When it became clear in the fall of 2020 that the COVID-19 pandemic wouldn’t be going away anytime soon, the University of Toledo (UT)’s Black Theatre Ensemble braved a new, pandemic-born theater space by putting on a part-digital, part-staged production of “20K Leagues Under the Sea,” a reimagining of Verne’s novel of the same name—with only $400.

This meager budget, while nearly unworkable for a professional production, was seen as an opportunity to be “generative,” and to really be responsible for all aspects of the process—focusing more on storytelling than production value.

“We commissioned original art from the Black Artist’s Coalition,” Matt Foss, professor of acting and directing at the University of Toledo,  said. “And we kinda overlaid that to create not just a Zoom play, not just a streaming of a regular play […] but a [production] that mirrored the audience’s imagination on their screens and on their laptops.” 

UToledo students Alexandria Rayford-West and Carlos Washington in the Black theater Ensemble’s virtual production of “20K Leagues Under the Sea.” Image courtesy of the University of Toledo.

For the theater world at large, the past year has not been an easy one. Caps on social gatherings have made it virtually impossible to amass an audience, while strict stay-at-home orders have forced rehearsals and performances into an all-new, oftentimes unpolished online format. And, in many ways, online theater cannot compare to in-person, live shows that involve a more unmediated, “human” element.

“There’s very few examples of online theater that propelled the conversation forward in a meaningful way,” Foss said.

The financial and emotional toll of the COVID-19 pandemic and recent social unrest have set young theater-makers reeling—but also reinforced and re-envisioned the role theater should play in times of crisis.

The production of “20K” was one example of theater that took this specific moment into account. According to Foss, “20K” is, at its core, a “moral debate” between marine biologist Professor Aronax and the vengeful Captain Nemo, who uses his submarine to wreak havoc and destruction across multiple civilizations. The Black Theatre Ensemble played an active role in the development of this piece, spearheading much of the writing, direction and production. “20K” quickly became more than a discussion about the morality of war, and the Ensemble’s unique perspective highlighted and opened up further discussion about justice and oppression. 

“We’re often working with and training students from under-resourced schools who may not have a theater department or a film department,” Foss said. “It gives us an opportunity to really seek how to equip and to enfranchise not only the next generation of theatre-makers, but also underrepresented voices in that conversation in a meaningful way.” Foss said.

All things considered, “20K” was an overwhelming success. But a well-produced, passionate production like this was certainly not the usual case over the past year—whether because of reduced participants, lack of funding or technical difficulties in collaboration and conversation.

Although many universities are making plans to return to in-person performance and education some time in the near future, a large population of theater students are understandably disillusioned. For young theater-makers, more is at stake than just their extracurricular activities; college education changed drastically in the move to online schooling, especially for studio classes based around physical interaction. Students who came to school expecting to spend most of their time on the stage or in rehearsal are worried about the trajectory of their college careers. 

“It was hard to get across to them sometimes why they couldn’t do what they came here to do,” Holly Monsos, Chair of the Department of Theater and Film at UT, which was forced to cancel their entire season, said. “We were dealing with fear and stress, and […] a free-floating anxiety of what’s going on in the world.”

That anxiety is not just limited to college students, either. According to Aimee Reid, Executive Artistic Director of the Children’s Theater Workshop (CTW), even the youngest theater-makers in Toledo are feeling the pressures of the pandemic. CTW works with children from the ages of 3 to 18, offering a wide variety of classes and producing an even wider variety of student-run shows. According to Reid, CTW ran into many of the same issues as they converted their operations to an online format. 

“We were about to go into tech-week for our seven-, eight- and 9-year-olds,” Reid said. “And then the next day they announced that there were no more gatherings of 50 people or more. And I remember walking into the parking lot with my associate […] and just screaming in frustration. And now, I look back at March-2020 Aimee and go ‘Oh, sweet baby lamb. You have no clue.’”

CTW’s Musical theater Ensemble for ages 13-18. Image from the Children’s Theatre Workshop.

CTW was proactive in the move to online theater and education. Reid’s staff immediately created Zoom profiles and began holding rehearsals and classes online, so as not to leave their students alone during this tumultuous transition. 

“We never left the kids—we always showed up for them,” Reid said. “I’m trying to hold onto that because I think it’s really easy to look back on those first three weeks and feel shame and embarrassment. I had no idea that this was gonna be a year and a half of the way things were!”

Still, the new format was especially jarring for CTW’s students, and many of them stopped attending classes entirely.

“Some kids really vibed with it […] but that number of kids got smaller and smaller,” Reid said.  “A lot of kids got pretty traumatised by online schooling, and what they went through trying to navigate being home, being isolated, missing birthday parties, missing holidays. And for them, using a screen became synonymous with something that was pretty traumatic.”

Image courtesy of David Andrews.

That trauma was something felt by students across the board, including the theater students at UT. 

“I think our students are exhausted,” Foss admitted. “[They’ve] had a lot of loss in their lives… parents, family members, the protests last summer. Students were gassed or injured in the Memorial Day marches.” 

The mistreatment of and violence against Black Americans alongside other ongoing social crises and a raging pandemic have resulted in a sort of generational mental health crisis for young people today. And the resulting trauma is characterized by an overwhelming sense of hopelessness.

“There’s so much frustration and fatigue,” Foss said. “I’m exhausted. Emotionally and intellectually. But I do know I don’t wanna go back to how it was.” 

Overall heightened awareness of racism and discrimination has also highlighted the systemic issues that specifically plague the theater industry. As an institution, American theater’s status quo has tended to heavily favor white men in casting and in writing, often at the expense of marginalized groups. But in re-actualizing performance in a virtual format, theater-makers have been forced to reexamine exactly what theater is—and what they want it to be.

According to Foss, as theater-makers, “our work has always been trying to pick fights against the status quo.” This means changing the way the industry works on a basic level to be more equitable and representative of the people who make it.

This realization is evidence that, in some ways, the past year has actually been good for the theater world. While it may be tempting to rush head-first back into in-person theater, some theater makers and educators are taking a moment to reflect on how forced changes brought about by the past year—including going virtual—have both exposed weaknesses and opened new pathways for more diverse and genuine voices.

Empty Akron Civic Theater. Image courtesy of NatNapoletano.

“We’re going through a significant generational change,” Foss said. “I’ve noticed students are asking big questions about what it means to be vocationally excellent rather than famous. What does it mean to be seen rather than known?”

It’s a balancing act; theater-makers may be excited to return to the thing they love, but the past year has made it increasingly clear that they have a vital duty to the communities that they serve. As it is, Foss believes American theater tends to “rush to put up the same kind of shows in the same kind of way […] rather than what is an urgent story that needs to be told or what are the urgent needs of our community.”

Figuring out what that balance is, though, has proven more difficult than anticipated. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth a shot. 

“We keep throwing things at the wall, and we see what sticks,” Reid said. “For us, showing up with an honest effort that might not work is better than doing nothing […] Throw the curriculum out the window, and make sure the kids feel connected and creative! Success. Done. Mission accomplished. We reevaluated what success looks like to us, really hard and fast.”

Even before the pandemic, theater was never about escapism, but a means to examine the problems facing our world, and to open up a dialogue about possible solutions. And amidst the seemingly insurmountable obstacles facing the theater industry during the pandemic, young artists like those working on “20K Leagues Under the Sea” have remained determined to create theater that is, as Foss puts it, ethical and equitable. 

And theater groups are also open to continue learning, adapting and growing.

“We’re going to make a lot of mistakes,” Reid said. “People are going to be really honest with us, and we’re going to be really gracious with that feedback, and we’re just going to keep fixing it and moving forward. And we’re gonna keep doing that until we do better—for ourselves, and for the people we’re working with.”

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