(Vinson Cunningham’s article appeared in The New Yorker, 10/5.)
With so much time away from in-person performance, we are undergoing a worldwide reconstrual of what it means to be a member of the crowd.
Alot of work goes into seeing a show at home. For one thing, it’s impossible to settle on a seat. I’ve watched plays while sitting at the desk where I write, or on the floor next to the desk, or on the couch across the room, or at the kitchen table, or, least proudly, lying in my bed, under the covers. I’m never even close to dressed up; I’m there to see but not be seen.
One of the preoccupations of theatre-makers and critics during the past six months has been the construction and presentation of plays to be performed on laptop screens and smart TVs instead of on stages. “Virtual theatre”—a sprawling category, more experiential than formal, which ranges from high-quality performance recordings, such as the recently released filmed version of “Hamilton,” to staticky live Zooms, and is unified as a genre only by its reliance on Wi-Fi—is still in its vulnerable infancy. But something else, perhaps even more important for the future of the art, is happening, too: we are undergoing a worldwide reconstrual of what it means to be a member of the crowd.
It’s easy to forget that, in the theatre, each ticket buyer plays a role. The quality of our attention—silent or ecstatic, galled or bored—is a kind of freestanding, always improvising character, and makes each in-person performance unrepeatable. Call it the congregational art, and remember how you once practiced it: it has something to do with location, and feeling, and your invisible relationship with individual performers and the whole panoply of action on the stage.
The particulars of the audience member’s role change over time, often because of extremity in the wider world. In the nineteen-thirties, during the New Deal, when the Federal Theatre Project cropped up under the umbrella of the Works Progress Administration, Black performance groups, called Negro Units, helped build a bridge away from minstrelsy—which was still very much alive on the mainstream stage—and from other exploitative portrayals of Black characters and performers, toward new, more complex forms of societal and political expression. In a book released earlier this year, “Radical Black Theatre in the New Deal,” which explores the output and the outlook of the Negro Units, the scholar Kate Dossett shows how, by using “folk dramas, domestic tragedies, black realist dramas,” and other forms, they “pushed generic boundaries and explored what it meant to be a black hero in American culture.”
The new plays—like Theodore Ward’s Marcus Garvey-influenced family drama “Big White Fog”—were received gratefully by Black Americans, who, for the first time, could “imagine themselves as the audience for a drama.” In turn, F.T.P. playwrights always had their new public—which, in addition to individual theatregoers, included “federal agencies, unions, professional associations, and civil rights organizations,” along with “poets, novelists, essayists, politicians, and activists”—in mind as they went about their work. If the crowd was unsatisfied, the manuscript changed; these new spectators were also collaborators. The result was a dramatic reimagining of what a theatre audience could be. And, because of the racially integrated nature of F.T.P. audiences, communities who were usually isolated from one another were now brought uncomfortably together in the seats. “For many Americans,” Dossett writes,
a Negro Unit drama was their first experience of theatre as a black event for black communities. In Harlem, opening night of a Negro Unit production was the place to be, and be seen, for black celebrities and political figures alike. But what was embraced by black communities could be alienating and even shocking for whites: white critics and audience members who traveled uptown were fascinated, and often troubled, by the vocal manner in which African American audiences asserted their ownership of a production.
The discovery of our own time, when it comes to audiences and the performing arts, feels like the diametric opposite of the one Dossett describes. Our great crisis, the coronavirus, forces us to watch plays alone, in the crannies of our homes, instead of drawing us into proximity with strangers. Our current government, unlike that led by Franklin Roosevelt, doesn’t see a connection between economic privation, social estrangement, and the kind of nourishment that can come only through an encounter with art—and has no sense of responsibility to encourage the flourishing of art and public life. And so, in a very real way, each of us is on her own. The work of playwriting, acting, and theatrical production today might be to reintroduce us to one another, one at a time.
Ifound myself startled by interaction during “Theatre for One: Here We Are,” a program of very short plays commissioned by Arts Brookfield. Before the social-distancing era, “Theatre for One” made its name with productions of uncomfortably intimate works which paired one performer with a single audience member. The latest iteration of the program features plays written by women of color, and brings actor and spectator together via Webcam. I’d somehow forgotten about my end of the bargain while getting ready for the show, and, as my Webcam lit up, I jetted into my bedroom and changed from my grungy T-shirt into the blue chambray button-down number that I’ve come to think of as my “Zoom shirt.” It felt strange to dress for the theatre again.
But, before the performer for the first of my shows popped up, I was plopped into a digital “waiting room”—just a dark screen with a bar to type into. Other audience members sent messages into the seeming void. Some asked where the others were from. Others got more speculative. “When do you think we will be back in theatres together?” somebody asked. “When a vaccine comes,” the deadpan but still somehow hopeful answer came. “I feel like I’m being punked,” somebody else said.