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Why the performing arts must survive in Chicago

How will the ever-fragile, cushion-free culture business, with its discretionary product requiring people to gather en masse at an agreed-upon place and time, survive?

Gleacher Center at Night

How will the ever-fragile, cushion-free culture business, with its discretionary product requiring people to gather en masse at an agreed-upon place and time, survive?

When will it be safe and ethical to reopen?

 

Those questions, posited in various forms and arenas, have been asked constantly during the COVID-19 pandemic, a disastrous event for the art and business of live entertainment. The answers remain, of course, elusive, but affirmative resolution is essential. Even aside from the economic arguments—Broadway is directly and indirectly responsible for at least 100,000 jobs in New York—it is hard to imagine the return of great American cities Chicago without such a reopening.

It is hard to overstate the recent pain for the theater in particular. In Chicago and elsewhere, the art-form had thrived in recent years by understanding that technology had isolated people and fueled an insatiable desire for human contact. Interactive engagement thus became both a byword and a way to banish elitism and formality. And in previous crises, the theater was able to function as a respite.

It is hard to overstate the recent pain for the theater in particular. In Chicago and elsewhere, the art-form had thrived in recent years by understanding that technology had isolated people and fueled an insatiable desire for human contact.

Chris Jones

Chris Jones, Chief Tribune Theater Critic / Sunday Arts Columnist

Consider September 11, 2001. Although there was a temporary crisis and drop in revenue fueled by fear and travel difficulties, Broadway came roaring back two days after those attacks; to attend a Broadway show that fall was a proud act of defiance, a statement that America would not be cowed by terrorism and would go on living its life.

During the American flu epidemic of 1918, a closer parallel, local regulations were put into place limiting public assembly in entertainment venues. But if you browse the Chicago Tribune during that era, you see that they were quickly lifted, partly due to worries about panic but also because the authorities clearly felt that there was only so long you could expect people to stay in their Zoom-free homes and that the theaters arguably had safer air than outside their doors.

Many people are wondering what systemic changes are in the offing. Will theaters be forced to deal with reduced capacity for a protracted period?

Most producers argue this is impossible, given the limitations of their historic venues and the economic system though which artists are paid. But masks for audience members, testing for cast members and better air-filtration and sanitation systems already are being rolled out.

And there are likely to be audience-driven changes, too. Most likely, the pandemic has put a bullet in the old subscription model. The new reality favors more simple shows -- an acoustic concert, a chamber opera, a small cast, improvisation. Portability will be a desirable quality; so will being outside. And so will spontaneity: long planning periods may not work for months, if not years. The arts will have to adapt.

The new reality favors more simple shows -- an acoustic concert, a chamber opera, a small cast, improvisation. Portability will be a desirable quality; so will being outside. And so will spontaneity: long planning periods may not work for months, if not years. The arts will have to adapt.

Chris Jones

Chris Jones, Chief Tribune Theater Critic / Sunday Arts Columnist

But there are reasons to be optimistic, too. Vaccines may be rolling out slowly, but there is genuine reason to hope that a hefty portion of the U.S. population will have some protection by the fall.

And, although this is speculative, logic would suggest that there is about to a colossal uptick in demand for live cultural entertainment.

Thanks to the stunning new efficiency of on-line mail order, most Americans have still been able to purchase items they wish to acquire. No pent-up force exists there. But they’ve not been able to join their fellow humans and listen to music or Shakespeare or poetry. Live performance was previously seen as omnipresent and ubiquitous. Not anymore. It now is seen as something precious and vulnerable, and as an amenity to the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness that must not be taken for granted.

We only truly appreciate what we have in the face of its loss. The theater will come roaring back.

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Chris Jones

Chris Jones

Chief Tribune Theater Critic / Sunday Arts Columnist

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