Recently, I was in a taxi and the driver asked me what I did. When I told him I’m a playwright, he looked back at me with true pity. “I feel for you people. I’m real poor on money right now, like most cab drivers, but at least I can work … for hospitality and the arts it’s like the light just got turned off. It ain’t right.”
He’s right. The theater industry – like most of the arts – is in a state of crisis. Regular in-person theater attendance is impossible during a pandemic. Thousands of theater professionals – playwrights, actors, technicians, managers, security personnel, ushers and others – are now out of work. Many have already been out of work for more than a year, and it will probably be another six months at least before theater can resume mostly normal production. That is the most optimistic estimate – it could take much longer than that.
Currently most initiatives to help struggling arts professionals have been ad hoc and privately led. In both the UK and the US the clearest form of relief has come from artists like Sam Mendes (through the Theater Artists Fund), Katori Hall or myself (project grants), and efforts to siphon funds from corporations like Netflix, Lionsgate, or HBO into our communities are ongoing. Despite our best efforts, it’s not nearly enough. We shouldn’t have to GoFundMe an entire industry, yet we are.
There is an alternative. American theater has faced similar crises before. During the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt authorized a special Works Progress Administration initiative, the Federal Theater Program, to ensure that theater remained alive and accessible to Americans suffering through dire economic hardship. The Project, which was run by the playwright and director Hallie Flanagan, subsidized the cost of theater attendance. Two-thirds of its tickets were free, and the rest were incredibly affordable.
Even at the best of times, theater is often sadly out of reach for many Americans. Tickets to most Broadway shows hover around $110, a significant portion of an average US household’s monthly budget. As someone who grew up working class, this has always been an issue close to my heart. It is also an economic barrier that might not exist today if the Federal Theatre Project, which ended in 1939, still existed.
Theater professionals are doing everything we can to make do, including by livestreaming plays, performing them on Zoom, and streaming prerecorded plays. Some of these experiments in theater format have been fascinating and artistically fruitful. But at the end of the day, theater requires intimacy and trust, which are much easier to achieve when you’re breathing the same air as your audience. That is something none of us, even with the vaccine, will be able to do with any level of confidence for quite a while still.
Americans will want to flock to cinemas, live concerts, plays and musicals and more as soon as the pandemic is over. But if we want there to be a lively arts scene to return to, we must act now. Other countries understand this. Last year, in response to the effects of coronavirus, Germany issued $54bn in economic assistance to freelancers and small businesses in the arts. And America’s own history is a reminder of the lengths to which we have gone to protect the arts. We must be just as ambitious now as we were then. Our times require nothing less.