The Theatre is no stranger to plague and pandemic. In the earliest plays of the Greeks, such disasters preceded the revelation of an injustice or crime, perpetrated by a ruler or member of the ruling class. The health of the community was directly tied to the honor and behavior of the King. If the cattle were dying, the crops failing, or other signs of ill omen appeared, it was a clear indication that “something was rotten in Denmark”, and the remedy included a sacrifice from the top.
We are a very long way from anyone at the “top” taking responsibility for the health and well-being of the citizens they are elected to serve or those that they control.
The Black Death in the Middle Ages rendered live Theatre an impossibility. Religious fanatics—a special kind of plague that has never been cured—closed the doors again in England in the 17th Century. For centuries the presence of prostitutes and vagabonds made theatre a breeding ground for venereal and other contagious diseases. Traveling troupes from the Renaissance to well into the 20th Century lived in abject poverty and suffered the ills of that reality accordingly. Film and television were predicted to be the final nail in the coffin of live Theatre.
The need for Theatre refuses to die off. From its earliest beginnings as ritual practice to the flashiest modern musical, there seems to be an inherent human attraction to watching and listening to a select group of their fellow tribe members/citizens enact some small portion of the human journey. For all of the study and analysis of Theatre over the last 100 years, no one seems to have figured out the WHY? What is this irrepressible need that stretches back at least to the Neolithic period, for people to gather together for performances of music, dance and text that will enlighten and entertain them? That will preserve the history of the tribe. Propitiate the Gods. Teach the young, remind the old about the ethics of their culture, the consequences of breaking the rules. Envision a new way of living, new worlds to explore, new ethics to embrace?
Theatre cannot exist in a virtual world. It may take time for it to return to enclosed spaces and large venues. But those are modern inventions anyway. In the near future, there will be Theatre on street corners, in parks and parking lots. In open fields, in amphitheaters. In backyards and playgrounds. Human instinct is drawn to it, recognizes it. The human spirit demands it.
In a twist on ancient practice, audiences may be masked instead of the performers. They may not sit shoulder-to-shoulder But they will nonetheless find their rightful spot in the théatron, “the place for viewing”, to watch, to listen, to observe. And to be transformed.
MELODY BROOKS is the founder and Artistic Director of New Perspectives Theatre Company (NPTC). She is an award-winning producer, director and dramaturg who has been working in the professional theatre and various educational institutions for almost 40 years. Brooks and NPTC recently received the “Trailblazing Women and Arts Institutions Award” from Rhythm Color Associates. She received the “Spirit of Hope Award” in 2015 from Speranza Theatre Company for her support of women theatre artists for more than 25 years through programs such as the Women’s Work Project and ON HER SHOULDERS, readings of plays by women from the past with scholarly materials. She was dramaturg for She Calls Me Firefly by Teresa Lotz, which won the 2019 NY Innovative Theatre Award for Best Short Play (60 minutes), co-produced by NPTC and Parity Productions. Brooks has developed and directed a number of notable and award-winning original scripts with NPTC, and has been a director for NJ Rep’s Theatre Brut series for the past three years. Brooks is on the Board of the League of Professional Theatre Women, and was Co-chair of the triennial LPTW Gilder/Coigney International Theatre Award in 2014 & 2017. With NPTC, Brooks is co-founder of 50/50 in 2020: Parity for Women Theatre Artists.