To Restart After Lockdown, Theaters Need to Think Small

To Restart After Lockdown, Theaters Need to Think Small

To Restart After Lockdown, Theaters Need to Think Small

To Restart After Lockdown, Theaters Need to Think Small

LONDON — Right now, it feels like time’s been put on hold. Or so I thought one recent afternoon as I walked the quiet streets of London and passed my local playhouse, the Hampstead Theater.

There by the entrance was an array of posters advertising a spring-summer “Hampstead Classics” season, which won’t be happening because of the coronavirus pandemic. Honoring the theater’s 60th anniversary, the program would have included early Harold Pinter (“The Dumb Waiter”), a Pulitzer Prize winner (Marsha Norman’s “’night, Mother”), Alfred Fagon’s “The Death of a Black Man,” and Tennessee Williams’s lesser-known “The Two-Character Play.”

On further reflection, I realized that Williams’s title actually applied to three of those plays, while Fagon’s calls for three performers. How appropriate: Not only could social distancing be applied during rehearsals, but fewer performers means lower costs, and therefore somewhat less pressure to fill an auditorium.

“It’s complete coincidence, honestly, a complete fluke,” said Greg Ripley-Duggan, the Hampstead Theater’s executive producer, in a telephone conversation. He and Roxana Silbert, the theater’s artistic director, had simply chosen four titles from the theater’s capacious back catalog; their diminutive size may turn out to be a bonus, making them easier to reboot. For the moment, though, Ripley-Duggan added, “None of us, realist or optimist, knows anything.”

While theater openings are out of the question for now, when it comes time to start up again, it will be much easier for smaller productions than for large ones. The Hampstead Theater might just have stumbled on a model for recovery.

Small doesn’t have to mean inconsequential: Many writers deliver weighty plays with tiny casts. Pinter, for instance, the Hampstead’s opening choice, seems just the ticket for now. The Nobel laureate’s tightly focused plays mine the shifting social and sexual dynamics between individuals in their own emotional straitjackets (or psychic lockdowns, if you will), and such masterworks as “Betrayal,” No Man’s Land,” and “Old Times” all require casts of four or less. (“Betrayal,” as it happens, gets performed a lot.)

Samuel Beckett, a great influence on Pinter, goes even further in such enduring classics as “Krapp’s Last Tape,” “Not I,” “Rockaby,” and “Footfalls,” all written for a single performer. All we see in “Not I” is the lone actor’s mouth.

And this might be just the moment to revisit Alan Bennett’s “Talking Heads,” the octogenarian writer’s wounding and funny monologues, originally written for TV, but also seen onstage on both sides of the Atlantic. This week, the BBC announced it would broadcast a new season of the 10 classic soliloquies, plus two new ones, all of which are presumably just waiting for an enterprising theater producer to snap them up. (The actors in the new lineup are almost all theater people first, film names second.)

But does that mean that musicals and large-cast plays are out? Not necessarily, if ingenuity and imagination play a part. Shakespeare, for instance, is infinitely elastic and adaptable. The actors Alan Cumming and Stephen Dillane have both recently offered one-man versions of “Macbeth” in London or New York or both, each of which forced a re-examination of the play. Might a solo “Lear” be next?

And though the first tentative date in my diary for a return to the theater is for the Sept. 8 opening of a musical revival, “Hairspray,” who knows if a such a huge production will really be possible by then. So I can imagine musical theater impresarios are now investigating more intimate options. Actor-musician productions, where performers double as their own instrumental accompanists, have been proliferating of late and might be especially popular at a time when social distancing casts doubt on the viability of the orchestra pit.

The British director John Doyle made his career about 15 years ago with a so-called “actor-muso” production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” that fueled a mini-industry in these stagings. Last fall saw a brilliant production of Sondheim’s “Assassins,” directed by Bill Buckhurst, in which the stage ensemble doubled as its own band. The production played regionally in England, and merits a London transfer.

Or what about finding a newly exciting performer to take on “Tell Me on a Sunday,” the solo part of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s infrequently performed “Song and Dance,” the story of a young English hat maker’s romantic travails in New York? Southwark Playhouse in 2017 produced a one-man musical, “Superhero,” about a father’s desperate love for his daughter, that deserves another outing, while the same theater could just pick up where they left off in March with Jason Robert Brown’s musical “The Last Five Years,” which calls for a cast of two.

No show, though, whether it has a cast of two or 20, can exist without an audience. However closely you police what takes place in rehearsal or onstage, you still need a paying public, that may not want to sit cheek by jowl. What is the solution there? Take the playgoer’s temperature upon entering the building? Sell every third seat?

And how do you make the finances work, especially in some of those smaller venues (such as the Hampstead) where every ticket sale counts? Shakespeare’s Globe, which has the capacity for 700 people standing in its open-air yard, benefits from being able to readily reconfigure the space, but that’s harder to do in London’s more traditional playhouses. (That’s leaving aside the more mundane but nonetheless real issue of how to deal with the crush going into a performance and for the restroom in the intermission.)

These are questions for theaters and health authorities to solve, and this may take some time. But the urge to engage with performance, whether as actor or audience member, isn’t going away. Crowds will return, onstage and off. But, for now, I’m sure I speak for many theater lovers when I say that even the smallest of casts would be welcome company indeed.


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