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Here's how theater directors have reimagined their work during the pandemic

Shola Adewusi (foreground) and the company in rehearsal for <em>Merry Wives. </em>When the show first began its run, the audiences were mostly white. Then, the organization piloted Black theater nights, says the Public Theater's artistic director, Oskar Eustis. "And we had two nights in which the Delacorte was 98 percent Black audiences, 1500 people a night."
Joan Marcus
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Courtesy of the Public Theater
Shola Adewusi (foreground) and the company in rehearsal for <em>Merry Wives. </em>When the show first began its run, the audiences were mostly white. Then, the organization piloted Black theater nights, says the Public Theater's artistic director, Oskar Eustis. "And we had two nights in which the Delacorte was 98 percent Black audiences, 1500 people a night."

Updated December 17, 2021 at 7:49 PM ET

Last fall, when theaters were closed, I spoke with three artistic directors of nonprofit organizations to talk about their hopes for what things would look like, once the pandemic began to die down. Now, with vaccines and strict COVID protocols, all three theaters have begun performances again. So, I reached out to these leaders to see how things have changed.

When we first talked, much of the conversation was about bringing in new audiences, producing work that better reflected the communities they served, and improving pay and work conditions at their theaters. And all three say that a lot of that has happened.

But when I asked Stephanie Ybarra, the artistic director of Baltimore Center Stage, how tickets were selling, she didn't pull her punches. "It's bleak. I'm not going to lie. It's bleak," she says. "I talk about this with my colleagues around the country regularly. Though there are diehard theater fans who are coming back to the theater and when they are in the house, they are joyful and warm and so enthusiastic. But there aren't enough of them. And we're going to be rebuilding brick by brick for a while, I think."

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 2018 production of <em>Manahatta</em> by Mary Kathryn Nagle is one of the shows that the organization has made available for streaming. Artistic Director Nataki Garrett says this is part of how OSF is meeting audiences where they're at: "If you don't want to come to the theater, another point of entry is going to be the digital stage."
Jenny Graham / Courtesy of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival
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Courtesy of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 2018 production of <em>Manahatta</em> by Mary Kathryn Nagle is one of the shows that the organization has made available for streaming. Artistic Director Nataki Garrett says this is part of how OSF is meeting audiences where they're at: "If you don't want to come to the theater, another point of entry is going to be the digital stage."

Directors have turned to new methods to draw in audiences

Part of rebuilding is trying to figure out how to meet the audience where they are. While theaters were closed, many nonprofits made their shows available for streaming. And even now, they're making it an option, says Nataki Garrett, artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, or OSF. "If you don't want to come to the theater, another point of entry is going to be the digital stage," she explains. "Like, if you don't feel safe or comfortable because COVID will still be working its way through our populations, there's a way for you to connect with OSF; either you use one of our actual physical doors, or we put a door in your hand by giving you access through your device."

And in terms of getting people to walk through the physical doors, OSF has reduced ticket prices across the board and rethought some of their programming. When the theater reopened last summer, it was with a one woman show about civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer. "I had people who were upset that I didn't do Shakespeare," says Garrett. "Fourteen people on a stage in the middle of COVID was never going to happen, and Shakespeare didn't write any one person shows."

The Public Theater in New York did put on Shakespeare – an all-Black adaptation of The Merry Wives of Windsor, at their free outdoor venue in Central Park. But they noticed that audiences were mostly white. "Then, our marketing department came up with this idea of doing targeted Black theater nights," says artistic director Oskar Eustis. So, they sent invitations to Black theater colleagues, inviting them and their friends to the production. "And we had two nights in which the Delacorte was 98 percent Black audiences, 1500 people a night. And it was a fantastic experiment."

Writer Kwame Kwei-Armah in rehearsal for the world premiere production of <em>The Visitor </em>at the Public Theater. Rehearsals were put on hold for a week so the cast, mostly nonwhite, could talk about the story's problematic portrayal of undocumented immigrants.
Joan Marcus / Courtesy of the Public Theater
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Courtesy of the Public Theater
Writer Kwame Kwei-Armah in rehearsal for the world premiere production of <em>The Visitor </em>at the Public Theater. Rehearsals were put on hold for a week so the cast, mostly nonwhite, could talk about the story's problematic portrayal of undocumented immigrants.

The status quo is being challenged behind the scenes

The OSF and the Public have hired new associate artistic directors during the pandemic. Oskar Eustis says the Public's leadership team is now: "Three men, three women, three white, three BIPOC. And what the pledge was, was that every major artistic decision of the theater would be made in the room with those people after a full and frank discussion." He adds, "Diversity of voices involved in decision making strengthens a theater. It doesn't weaken the theater."

That said, there were some growing pains as the Public reopened. A musical based on an indie film, The Visitor, stopped rehearsals for a week, so the mostly non-white cast could discuss problems with the way the story addressed characters who were undocumented immigrants. Based on that, Eustis says: "We are actually devising a whole set of rehearsal room protocols. They're all designed to make sure that everybody in the room feels like they have a voice and feels like they can stand behind the story we're telling, both because they've been listened to and because we've given them the information they need in order to fully invest in what we're doing."

Beyond shaking up the leadership up top, theaters are also investing more in paying actors and staff a living wage and making works rules more humane. This includes "five-day rehearsal weeks, paying playwrights for their work, their time in rehearsal, increasing wages for our artists and paying above the contractual minimums," says Baltimore Center Stage's Stephanie Ybarra. "We're going to keep working on our compensation, our benefits and understanding how we better care for the whole human."

Khanisha Foster in Baltimore Center Stage's production of <em>Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities </em>by Anna Deavere Smith. Putting on productions by writers of color is important to Artistic Director Stephanie Ybarra: "The more we are normalizing different identities on stage ...that is just one tiny way we can help heal the divide."
J Fannon / Courtesy of Baltimore Center Stage 2021
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Courtesy of Baltimore Center Stage 2021
Khanisha Foster in Baltimore Center Stage's production of <em>Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities </em>by Anna Deavere Smith. Putting on productions by writers of color is important to Artistic Director Stephanie Ybarra: "The more we are normalizing different identities on stage ...that is just one tiny way we can help heal the divide."

New kinds of stories are being featured to bring in new theater-goers

And, since theater is all about human empathy through storytelling, all three artistic directors are putting forward an inclusive slate of plays and musicals – many of them world premieres by writers of color, as well as works featuring LGBTQ stories. At Baltimore Center Stage, this strategy has brought in new audiences, like English teacher Jack Garcia, who's already seen four shows at the theater with his boyfriend. "What I love about the shows at BCS, at least what we've seen so far, is they've all been very culturally relevant to the experience today," Garcia explains. "You know, we see the play and then afterwards you have some drinks and you discuss the themes and it's just been really rewarding."

This is exactly what artistic director Stephanie Ybarra is hoping for. "The more we are normalizing different identities on stage and humanizing different identities on stage and depoliticizing black and brown bodies on stage, that is just one tiny way we can help heal the divide," she says, adding: "But I also think that it has to be about more than just performance. We have to be holding space for conversation in our buildings and for contemplation and reflection."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.