Throughout the pandemic, the global theatre industry has been patiently waiting in the wings for its grand return. Credit: Shutterstock

The Show Must Go On: How the Theater Industry Coped During COVID

Discover how the theatre world survived a year in lockdown from those who know it best

by Becky Mumby-Croft

It’s hard to believe it’s been more than a year since life, as we knew it, ground to a halt. And nowhere has production come to a standstill more than in the theatre industry. Across the globe, theatres closed their curtains and turned off their stage lights. 

Regardless of the pandemic setbacks, theatres have dug into their creative vaults and found new and exciting ways to keep audiences entertained from home. We spoke to people in the industry across the United Kingdom and the United States to see how they’ve coped over the past year and to uncover their hopes for the future. 

Matt J. Bur is a Broadway stage manager based in New York City. He most recently worked on “Beetlejuice the Musical.”

Becky Mumby-Croft: What has been the hardest part of the pandemic for you and for the theatre industry, respectively? How has the lack of physical audiences affected the industry? 

Matt J. Bur: The hardest part of this pandemic was having my entire life shut down.

theatre is too time-consuming to be just a career—it is a lifestyle, a community, an all-encompassing description of who we are. It is not just my job that is gone. Every single piece of my life was put on hold last year, and not one part of my life has gone back to normal. As theatre’s purpose is to have people together in a room having a collective, once-in-a-lifetime experience, there is simply no industry to be had.

BMC: How has the theatre community stayed positive during the pandemic?

MJB: The theatre community is strong, and our ties run deep. We rely on each other’s understanding of this predicament we are in, and the unique lifestyle that we loved and lost. Artists are using their time to create safely and virtually, and we are all using this time to relish in and celebrate the beautiful theatre that we all were able to make in the past.

BMC: Which American theatres do you recommend people visit and/or support?

MJB: The Great White Way has always been my first theatre love and highest recommendation. There is nothing like stepping into a beautiful old Broadway theatre and seeing a massive, big-budget musical. The emotion, the storytelling, the magic, the spectacle! It just isn’t better anywhere else. Broadway will be back, and we cannot wait to see you. 

Katrina Ferguson is a professional actor, originally from Australia, who has performed Off-Broadway and at regional theatres across the United States and Europe. 

BMC: How has the lack of physical audiences affected the industry? What is so special about performing in front of a live audience?

Katrina Ferguson: The lack of physical audiences has meant that there is no income from ticket sales. Staff has been furloughed, and many smaller theatres have closed across the country. When we perform in front of a live audience, the audience response, including laughter, is crucial to the life of the performance. I perform in a lot of comedies, and the audience is essentially another character. We get to listen to them, to their laughter and responses.

BMC: How has the theatre community stayed positive during the pandemic? 

KF: The pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, along with political unrest, has [sic] exposed the inequities in the US These inequities have also been exposed in our industry, with performers and stage managers unions making statements in support of the BLM Movement. We are all committed to moving forward, knowing that there is work to be done, many things to learn, and lots of action to take to create the kind of inclusive theatre we need. These steps are moving us all in a positive direction. 

BMC: How do you feel about the future of theatre? 

KF: John Steinbeck wrote, “The theatre is the only institution in the world which has been dying for four thousand years and has never succumbed. It requires tough and devoted people to keep it alive.” And that’s what’s happening, so I’m continually inspired by people’s creativity. 

Theatre has moved online for the time being. There is so much content to stream, I can barely keep up. Zoom theatre and online events are becoming a new art form. Auditions, usually held in person, are now online. Weather permitting, there’s outdoor, socially distanced theatre going on all over [the US], with more events planned over the summer. So I’m hopeful, it seems we always find a way.

Terry LeCompte is a professional performing artist and artist educator, currently serving as Director of Education for Ocala Civic Theatre in North Central Florida. 

BMC: The Ocala Civic Theatre stayed open during the pandemic, how did the theatre manage this?

Terry Lecompte: Ocala Civic Theatre locked down in March [of 2020] as mandated. Through the spring and summer of 2020, we reimagined our 70th season lineup—our Artistic Director Katrina Ploof created a new season of wonderful plays and musicals with very small casts. Casting is done so that onstage couples are played by real-life couples. We also practice socially distanced blocking, and meticulously clean costumes and props to help ensure the health of our cast members and technical crews. We also require all patrons to wear masks.

BMC: How have you kept the creative juices flowing during the pandemic?

Terry LeCompte: When Ocala Civic Theatre locked down, my education team was able to pivot quickly and create a series of virtual theatre arts classes. We were all committed to keeping our youth engaged, knowing very well that theatre serves as a lifeline to many young people.  

In addition to virtual classes, I have directed three virtual productions— Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and two musicals created to be rehearsed and performed online. I have also used this time to learn new skills that are adjacent to my theatre career by taking online classes, including film editing and sound production. Artists always find a way to keep creating, and this pandemic has reminded us how resilient and resourceful we all are.

BMC: How do you feel about the future of theatre?

TL: theatre makers across the world have continued to bring society solace, hope, joy, catharsis, inspiration, and connection throughout this pandemic. Theatre has never needed more than a single storyteller and someone to listen. When we are once again able to connect face to face, we will start there. Rebuild a stronger industry by applying all the new skills we have learned, with a fresh collection of experiences and stories that all the world will find relatable in their own way.

Ellie Simpson is a producer at the Pleasance Theatre in London and leads Pleasance Futures, the artist development initiative at Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

BMC: What was your initial reaction to the first lockdown? What did you think would happen to the industry?

Ellie Simpson: Shock, concern and confusion. One minute we were getting ready to host our Pleasance Comedy Reserve and the next, our doors closed indefinitely. I think we all thought it would be over within a couple of months. None of us predicted it would continue for as long as it has. Nor the devastating impact it has had across many sectors but, particularly, the arts. I knew our industry would need to be resilient but I didn’t think our theatres would be dark for over a year.

BMC: How did Pleasance incorporate online performances? What are the pros and cons of online performances? Will they continue in the future?

ES: We have mainly been supporting digital tours and performances with marketing, ensuring that, while our venues are dark, we still shout about the work being made. During the pandemic, we have utilised our spaces as production facilities for streaming comedy and as a recording space for video-on-demand shows. We have plans to grow this further, as I think digital is here to stay in some capacity! 

The explosion we’ve seen of digital performances has shown huge ingenuity. Many artists have adapted their shows for the stage into audio dramas or podcasts. We’ve also seen increased accessibility, both in location and costs, which is significant. Digital has been so successful I think it will be hard to put the genie back in the bottle. However, I think you’d be hard-pressed to beat a live in-person show, its energy and the reciprocal exchange between performers and audiences.

BMC: How do you envision Edinburgh Fringe 2021 will be different than in previous years?

ES: There will be a 2021 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, however, it’s likely to be an exciting mixture of in-person performances and digital streaming, with hopefully some inventive interplay between the two. 

The Fringe is the world’s largest arts festival and is a crucial part of our ecosystem. It is also a vital springboard for early-career artists. To miss a second festival would be devastating and if that does happen, I think our industry and artists will take a very long time to recover. Even if the Fringe is smaller this year, it’s important for artists and audiences that we keep the Fringe spirit alive and burning.