Curtain Up!: The Return of In-Person Theatre

Irene MartinkoBlog, Featured

Flashback to March 2020: 

I’m sitting in a darkened theatre waiting for the show to begin. The music plays, the actors take the stage, and soon I find myself immersed in the beautiful story of Fun Home, the musical that was meant to complete Perseverance Theatre’s 2019/2020 season. By the end of this dress rehearsal, I’m in tears, deeply moved by what has just unfolded onstage, and full of excitement for an audience to see what I’ve just seen. The set is nearly finished, the actors are in costume, and we’re supposed to be celebrating opening night in just a week and a half.

We had no idea that we were so close to the world shutting down. 

Okay, yes, I may sound a bit overdramatic, but the whiplash of finding ourselves on the verge of opening our final show of the season to shutting down the theatre with no end in sight was completely overwhelming.

I suddenly found myself leaving Juneau to be with my family, terrified of catching COVID in the airport, and thinking that we’d be back in just a few short months. Turns out it would be at least a year before we could even think about the possibility of safely returning.

Ask anyone and they’ll tell you that the past year and a half has been incredibly difficult and full of loss. And for those of us who work in theatre, the changes we’ve felt have been devastating. Countless people found themselves out of a job, theatres across the country darkened their lights and closed their doors, and live in-person theatre was almost nowhere to be found.

Of course, I would never devalue the amazing work that was done, and continues to be done online. In creating virtual theatre, we found ways to collaborate across state and country lines, to reach audiences we had never reached before, and to create innovative ways to use technology in our art. Theatres across the world came up with creative solutions to problems we had never dreamed we would experience. And I for one hope that we’re able to continue to use the techniques we’ve developed, even as in-person performance returns.   

But I also can’t pretend that in remaining virtual, I didn’t feel like something was missing. It’s because of this, that as I write about the return of in-person performance, I find myself almost unable to comprehend the possibility of sitting in a theatre and once again waiting for the show to begin.

But returning to in-person theatre has finally become a reality. 

After the shutdown on March 12, 2020, Broadway officially reopened over a year later on June 26, 2021 with the return of Springsteen on Broadway, Bruce Spingsteen’s one-man acoustic show that originally premiered in 2017. This was followed by the play Pass Over by Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu in August, Hadestown by Anaïs Mitchell in September, and many more, including Hamilton, Waitress, Wicked, and The Lion King

Suddenly I’m opening my social media and finding it full of videos of Broadway opening numbers, curtain calls, and rehearsals in celebration of reopening, complete with a never ending stream of comments about the tears these videos have brought to people’s eyes. My friends are once again posting pictures of playbills as they wait for the curtain to open for the first time in what feels like an eternity.

Of course, we do have to ask, is attending a Broadway show the same as it was before? Yes and no. There are definitely some key differences. For instance, in order to attend a live production on Broadway, audiences are now required to show proof of vaccination and must wear a mask. Productions have now essentially cut intermissions out entirely and are no longer allowing autograph signings at the stage door. Some productions have even shortened to ninety minutes in order to remain as safe as possible. For example, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which was originally written and produced as a two-part play, was transformed into one shorter play.  

Safety is now an absolute priority on Broadway, and they’ve set an important benchmark for theatres across the country. In order to create art that is meaningful, entertaining, and important, it is crucial that those backstage, onstage, and in the audience feel safe and comfortable.

And we’re seeing other theatres follow suit. For instance, Woolly Mammoth in Washington, D.C. has transitioned to virtual ticketing and playbills in order to reduce potential touch points. Nine arts organizations in Sarasota, FL grouped together to create COVID safety protocols collaboratively and have agreed to follow those protocols as they reopen. Oregon Shakespeare Festival has implemented socially distanced seating in order to maintain those six feet we’ve become so familiar with. Theatres are prioritizing safety, while adapting and working together to continue to find ways to create.

And when it comes down to it, the shows themselves and the essence of live performance is still the same. In fact, it may even be more exciting and full of hope simply because we’ve been desperate for it for so long. 

I know that I for one am longing for that sense of community and human connection that can only come from experiencing a story together and connecting with each other in the same space. I want to laugh together, cry together, and clap together as the actors return to the stage. I want to celebrate the actors, designers, technicians, directors, administrators, and more who have made these shows possible, and I want to feel a sense of normalcy after such a long period of change.

Perseverance Theatre team spending time on Lingít Aaní prior to the start of Voyager One rehearsals, our season opener and return to live performances

Following Broadway’s footsteps, and of course, paying close attention to the guidelines and recommendations of our own state, Perseverance Theatre is finally planning our own return to live in-person theatre.

I can’t pretend it’s been easy, especially as COVID numbers in Alaska change day by day. But the hope that I feel as we work towards a safe reopening makes it all feel worth it. As we create our safety protocols and prepare our space for audiences once again, I find myself feeling grateful that I live in a place that values the safety of our community along with the art that we work so hard to create and share.

Think about what you miss about live theatre. Imagine you’re sitting in that darkened space waiting for the show to begin. Hear the music play and feel the excitement as the audience quiets down and the actors take the stage. The anticipation and joy of live theatre may not be as out of reach as it feels. I hope you feel the same hope that I do, and I can’t wait to see you in the theatre soon.