Off-Broadway theaters are continuing to develop work even as the premiere dates remain unclear.
Major nonprofit institutions including the Public Theater, the Atlantic Theater Company and Playwrights Horizons have been checking in with commissioned writers, hosting workshops over Zoom and attempting to plan future seasons that include now-postponed projects. This work is being conducted as the theaters grapple with constrained finances and an uncertain return to live theater.
On one hand, being stuck at home can provide artists more opportunity to work on plays and musicals in progress. At the Public Theater, this has resulted in continued digital note sessions with artists including Rachel Chavkin and Dave Malloy, who are further developing their “Moby Dick” musical and a musical Shakespeare adaptation that the Public “hopes to present to the world some day,” according to Artistic Director Oskar Eustis.
“In some ways it’s more fruitful than in normal times because we have a little more air around the meeting. We have a little extra time,” Eustis said.
The Public used Zoom to conduct a recent workshop of “Suffragists,” a new musical featuring a score by Shaina Taub and direction by Leigh Silverman, with 14 cast members hard-wired into their routers to reduce lag time. The process was “effective, but not as effective” as a live session, Eustis said.
While they remain closed, theaters have also been experimenting with different mediums for plays. The Public recently premiered Richard Nelson’s Apple Family play written specifically for Zoom. Playwrights Horizons launched its SoundStage podcast — a project that was fortuitously in the works before the COVID-19 pandemic — in which the theater commissions audio plays. Still, the focus for all is on a return to live theater.
“Whenever you watch theater online, what’s probably clear is that you can’t recreate a live performance,” said Adam Greenfield, associate artistic director of Playwrights Horizons.
As theaters continue to develop the works meant for live performance, artistic directors are also trying to honor the productions that were postponed or have not yet opened due to coronavirus.
The Atlantic Theater Company had been about to start rehearsals for “The Bedwetter,” a new musical by Sarah Silverman, Joshua Harmon and Adam Schlesinger, when theaters in New York were ordered to close. A few weeks later, Schlesinger, who wrote the music and co-wrote the lyrics to the piece, passed away after contracting COVID-19.
“We’ve been kind of in shock and mourning that, but obviously are more committed than ever to the project and moving forward with it,” said Neil Pepe, artistic director of Atlantic Theater Company.
The Atlantic also postponed its production of Ethan Coen’s “A Play is a Poem,” a series of one-act plays, which Pepe hopes to move into a future season.
The Public has cancelled seven shows across the spring and summer. At Playwrights Horizons, the set from “Unknown Soldier” remains in the theater as the company plans a possible future for the now-closed musical as well as for Sylvia Khoury’s “Selling Kabul” and a new play by Jeremy O. Harris.
Because there is not yet a reopening date for theaters, Pepe said he is approaching the upcoming season “one or two shows at a time,” with different scenarios planned should theaters not reopen until the fall, January or later.
Budgetary constraints also make the planning and development process difficult. The theaters are not making any earned income through ticket sales and executives are forced to make their organizations leaner as they brace for the potential of fewer donations and decreased cultural funding. This can also affect their ability to offer new commissions to artists.
“On the one hand, we’re trying to activate and stay activated in terms of all the development,” Pepe said. “And at the same time we’ve had to furlough a lot of people in the past week.”
The Public Theater recently had to furlough 70% of its staff — a move Eustis said was made to ensure the institution is prepared to reopen “with a bang,” whenever that date may be, even as the organization will be “undoubtedly smaller.”
Playwrights Horizons has not conducted layoffs — and was able to commission two new playwrights in recent weeks using pre-existing funding — but has enacted salary cuts across the board, Greenfield said.
The closure of theaters, however, has impacted Greenfield’s plans for Playwrights Horizons. He will take over as artistic director in July, at which time he had been planning to enact his new vision, including working with more playwrights and bringing audiences more frequently into the organization’s two theaters.
“My first task is going to be to pull the theater through this crisis, and some of the larger ideas are going to be things that I am going to really be able to act on a little later than I wanted to,” Greenfield said.
Still, Greenfield notes that his producing ideals of “staying malleable and adjustable” still apply, and perhaps even more so now, as theaters are forced to rethink traditional conventions for their return.
At this point, Greenfield and Pepe said their organizations are still in the early stages of imagining whether their theaters would need to make physical changes — including smaller houses or socially distant seating — to safely accommodate patrons. Eustis said he does not foresee a partial reopening of the Public’s theaters.
“The theater isn’t a social distance medium,” Eustis said. “That means that we either have a vaccine, we have a cure or we’ve developed some kind of herd immunity and the spread has stopped.”
However, the Public is also rethinking its return, which Eustis foresees including more outreach through its Mobile Unit, which travels to offer free programming across the five boroughs. Upon reopening, theaters will need to quickly prove their importance to society, he said, both as part of a competition for philanthropic funding and as a move to push society toward more egalitarianism and inclusion.
As for the content, the theaters first have a backlog of pre-planned projects to work through. When new work emerges, Pepe said he does not expect all plays to be focused on coronavirus, but rather on the experiences of artists who have had time to reflect.
“Certainly there are going to be plays coming out that have to deal with this, but I think it’s more going to be about essential truths of what it means to be human,” Pepe said.