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Could this West Coast production of The Waste Land be a model for mid-pandemic theater?

Corinne Segal

August 6, 2020, 2:53pm

In early March, on one of the last nights before everything stopped, I went to see Medea at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It was one of the final nights the show was in production, and the 834-seat theater was almost entirely full. A few minutes before it began, an usher escorted my girlfriend and me from the back of the house to two miraculously empty seats in the front row, where we sat shoulder-to-shoulder with our neighbors and just a few feet away from the cast. We would find out later that by that time, there were already thousands of cases of the coronavirus in New York City—perhaps as many as 11,000.

Now, being face-to-face with any cast is no longer an option; theater is online. And while the pandemic has brought an indefinite stall to an industry that relies on closed, in-person gatherings, it has also opened space to address long-standing issues of equitability and sustainability that have been increasingly contentious in recent years, and possibly new artistic opportunities as well.

Many public-facing discussions have focused on expanding theater’s reach to the public by recording shows, livestreaming, and rethinking ticket sales—all measures that have immediately made theater a more accessible art form. Playwright Tara Moses pointed out that the new, widespread digitization of plays is particularly helpful for those who require physical accommodations or ASL interpretation that might not be available in person. Others have taken the necessity of virtual theater as an artistic opportunity; critic Jonathan Mandell described the emergence of a new theatrical aesthetic, characterized by intimacy and immediacy, that is “low-tech, low-key, one-on-one, close-up.” But these conversations, in their emphasis on virtual performance, have largely sidestepped the question of whether in-person theater has any future at all.

Now, an experimental theater company in Oakland, California, is close to greenlighting a project that shows one path forward for live theater in the midst of crisis—and, appropriately, T. S. Eliot is involved.

The Oakland Theater Project announced it would stage a drive-in adaptation of The Waste Land, Eliot’s magnum opus of destruction, fragmentation, and isolation in the wake of World War I and the Spanish flu. Playwright and actor Lisa Ramirez will perform the adaptation in the parking lot next to the Oakland Theater Project in downtown Oakland, California, and Oakland Theater Project co-founder and co-artistic director Michael Moran will direct.

Broadway World reported on how it would work, exactly:

While remaining in their cars, audience members will view the play and have access to its vocals and soundscape via radio frequencies to their personal electronic devices. Ms. Ramirez will perform in a staging area with scenic and video elements as a backdrop.

Local authorities will also require that all audience members must stay seated in an enclosed car and that each car can only contain “members of a single household.” (Can they enforce that?) Tickets will range from $20 to $50 and performances will take place Sept. 11-Oct. 4 on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings.

The project is still awaiting approval from the Actors’ Equity Association, and once approved, it will be the first on the West Coast to attempt this model during the coronavirus pandemic. (The Des Moines Playhouse has also staged drive-in live theater events this summer.) Outside the U.S., the Czech National Theater recently experimented with a drive-in performance that, The New York Times reported, sometimes “felt more like a traffic jam than a work of drama.” Still, in this case, the form feels in line with The Waste Land and its by-now-familiar combination of devastation and foreboding; perfect for These Times.

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