This unholy year is winding down (or so we’re told), and as we veer between images of poop emojis and dumpster fires to do it visual justice, it’s hard to remember that there are in fact things for which to be grateful. For me, that gratitude comes in the form of recognizing how many theater, dance, and performance companies have continued to create in the digital world—one that wasn’t a familiar home for many of them before COVID-19.
In the early days of the shutdown, companies turned to their vaults to put something, anything, online (usually free) for audiences stuck at home. Not all of it was of high technical quality—many companies, pre-COVID, weren’t thinking of performance videos as anything other than a training tool for understudies, a supplement to grant applications, or an in-house historical artifact.
But these offerings were still a way to catch up with shows I’d missed in the past, and for that I’m grateful, even if I do see the point of those who mourn the absence of audience and live-ness in these not-quite-theater events.
In some cases, it was a chance to watch different productions of shows I’d seen live several times, such as Chicago playwright Mickle Maher‘s There Is a Happiness That Morning Is, originally produced with Theater Oobleck and then at Houston’s Catastrophic Theatre. It’s still available via the latter’s YouTube channel, and it’s still one of my very favorite plays. I can’t think of a better one to celebrate the fleeting nature of life and the stubborn persistence of love (along with the enraging perfidy of bureaucratic institutions) as this year winds down.
Albany Park Theater Project’s Feast is a show I’d kicked myself for missing live during its several incarnations, but thanks to APTP putting up a video (beautifully directed by Daniel Andries and Anne Northrup) of the show’s 2015 Goodman run, I can finally stop kicking. A show about food, community, family, and the essential workers who keep all of that running for us is a perfect choice for Thanksgiving viewing. (Unless you’re saddled with xenophobic relatives for the holiday, in which case consider it part of the deprogramming process for them.) You can watch Feast for free, but it’s also available for sale as a DVD. Purchasing it might be a nice way to show appreciation for a company that’s been building the next generation of theatermakers and truth tellers for 23 years.
As the shutdown continued, more and more companies began creating original content, to the point where, just as with live shows, it’s impossible for me to keep up with it all. (And yeah, I’m not gonna lie—I’ve been doing some bingeing on television goodies I’d missed the first time around. I just finished Succession, which one of my editors had been pestering me about for a year. I now imagine 45 and his minions engaged in a ferocious game of “Boar on the Floor” as this nightmare administration winds down.)
That content has sometimes taken the form of real-time dramas streamed live, as with Invictus Theatre’s recent ‘Night, Mother. Some companies leaned into the Zoom format to make you feel as if you’re in the middle of the action, as with Interrobang’s The Spin, a play about a queasy-making political damage control session, which closes this weekend. Lifeline Theatre found a way to make Jane Austen relevant for the era of social distancing with their online version of Pride and Prejudice, which is getting an encore presentation through November 29.
The shutdown hasn’t stopped brand-new companies like Token Theatre and Perceptions Theatre from producing online and telling stories from marginalized communities. The latter’s digital play, Black Magic, is still available. The lack of historical support for BIPOC voices in American theater came into sharp focus with the very welcome arrival of We See You White American Theater (We See You W.A.T.) and their collectively created BIPOC demands for ways that American theater can decolonize and dismantle white supremacy.
In the local dance and performance realm, the Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago just wrapped up its fall Dance Buffet digital series. And though live performances are still on hold, Links Hall is continuing its Co-MISSION residencies to support new work; in fact, they’ve expanded from four to six artists. In addition to rehearsal space and other in-kind contributions to developing new work, the residencies come with monthly stipends for the artists. Which seems like the sort of thing that, say, our government should be providing for struggling citizens in a pandemic-caused economic freefall.
So while I remain anxious about the state of the live arts this Thanksgiving, I’m also thankful for everyone who found a way to keep going. If you want to help the artists keep going, here are a few local funds to consider: the Chicago Theatre Workers Relief Fund, the Dancers’ Fund, Season of Concern, the Arts for Illinois Relief Fund, and the Chicago Artists Relief Fund.
And of course, donating to your favorite companies or buying swag from their online stores is also a welcome way to say “thanks for keeping the light on.” v