On the day the music died, I was packing my bag to return for the week to Madison. I never made it.
Adhering to just-issued federal guidelines discouraging gatherings of more than ten people, Madison’s Forward Theater canceled the remainder of tech week – its final rehearsals preceding the scheduled opening that Friday of its production of Jordan Harrison’s The Amateurs.
We’d already known that the show – on which I’d been working as production dramaturg – could not go on as planned because of the pandemic; three days earlier, Forward had made the painful decision to cancel all live performances.
But until that Monday when Forward pulled the plug, we’d hoped to complete tech and film the show – much as Milwaukee Rep made the smart and timely decision to film its already-opened production of Eclipsed – so that theater patrons could at least experience a virtual version of the play.
Talk about dramatic irony: Harrison’s play features a troupe of fourteenth-century actors trying to outrun the Black Death, which would kill nearly half of Europe by century’s end.
In a panic-stricken world shutting down all around them, those actors are doing what theater does so well: offering people a chance to come together as a community and share its dreams for a better world – as well as its fears involving this one.
The play within Harrison’s play that his medieval actors perform is a mystery play. Taking their cue from the Greeks, mystery plays draw on religious stories to help people make sense of their place in the world – and discover as well as celebrate the spark of divinity in each of us.
Harrison’s actors are busy telling the story of Noah and the biblical flood, with that story’s accompanying, compensating promise that the curtain would rise again – and that our collective story would continue. “My storm clouds shall no more appear,” God says to Noah at play’s end. “And now farewell, my darlings dear.”
With the country under extended quarantine and a constant barrage of announcements involving theater productions being postponed or canceled, such a promise – accompanied by a rainbow signaling that the storms are over and that we can begin anew – might seem far away. As do those final productions we saw before the lights came down and the doors closed.
Less than one week before both Forward and Milwaukee Rep went dark, I’d seen one of the last public performances of Milwaukee Rep’s Eclipsed. Reminiscent of the great Lynn Nottage’s Ruined, it was the show in this Milwaukee Rep season that I’d previously gone on record as most looking forward to seeing.
Milwaukee Rep didn’t disappoint. But I’m nevertheless ashamed, in retrospect, at how much I took that night for granted.
As a theater journalist and judge, seeing plays is my job. Eclipsed was the 52nd play I’d seen this calendar year and the first of seven plays I was scheduled to see during that mid-March week (the final three would be canceled because of the coronavirus; I was literally on my way out the door when the first of those three productions announced it was closing early).
Even though I see 250-plus plays each year, theater never gets old.
Every time I walk into a theater – hearing the excited buzz around me as my fellow audience members settle in – I feel the anticipation experienced by the child I once was, awakening on Christmas morning to the presents beneath a glittering tree. Every theater production is such a gift; every time the curtain rises, I am unwrapping something new that could change my life.
All that said, each of us better appreciates what we once had after it’s been taken away. Yes, I knew Eclipsed was good, and I was grateful I’d seen it as I exited the Quadracci Powerhouse that night. But did I fully take in – and was I sufficiently grateful for – how lucky I’d been to see theater of this quality, right in my hometown? Am I, ever? Are any of us?
Here’s Emily St. John Mandel describing this phenomenon in her 2014 novel Station Eleven – also a story about a traveling troupe of artists performing in the aftermath of a plague that has decimated the world. She’s remembering things past that her characters are unlikely to ever experience again, which makes them miss those things all the more:
“No more cities,” her narrator muses, while looking back on the world that was. “No more films, except rarely, except with a generator drowning out half the dialogue, and only then for the first little while until the fuel for the generators ran out.”
“No more screens shining in the half-light as people raise their phones above the crowd to take photographs of concert stages. No more concert stages lit by candy-colored halogens, no more electronica, punk, electric guitars.”
Taking Measure of What We’ve Lost
Or, to riff on that final, rock-concert image and all it suggests of Jason Fassl’s outstanding lighting design and an onstage band’s wailing guitars, no more Hedwig and the Angry Inch – which as directed by Mark Clements and brought home by his stellar cast, was as good as any production of this iconic musical I’ve seen.
No more dueling pianos of the sort featured in Milwaukee Rep’s season-opening 2 Pianos 4 Hands, showcasing the magic fingers of Joe Kinosian and Ben Moss. No more West Side Story, in which a young, hungry and prodigiously talented cast channeled Jon Rua’s thrilling choreography and Chuck Coyl’s fight choreography to deliver one of Milwaukee Rep’s best musicals. Ever.
Because it’s (a)live, theater is always necessarily ephemeral in a way that what we see on our small screens is not. All productions end; no performance within a production is like any other.
I’ll never again see Tommy Hahn and his bass threaten to break the sound barrier like they did the night I saw Milwaukee Rep’s Hedwig.
I’ll never again hear Jeffrey Kringer’s gorgeously toned voice sing Tony’s words to Maria in Milwaukee Rep’s West Side Story.
I’ll never again start to cry while listening to Jacqueline Nwabueze, daring to speak the long-suppressed name of a woman struggling to reclaim her identity in Milwaukee Rep’s Eclipsed.
Intimations of Immortality
True to what we’re all feeling during this pandemic, every theater artist is acutely aware that what they deliver is bound by time; it makes the moments they give us, during which they dare to rage at the dying of the light, all the more moving.
“Death is going to take the boundaries away from us, that we should no more be persons,” Augie March tells us toward the end of the eponymous Saul Bellow novel, written in the decade after that global catastrophe we call World War II. “That’s what death is about.” But “when that is what life also wants to be about, how can you feel except rebellious?”
Or to put it another way: What our current, death-driven moment drives home is not that theater matters less, but that it matters more than we’d ever imagined. It’s a defiant declaration of all that it means to be alive.
Even as we emerge from the daze of another binge on our screens, what we long for is the chance to come together and watch live actors on stage, embodying our humanity in all its messy glory. Acutely aware of our mortality, theater nevertheless dares to dream that we might be immortal, living on by expressing and experiencing – together – what’s best about who we are.
“Theater changes hearts – that secret place where we all truly live,” playwright Terrance McNally said, when accepting a lifetime achievement award at last year’s Tony Awards ceremony. “The world needs artists more than ever to remind us what truth and beauty and kindness really are,” McNally continued.
McNally died during the early days of this pandemic, from complications relating to the coronavirus. I miss him already. But these words – and all the words in McNally’s plays, as well as the memories I have of seeing those plays – live on.
Lessons from the Bard
But one ultimately can’t live on memories – or recorded performances of prior productions – alone. The past is prologue to the future; it not only inspires today’s artists as they create new work, but also drives home for the rest of us how much we need what theater continues to give, one new production at a time.
It’s hard enough to say no more Hedwig and no more West Side Story.
It’s harder still to accept that we won’t even have memories to sustain us from now-canceled Milwaukee Rep productions like Antonio’s Song, a riff on growing up poor in a culture of gangs and machismo that would have deepened our appreciation for West Side Story. Or an exciting new edition of Rep Lab offering a fresh take on Hamlet. Or the return of musician extraordinaire David Lutken, picking up where he left off in Milwaukee Rep’s Woody Sez, through a homage to the hootenanny.
But reflecting on what’s now gone provides all the more reason to eagerly await what’s to come. Not being in a theater right now on a regular basis is painful. Not having a 2020/21 Season to look forward to at the Milwaukee Rep and countless theaters like it is unthinkable.
Hard as it is for us to imagine as we live through this nightmare, theater has been through worse. Since I’ve just invoked Hamlet, it’s worth noting that plague had closed London’s theaters on four separate occasions before Shakespeare wrote this masterpiece in 1600; it had also killed his only son at age 11.
But Shakespeare wrote some of his finest poetry and best plays in the midst of such tragedy – just as our own playwrights are at work now, all over the world, writing the new plays we’ll see once our playhouses reopen.
We’re already getting glimpses of what’s to come, as irrepressible theater artists from coast to coast find new ways to share, and damn the logistical challenges.
Twenty-one writers associated with Magic Theatre in San Francisco are contributing new pieces to a mini-Podcast series in which they meditate on the moment we’re in.
Here in the heartland, Milwaukee Rep has tapped ten playwrights – including Dael Orlandersmith, Rick Cleveland, A. Rey Pamatmat and Joanna Murray Smith – to write monologues on the themes of connectivity, hope and the need for community that will then be performed by beloved Milwaukee Rep actors. Ten more of those actors – including Nova V. Payton, Zonya Love and Gavin Gregory – will sing to us on Milwaukee Rep videos.
In New York, there was singing and so much more in Rosie O’Donnell’s recent marathon broadcast session from her New Jersey garage, which gave us live entertainment from a guest list that included Chita Rivera and Gloria Estefan, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Andrew Lloyd Webber, Patti LuPone and Adrienne Warren. This one-night reprise of the Rosie O’Donnell show concluded with Barry Manilow singing a rousingly upbeat rendition of “I Made it Through the Rain.”
As will we all, allowing these and so many artists who’ve hunkered down to step into the light, moving from solo videos in their living rooms to communal celebrations in our theaters. It’s going to be the party to end all parties – a season of love I wouldn’t miss, for all the streamed shows in the world. Virtual hugs only go so far.
In the meantime we wait, like Noah on his ark, for the rains to cease and the flood to recede.
Theater, Harrison suggests in The Amateurs, is an ark that will carry us over the troubled waters; it can help us survive a crisis like this one by filling us with beauty and laugher that instills a “will to live.”
Right now, it’s memories of productions past that will keep us afloat. Someday soon, when we gather once more on solid ground, future productions reflecting every color of the rainbow – and all we might yet become, together – will once again inspire us to fly.
Mike Fischer is a Milwaukee-based writer and dramaturg. A theater reviewer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for 15 years, he served as the paper’s chief drama critic from 2009-18. He is currently a member of the Advisory Company for Forward Theater in Madison.