I don't know about you, but for the first time since March of 2020, I feel like I can see some light at the end of what has been a very dark tunnel.
Now I can't tell how far away that light actually is, and I can't tell how much hardship is still left to come, but I can see a light, albeit dim, on the other side of this dark, pandemic period. Whether it's the vaccine, the new administration, or a better sloping curve of infections (at the time of my writing this article), I can't help but feel for the first time that this dreadful window of time may slowly be closing. I pray that the light I see isn’t simply a hallucination.
But when this window closes, there is another window closing that is inextricably linked to the pandemic: the window of opportunity for transformative change in our industry. The kind of change that can only really happen when we stop all of the engines.
On March 12th, that is exactly what happened. And the longer we stood waiting for what was to come, the more we looked around and realized how much better we could be, both as humans and as an industry. The longer we stood idle, the more we finally engaged in important long-overdue conversations around diversity, equity, and inclusion both onstage and off: conversations about how we can make our audiences inside the theatre more reflective of the communities that live right outside of our theatres, conversations about how we create healthier investor relations, conversations about pricing tickets to enable broader reach in our communities, conversations about the overall health of the humans that often are out of sight and out of mind who ultimately make the industry operate.
In my 20 years in the business, I’ve amassed an incredible pool of mentors and thought leaders who care deeply about the future of our business. And if there has been one through line from the many late-night conversations I’ve had with these folks, it’s expanding the presence of theatre, expanding the capacity of our art form, expanding stages to widen our impact.
The pandemic has forced us as an industry to re-imagine how we connect with audiences when we can’t be in a room together. In fact, it has forced the entire world to leapfrog a decade in their ability and desire to connect virtually. Weddings, funerals, you name it—we have been forcibly trained to connect in ways we’ve never done before. And as a result of this societal change, the theatre industry went from a limited-supply business to one with a boundless audience base—forcing us into a dizzying search to define what the actual financial model could and should be.
But any way you slice it, we have expanded our stages in ways and at speeds once thought unimaginable. The question moving forward is whether or not we keep that progress moving forward or leave hope behind in a return to the past when the light switch of the industry turns back on. I hope we choose the former.
To me, I see that the audience is ready, the technology is ready, and now I hope that we as an industry are ready to continue to invest in virtual connectivity even as our live performances come back. The work over the past year that held the spirit of “the show must go on” against immense financial and emotional duress is awe inspiring if you take a step back and think about it. Look no further than the live concerts produced from hit Broadway productions gathering millions of views by fans around the world. Look to the work of resource-strapped performing arts organizations hosting interactive galas that raised significant money to support their operations in a time of need. Look to the work amazing artists are doing to raise awareness of real issues impacting our community at large. Look to the work of the Ratatouille musical to crowdsource talent and passion in new artists. Look to the work of educational programs who fought to keep arts education in classrooms against all odds.
This is just the beginning. I have no doubt that the best is yet to come in terms of how we can creatively engage audiences virtually alongside the return of a bustling “live” performance industry. What I question is our passion to find this balance against a gravitational pull I know will exist to go back to what we know versus what we can actually become. It’s human nature and, at the end of the day, we are a human business.
But in the short term, my greatest wish is that all of the ideas, passion, thought, and energy that have been compiled over the past year have their push for progress before we aim to turn the light switch back on. Don’t wait—the moment is now. Push for action to create a better industry wherever your passion lives—you may not get a better chance for change than this moment.
Click here to watch Damian’s presentation from One Day University, titled “Arts & Culture in a Post Pandemic World.”