Brain

Nathan Detroit isn’t a big figure in Runyon’s stories, but the man on whom he is modelled was big enough for Runyon to trace not one, but two characters from him. That man was Arnold Rothstein, a still-legendary underworld figure, responsible more than anyone putting the organised into organised crime: under his guidance, the families and syndicates of criminal America were moulded into professional, quasi-corporate enterprises. “He don’t want to be known as a tough guy,” fellow gangster Owney Madden said. “Rothstein wants to rob people sitting down.”

Above all, Rothstein was a financier – people called him The Big Bankroll – backing everything from Prohibition-era bootleggers and the nascent drugs trade to small-time debts and loans. The biggest bookmaker in the country, Rothstein thought he could fix anything, from the 1919 World Series baseball tournament to the city’s politicians and police. The floating crap game, Nathan Detroit’s signature enterprise, which involves moving the game’s location every night to make it hard for the police to shut down, was a Rothstein idea; every kind of floating game was. He had been running such things since 1911.

In a couple of stories, Runyon gave Rothstein the name Armand Rostenthal, and another nickname too: The Brain. Like The Brain, Rothstein conducted much of his business from a table at Lindy’s 24-hour restaurant at 1626 Broadway, between 49th and 50th Street – thinly disguised as Mindy’s by Runyon – where he reportedly drank nothing stronger than milk.

Rothstein died of gunshot wounds in November 1928 after a dispute about a large gambling debt. Runyon was one of the last people to speak to him alive before he left Lindy’s that night; he made the evening the subject of one of his first stories, The Brain Goes Home. (It’s a curious fact of literary history that Rothstein was also immortalised by Scott Fitzgerald as Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby.)

Sky Masterson

One of Sky Masterson’s real-life counterparts is easy to spot. That’s Bat Masterson, a sometime gambler, sheriff, gunman and journalist who Runyon first encountered in his days as a junior reporter in Colorado. Masterson fought alongside Wyatt Earp in the gunfight at the OK Corral, although by the time Runyon knew him, his badge-holding, gun-blazing days were past.

But Sky has other counterparts too. One of the anecdotes told about Masterson’s gambling in the stories is of him sitting eating a bag of peanuts while watching a baseball game and betting that he could throw a peanut from second base to the homeplate on a baseball field. “Everybody knows that a peanut is too light for anybody to throw it this far,” Runyon writes. Sky wins the bet by using a peanut weighted with lead.

Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, who wrote the script for Guys and Dolls, make Nathan Detroit say he once saw Sky bet on which raindrop on a window pane would reach the bottom first. That bet was actually made in New York’s Waldorf-Astoria by a long-forgotten industrialist named John Warne Gates, popularly known as Bet-A-Million Gates for just such reasons.

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