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What Will The Future Of Theater Look Like? 'Our Artists Are Going To Lead Us'


September is when newspapers and magazines would usually publish their fall theater previews. But this year, there's no fall season - at least not in any traditional sense. So what is theater going to look like when the pandemic is over? Reporter Jeff Lunden spoke with three people in a position to re-imagine the future of theater.


JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Oskar Eustis, artistic director of New York's Public Theater, knows firsthand about the coronavirus.

OSKAR EUSTIS: I went into the hospital with COVID on the 10 of March. And I came out five days later. And I came out into a world that had no theater. And it was a different world.

LUNDEN: Eustis has recovered, but the Public, like theaters around the world, is in critical condition.

EUSTIS: We shut down on March 12. And we tried to keep our actors and other artists on salary for a month. But by the end of April, we had to end all those contracts.

LUNDEN: And by July, he had to furlough much of his staff. Eustis has produced some online content which has reached audiences across the globe. But the only activity at the Public has been when it opened its lobby to Black Lives Matter protesters, offering food, drink and bathroom breaks.

STEPHANIE YBARRA: If in Shakespeare's time it was let's go hear a play, not see a play, my ideal version of that sentence today would be let's go experience a story together.

LUNDEN: Stephanie Ybarra is artistic director of Baltimore Center Stage, and she knows it's going to be a long time before audiences return in person. But she hopes that when they do, stories will be told in simpler ways with fewer sets and costumes.

YBARRA: I can't tell if it's sort of a new form or a new era that we're heading into or if we have gone a long way out to come a short way back to that moment in time when theater was relying exclusively on a really good story, incredibly talented actors and an audience that was willing to go along for the ride no matter where they were.

LUNDEN: In fact, before she moved to Baltimore, Ybarra ran the Public Theater's Mobile Unit which brought Shakespeare with small casts and simple sets to neighborhood parks, shelters, prisons. Oskar Eustis says, when theater comes back...

EUSTIS: I think one of the first things we're going to need to do is not ask people to come to our home, but for us to go out to them and to take the mobile unit and go to where the people live as a way of saying, we're not insisting you come to us and get into these small crowded spaces. We're going to go to you and give you a chance to celebrate and enjoy and feel the solidarity of being in an audience again.

LUNDEN: And it's not just about making theater accessible, says Stephanie Ybarra.

YBARRA: I think it has a lot to do with transforming our arts and culture institutions into arts and culture and civic institutions.

NATAKI GARRETT: You know, I was thinking, wow, an uprising in the middle of a pandemic. You know, if you can't hear that then you were never trying to listen.

LUNDEN: Nataki Garrett runs the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which mixes classic plays with freshly minted dramas.

GARRETT: Cultural institutions are the amplifier of the way that society is moving. And that could be used in a positive way, and it can be used in a negative way. And we've seen both in history. I want to be an organization that uses that positively.

LUNDEN: Garrett, who's African American, and Stephanie Ybarra, who's Latinx, have been working explicitly to make their organizations anti-racist, as has Oskar Eustis, who's white. Recently, a document called we see you white American theater was published online with a list of demands for change. But Stephanie Ybarra says there's still pushback from a lot of theaters.

YBARRA: We are not at a place where we can wrap our heads around what it looks like to be a collectively liberated field. We understand the word anti-racism now, but we are not yet at a place where we could imagine an arts sector or a theater field that was wholly and completely racially just. And it's a failure of imagination that keeps us from that future nothing else.

LUNDEN: And imagination is the theater's engine - Oskar Eustis.

EUSTIS: It's our job to try to make the future a better place. It's our job to try to make the theater more democratic, more inclusive, more accessible, more anti-racist. That's what we got to do. And so I'm optimistic that we'll be able to continue doing that.

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.