At the start of the COVID-19 Pandemic, almost every business that required in-person contact was shut down across the nation. Many establishments were forced to close, many small businesses suffered and the lives of those who depended on them dramatically changed. While deciding what businesses would be deemed “essential” theater was one of the first things to go. It was a time of crisis for those whose livelihoods depend on the art and physicality of theater.
While actors had more options on how to digitally adapt their craft to a screen, many theater technicians were left without work and with fewer options on how to adapt. While technicians working in the film industry specialize in creating set designs, costumes, props, lighting designs, and so forth. For digital production, theater technicians create designs specifically for on-stage performances.
This presented itself to not only be an obstacle when theaters were completely shut down, but the effects of shutting down national theaters have shown to be a critical issue for technicians and designers now.
Dana White, assistant professor of theater at Palm Beach Atlantic University, and Oksana Horton president and director of Torch and Trumpet Theatre Company both shared their perspectives on how COVID-19 has changed their experiences in the theater industry.
Amongst the many obvious changes, there were many difficulties “behind the scenes” due to the pandemic and supply shortage.
“One of the other things that really changed were prices and availability, in the line of work I do the most distressing thing was the price of lumber. Materials jumped in cost, some were not available at all. This made a big issue for budgets, and our budgets didn’t grow with it.” Dana White said.
On the contrary, some theater companies experienced surprisingly positive results with the new changes and were able to continue theater in a similar fashion to how they did before COVID-19.
“There were a lot of people who came out to our auditions, we sanitized, did temperature checks and wore masks. It was important to be very preventive by taking essential vitamins, drinking water, and social distancing. Nobody got sick!” Oksana Horton said.
Many changes had to be made within the theater industry, many of these changes cost people their jobs and their passion for theater. During the first surge of the pandemic many actors, technicians, and directors started to question what the rest of their careers would look like. While there was a lot of distress amongst theater technicians, there still remained hope for the performing arts.
“Some of the good things about going through a difficulty like this are it pushes us to be more creative. What are the new ways that we can tell this story? When an artist is no longer interested in being creative that’s when the art starts to dwindle,” Dana White said.
Oksana Horton noticed dramatic changes in the way that her team responded to keeping themselves and each other healthy.
“The positive changes would be taking care of ourselves. Everyone was really aware of their bodies. Very respectful and aware of not coming in. In the past, if someone had a cold they’d push through it, but during COVID-19 we were very mindful and aware,” Oksana Horton said.
Although there are some positive changes being made in the theater industry, a surplus of restrictions still remains. Undoubtedly, some may find it more difficult to enjoy their craft compared to how they did before the pandemic.
Some theater technicians may find their job more draining or less exciting due to lack of materials, distance requirements, mask mandates, and changes in space and environment. However, some theater companies have used the pandemic to try new things, put new spins on well-known shows, and find new ways to interact with audiences and their communities.
“I think the first thing that I acknowledged and my program acknowledged is that we can’t fight against the rules put in front of us. I am going to gauge this issue through theater and storytelling. How do I still get what I want and follow the rules?” Dana White said.
The pandemic has reshaped the theater industry and the way in which live performances are orchestrated. Live theater may never return to being fully "normal" again. There are definitely changes that will continue to be implemented within the industry from now on. Theater technicians and actors alike are now looking forward to the future of live theater.
“By and large the pandemic hasn’t changed my perspective of theater, but it has bolstered what I already knew. A phrase we often use in the theater industry is ‘come back better!’ I see theater adapting, it’s what we do!” Dana White said.
By Grace Sigler